'Out in the open': Homeless camps in Edmonton less hidden during pandemic

COVID-19 has changed the way those living on the streets of Edmonton survive in the city.

Camp evictions on hold but physical distancing still enforced

Starlet Mather lives at this encampment of tents in the parking lot of a central Edmonton bottle depot. (Supplied by Sasha Stanojevic)

As soon the snow began to melt, Starlet Mather began sleeping outside.

A tent in the gravel parking lot of a bottle depot in central Edmonton has been her home for three weeks. 

Anytime she leaves, she worries someone in the encampment will ransack her tent.

While it's not the first time she has slept rough, things are different during the COVID-19 pandemic, she said.

With businesses closed, for example, it's harder than ever to find a place to eat or wash up. 

At first, the rapid spread of the virus was surreal, she said. Now she and her friends at the camp take the risk of infection seriously.

"I think everybody is working together to stay away from each other," she said.

I'd rather the ants and stuff out here than bedbugs and the black mould.- Starlet Mather

Mather has lupus and is afraid of getting sick, but sleeping on the streets feels safer than her previous living situation. Her transitional housing placement was nothing but a tiny room, dank with black mould, she said. 

"I don't have family or anything, otherwise I wouldn't be doing this," Mather said. 

"I don't really do it by choice. I guess you could say it's just that I'd rather the ants and stuff out here than bedbugs and the black mould." 

Researchers and advocates believe homeless people are among the most vulnerable to COVID-19 as they often live in close quarters with inadequate access to proper hygiene and with chronic illness.

As of April, an estimated 1,920 Edmontonians are considered homeless.

The pandemic has changed the way they move through and survive in the city, said Jared Tkachuk, manager of outreach and support services at Boyle Street Community Services.

"Absolutely, there's fear," he said. "People who are sleeping rough are just as scared of things like sickness as everyone else.

"I think access to good information is critical and that's been one of the major facets of our work right now is making sure that people have factual information so they understand what the pandemic means for them." 

Camps that would normally be dismantled are being left untouched over concerns that forcing people out could spread infection.

The Expo Centre, normally a venue for conferences and trade shows, is being used as an isolation shelter and drop-in centre — a temporary measure intended to increase the capacity of crowded downtown shelters during the pandemic.

Hundreds of people use the drop-in facility every day, accessing meals, laundry, showers and a place to rest during the day.

While there have been no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Edmonton shelters to date, Calgary shelters have had 24 confirmed cases, 14 of which are active and 10 that have now recovered, Alberta Health said in a statement to CBC News on Friday.

Since the Expo Centre was converted in late March, the number of homeless camps nearby has grown.

"We decided to centralize services at the Expo Centre and so you're going to see some gravitation toward there; it's only natural," Tkachuk said.

The city's Expo Centre is being used to shelter homeless Edmontonians during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Rajan Sawhney/Twitter)

It's part of the reason it may seem like there are more homeless camps in Edmonton, he said.

"Right now what we're seeing is the kind of uptick in the number of encampments that we normally see once the weather improves."

However, camps are being established in areas more exposed to the public view such as in parks and baseball diamonds, Tkachuk said. 

While some residents no longer feel the need to hide, others are afraid of concealing themselves in the woods. 

"We might also have people who aren't experienced in terms of sleeping outside and so they might feel a bit anxious about being outside and so they're sleeping out in the open as a kind of safety thing," he said. 

'Guerrilla style' pandemic response

The city's response team announced last month that it had "paused" enforcement operations at camps indefinitely.

Occupants of camps on public land will no longer be given notice to vacate unless the camps are too large and crowded to abide by physical-distancing guidelines.

Our clients, unfortunately, can't stay home but they can try to stay put.- Jared Tkachuk


Front-line teams now focus on health screening and mapping encampments. They help with food and transportation and distribute information on preventing the spread of COVID-19.

"Our clients, unfortunately, can't stay home but they can try to stay put," Tkachuk said. "And we've been trying to support them to do that and provide the resources so that they need to leave their encampments less frequently.

"It's sort of a guerrilla style of pandemic response. My team is out there, rain or shine, trying to connect with people mostly in the river valley but in back alleys too, all over the city." 

Mather said she is relieved to know she can continue living in her tent until winter.

"It's been a little bit better," she said. "They leave us alone pretty much, and we're not doing anything wrong. We're just trying to live."


Wallis Snowdon is a journalist with CBC Edmonton focused on bringing stories to the website and the airwaves. Originally from New Brunswick, Wallis has reported in communities across Canada, from Halifax to Fort McMurray. She previously worked as a digital and current affairs producer with CBC Radio in Edmonton. Share your stories with Wallis at wallis.snowdon@cbc.ca.

With files from Ariel Fournier