More help needed for Edmonton's homeless during pandemic, critics say

Nearly a month has passed since Edmonton's EXPO Centre was converted into a day drop-in centre and isolation shelter for Edmonton’s homeless population in late March, but some are still hesitant to use its services.

Some Edmontonians living in tents are choosing not to use some emergency services

A tent encampment has popped up in central Edmonton during the COVID-19 pandemic, with some living there hesitant to use the services offered at the EXPO Centre's drop-in centre. (David Bajer/CBC)

Nearly a month has passed since Edmonton's EXPO Centre was converted into a day drop-in centre and isolation shelter for the city's homeless population during the COVID-19 pandemic, but some are still feeling hesitant to use its services.

Kevin King, 48, said he visited the EXPO Centre around two weeks ago, but with some of its facilities closed, he doesn't see a reason to return. When he arrived, he said he couldn't access shower or laundry facilities.

"I stuck myself against a pillar, plugged in my phone and that was it. It was like everyone was waiting for meals and that was it, it didn't seem like it was much of anything," King said.

Visitors to the EXPO Centre have also taken issue with a lack of amenities for hundreds of people who use the temporary shelter and drop-in. In response, nearly 20 new showers were installed by social agencies in early April.

But some concern still lingers for King and others about using the new emergency centre. Tent encampments have popped up in Edmonton as some people opt to sleep rough rather than visit the facility.

Marie Renaud, MLA for St. Albert, said she heard from people who were scared of theft, felt lineups were too long or simply felt safer in their tents around people they knew.

Renaud said more needs to be done to reach Edmonton's homeless population, especially as community services are compelled to operate with fewer volunteers and a limited ability to work directly with clients during the pandemic. 

"If the goal is prevention of community spread, then you need to take really aggressive actions," said Renaud, the opposition critic for social services.

"Housing for everybody is important at any time. It's really important now to allow people to distance themselves properly from each other, to give them access to running water (and) appropriate hygiene is vital."

Renaud said she's heard from many people who are happy with what the EXPO Centre is offering, but added that these efforts aren't reaching all of Edmonton's homeless population. 

The EXPO Centre's drop-in services are being monitored by Homeward Trust and can accommodate up to 400 people at once, providing food, laundry showers and a place to rest during the day. Between 700 and 800 people visit the centre every day, according to Homeward Trust.

The Mustard Seed has also made changes to its shelter operations, closing its Whyte Avenue facility and reopening at the Kinsmen Sports Centre in late March to boost capacity from 40 to 180 overnight shelter beds. 

Homeward Trust CEO Susan McGee said she empathizes with people who can't access community supports they relied on before the pandemic and who are hesitant to visit the EXPO Centre. But the challenge Homeward Trust faces she said is assisting large numbers of people while having enough space to meet the province's guidelines for physical distancing. 

She said the EXPO Centre provides enough space for services to be offered in a coordinated way, even though it's not comparable to what agencies could offer six weeks ago. 

"We have a large population that we are trying to provide the most services to," McGee said. "If we were to try to provide those services to smaller numbers in more sites, just for day service, the challenge certainly is … that's a lot of square footage that we need to meet the distancing required."

Nathan Sinclair has used the services at the EXPO Centre, but said he's still frustrated by the reduced number of community supports. 

"I go to co-ops and drop-in centres, places I can use to get some help — even some places I can come sit. But with COVID here, a lot of places are shut down," Sinclair said.

"It's very discouraging."

The conditions brought on by the pandemic emphasize the need for appropriate, affordable, accessible housing, Renaud said. She suggested other options like converting vacant housing or hotel and motel rooms into shelter for vulnerable populations should be considered.

Similar initiatives have been adopted by other Canadian cities. The City of Victoria is calling for the British Columbia provincial government to take over empty hotel and motel rooms to house people without homes. Here in Alberta, the Calgary Homeless Foundation is converting hotel rooms into spaces where homeless Calgarians can self-isolate.

McGee didn't rule out the idea of using hotel rooms for emergency shelter in Edmonton as well, but said it would be challenging to adequately staff with housing and support workers. 

With files from Dave Bajer


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