Closure of Expo Centre shelter leaves hundreds looking elsewhere for critical services

Hundreds of Edmontonians are looking elsewhere for food, shelter, medical services now as the emergency shelter at the Edmonton Expo Centre closed Friday.

Province says some critical services could be offered as soon as this weekend

The shelter at the Edmonton Expo Centre closed Friday without alternative plans for the roughly 500 people who rely on it for daily support. (Rajan Sawhney/Twitter)

Hundreds of Edmontonians are looking elsewhere for food, shelter, medical services as the emergency shelter at the Edmonton Expo Centre closed Friday.

"I am thankful to the Expo centre and all our community partners for providing a vital resource during the height of the pandemic," Rajan Sawnhey, community and social services minister, said in a news release. "We know COVID-19 is still with us and vulnerable Albertans continue to be impacted."

The shelter opened as a daytime drop-in facility and emergency isolation shelter three months ago. Local agencies were forced to scale back their services due to COVID-19 and public health officials grew concerned about an outbreak among the city's homeless population. 

The number of people using the drop-in shelter each day was anywhere between 400 and 600. Dozens more were housed in the shelter which served as a safe isolation unit for people exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19. 

On Friday, the province said alternate services for homeless Edmontonians will soon be available.

Some of those services are "expected to be available" at Hope Mission and the Mustard Seed as early as this weekend, with more services coming online in the days and weeks ahead, Sawnhey said in the release.

Sawney said her department is working with the shelters in Edmonton to transition to 24-hour service.

"This transition to 24/7 access ensures individuals have access to a safe place to stay during the day and other vital services such as food, showers and laundry," she said.

Isolation services at the Expo centre will be extended until Aug. 14 as the province continues to search for alternative space, the province said.

Earlier this week Edmonton city council heard negotiations are underway to lease a space.

Dean Kurpjuweit, executive director of the Mustard Seed, told CBC News the two agencies will be able to support about 200 people when they're fully up and running. He said Hope Mission was expected to open Saturday but it would be a few more days before services at Mustard Seed would be available.

"Obviously though, there's going to be a gap for a bit and we continue to work with the government of Alberta, the City of Edmonton as well as partnering agencies to figure out how we can fill that gap and how we can fill it as fast as possible," Kurpjuweit said.

"What the government of Alberta has announced is important. It's critical. We're grateful for it. It's a wonderful first step but there's still more work to do to fill up our remaining gaps."

Boyle Street Community Services, one of the agencies leading efforts at the Expo Centre, plans to hand out water and sunscreen at its facility this weekend.

Executive director Jordan Reiniger said when the coronavirus hit, critical supports virtually disappeared overnight, which is why the emergency shelter was set up.

"To take those supports away without a complete response ... just elevates the fear and the anxiety and the risk in the community," Reiniger said.

"We're worried that there's still going to be a lot of people with nowhere to go and not be able to get to safety and access to services and basic needs with this particular with this response."

He said he is pleased to see the move toward 24/7 services.

On Wednesday, Mayor Don Iveson called on the province to work with local agencies to ensure homeless Edmontonians have access to critical services as the emergency shelter shuts.

Social service agencies are doing their best to find a solution, Iveson said, but housing is the responsibility of the province and its support is needed. 

"We do not want to see the progress that we've made so far protecting vulnerable people come into jeopardy," Iveson said Wednesday.

The city said the closure of the Expo centre shelter is due to provincial funding coming to an end, the lifting of the state of local emergency and the need for the centre to resume normal function.