Edmonton non-profit shuts down after being forced to leave surplus government building

The board of directors for the Edmonton Emergency Relief Services Society (EERSS) tried to find a new home but were unable to find anything affordable. 

Mennonite Centre for Newcomers opens drop-in donation centre to help fill the gap

Edmonton Emergency Relief Services has operated out of this site in downtown Edmonton for 34 years. (John Shypitka/CBC News )

An Edmonton non-profit organization that helped refugees and disaster victims for 34 years is shutting down after the Alberta government ended its no-cost lease at its downtown location.

The board of directors for the Edmonton Emergency Relief Services Society (EERSS) tried to find a new home but  were unable to find anything affordable. 

"Because we couldn't find a building in time, the board made a decision that we would dissolve the organization," said treasurer Shane Harnish. 

EERSS based its operations in a surplus government building known as Warehouse #3 at 10255 104th St.

The province leased the building to the society under a no-cost, month-to-month agreement. It also provided maintenance and upkeep for free at a cost of about $90,000 a year. 

The situation changed last spring when the building's boiler broke down. Alberta Infrastructure decided that the cost to repair or replace the equipment was too high.

The Alberta government is interested in getting private companies to develop some of its surplus properties in Edmonton, including the old Glenora site of the Royal Alberta Museum and Warehouse #3. 

EERSS was told in mid-August that the government was ending the lease. The organization left the premises by the end of September. 

EERSS tried raising money for a new home via online crowdfunding sites. Harnish said they looked at the old Salvation Army building but the cost was just too high. 

Hadyn Place, press secretary for Infrastructure Minister Prasad Panda, said in an email to CBC News that it doesn't make financial sense to spend tens of thousands of dollars annually to operate a building that needs millions of dollars in repairs. 

"We have worked closely with EERSS over the past six years to ensure they were aware that their lease could end anytime given the costs associated with the building. They have had ample time to explore other option," Place wrote.

"It is unfortunate they have chosen to close operations. Their contributions to the community over the years have been much appreciated."

Filling the gap

EERSS provided emergency supplies like donated clothing and household goods to people affected by fire or disaster. The non-profit also worked with the Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers (EMCN) to help set up households for immigrants and refugees.

EMCN executive director Meghan Klein said EERSS offered a unique service to the community. 

"There's now a big gap in our community," she said. "They were about the only shop in town that did this work."

The Mennonite Centre is now trying to fill that need on its own. On Tuesday, the organization opened a temporary drop-in centre to accept a limited range of donations — kitchen items, toiletries, diapers and toys — to help newcomers to the city. 

"Right now, EMCN does not have the capacity to replace the services that EERSS was offering in the community," Klein said. 

"But we are looking for ways in which we can fill that gap because it's much needed in the community. Newcomers, often, and refugees, in particular, come with very little. Usually nothing."

Policy change

Earlier this year, Alberta Infrastructure enacted a new policy aimed at standardizing rents paid by non-profits and businesses that lease space in government buildings. 

Non-profits in some rural Alberta towns are facing rental increases of tens of thousands of dollars each year. 

The government says the new policy levels the playing field to ensure the same classes of organizations are paying the same range of rent.