Former Edmonton hotel will become new home for Indigenous people experiencing homelessness

A former hotel near Yellowhead Trail in northeast Edmonton will soon be home for Indigenous people in Edmonton who might otherwise be living on the streets.

Renovated building will offer long-term housing, cultural services

The former site of the Sands Inn & Suites on Fort Road will undergo extensive renovations, transforming the property into a supportive housing site. (Craig Ryan/CBC)

A former hotel near Yellowhead Trail in northeast Edmonton will soon be home for Indigenous people in Edmonton who might otherwise be living on the streets.

The former Sands Inn & Suites at 12340 Fort Rd. will be transformed into a supportive housing facility, providing long-term affordable rental units with on-site support to help residents. 

Niginan Housing Ventures, a non-profit charity that provides housing for Indigenous people, will own and operate the facility, which will be known as the Sands Supportive Living Home.

Blake Jackman, program manager of housing for Niginan and site manager for the Sands property, said the agency is dedicated to providing a culturally safe space for residents.

'The road to healing'

"You're going to be surrounded by kôkoms and mosôms and aunties and uncles, not support workers," Jackman said in an interview Wednesday.

"That will open up the road to healing."

Niginan has received $10.8 million to purchase and convert the former hotel into supportive housing for people who have experienced homelessness.

Funding includes $5.7 million from the federal government's Rapid Housing Initiative and $5 million from the City of Edmonton.

A housing agreement clearing the way for the project was approved by the city last month. 

The hotel has been operating as a bridge housing site since May. Residents are offered rooms for 30 to 90 days while they work with service providers to secure permanent housing. 

A culturally safe space

The renovated facility will have 53 self-contained apartments for up to 90 residents who are either homeless or at risk of experiencing homelessness. 

All units will focus on supports for Indigenous people. Fifteen of the units will be dedicated to housing Indigenous women.

Niginan Housing Ventures will lead the renovations and operation of the facility, providing 24-hour wraparound cultural and social services to residents.

On-site services will include full-time support workers and a housing manager to oversee operations. A full-time Indigenous elder will also be on staff. 

You know you're home, you know you're with your people.- Blake Jackman- Blake Jackman

Jackman said the building will have a large ceremony room for smudging ceremonies and prayer, located off the former lobby.

"We're hoping that that will be the first thing you can see, so you get that Indigenous feel," he said. "You know you're home, you know you're with your people.

"And you know that the traditions and the culture that is going to work for you is waiting for you as soon as you walk in those doors."

Renovation work is expected to begin in January and be complete by June, when Niginan will take possession of the site.

Blake Jackman, program manager of housing for Niginan, says the property will provide a culturally safe space for residents. (Craig Ryan/CBC)

The conversion is part of a city-led, federally funded initiative to address Edmonton's housing shortage by transforming four underused hotels into long-term housing.

The Mustard Seed plans to convert a former Days Inn on University Avenue to provide up to 85 self-contained apartments for individuals with a history of homelessness. 

The city estimates that more than 2,800 people in Edmonton are experiencing homelessness, a number that has more than doubled since the pandemic began. 

Jackman said support for the project was borne out of those pandemic pressures and the "epidemic" of homelessness.

"I think it's really important and this has been one of those golden linings from COVID," he said.  "It really highlighted the amount of people on the street still struggling with houselessness." 

More than 60 people currently live in the Sands building. 

Some will be transferred to other bridge housing sites, while others will be allowed to stay while renovations are completed, Jackman said. Many will be offered long-term homes in the facility when work is complete, he said. 

"Our agency knows that for people to heal and to feel at home and to grow as a human being, those Indigenous supports that they've been surrounded with their whole life need to be a part of the structure of the building," Jackman said. 

"It has to be in the building itself. It has to feel like home."