Edmonton

Iveson demands province protect city's homeless and 'broader population' from COVID-19

The city is growing frustrated with the province's foot dragging in protecting Edmonton's most vulnerable citizens, Mayor Don Iveson told reporters Thursday.

'I need the province to make a decision now,' mayor tells reporters

Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson, accompanied by an interpreter, told reporters Thursday homeless people must be taken care of to keep COVID-19 from becoming an even bigger risk to all Edmontonians. (John Shypitka/CBC News)

The city is growing frustrated with the province's foot dragging in protecting Edmonton's most vulnerable citizens, Mayor Don Iveson told reporters Thursday.

"While we appreciate the provincial government's continued effort to engage us on this public health crisis, delays in decision making at the province are hindering Edmonton's ability to act swiftly and proactively to protect people experiencing homelessness and in turn protect the broader population from COVID-19," Iveson told a news conference at city hall.

Iveson said he has spoken to Premier Jason Kenney and several cabinet ministers on the issue but has not heard the answers he needs.

Under any circumstances, homeless people are exposed to greater health risks, he said, adding that's why he's always pushes for housing to be part of the solution.

But COVID-19 is exacerbating health risks because of the lack of access to shelter and hygiene facilities, making self-isolation impossible for those living on the streets, Iveson said.

Virus not 'beholden' to constraints

He warned the virus is not beholden to any constraints, and if the homeless were not protected it would lead to greater risks of coronavirus infection for all Edmontonians.

He said the city is ready to activate a space for use as a shelter for those without a home, an approach supported by police and most agencies, he said.

"This option has been before the government of Alberta for several days," he said.

"I want the city to take action on this, but without Alberta Health Services ... to manage intake and public health risks, the risks of concentrating so many people in one place would be too substantial for the city to take on on our own.

"If the province wants to take a different and more distributed approach, which seems to be what they're doing in Calgary, the city of course will do everything that we can to support that.

But I need the province to make a decision now."

The City of Calgary has activated 400 hotel rooms for those homeless who are at lower risk, freeing more space at shelters for those with more complex needs, he said.

'Anxious, scared, fearful'

One Edmonton inner-city agency echoed Iveson's concerns, saying those experiencing homelessness have the same fears as anybody else. 

"They're anxious, scared, fearful," Dean Kurpjuweit, executive director at The Mustard Seed, said Thursday. "They have all the same things that we have, the difference is they can't go home."

Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta's chief medical officer of health, told a news conference at the legislature Thursday the province is "working tirelessly" with the city on the issue.

"Finding accommodations for the homeless population, especially if those individuals are feeling sick, is a top priority for government," Hinshaw said.

A top priority

"There are challenges that need to be overcome, and so sometimes that slows things down more than we would like, but I can tell you it is a top priority to get appropriate housing for those who are homeless and may have symptoms," she said.

"I'm particularly preparing for cases where we may have positive COVID cases in that particular population, ensuring that they have the supports that they need so that they are able to stay in one place and get the care and attention they need."

Iveson said he believes health officials are trying to move "as fast as the provincial government can."

"I simply want a decision, even if it's not the perfect decision," he said.

"The risk is only escalating as we wait for a firm decision from the province. The best advice is even if you don't have perfect information, take action to reduce risk."

Iveson also said the city is continuing to work with the province on a plan to defer property taxes and possibly utility bills.

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