Alberta is investing $21.5 million in pandemic funding to ease capacity issues at homeless and women's shelters across the province this winter, Premier Jason Kenney announced Wednesday.
"Today's announcement is about one immediate, acute, seasonal need that's driven by the COVID situation," Kenney said. "Because we don't want people sleeping rough in a cold Edmonton winter."
Kenney made the comments alongside Community and Social Services Minister Jason Luan at the Hope Mission's new Herb Jamieson Centre in downtown Edmonton.
Luan said the money is enough to bump up the shelter capacity in Edmonton to 1,280 beds, from the 720 that are currently funded.
Earlier this week, the city reported it was expecting to be short by about 420 overnight beds.
"This is a big deal. This is a good day for Edmontonians," Luan said. "That is a significant injection to the current system that makes it more accessible for people who don't have to struggle living on the street. Now they will have spots available for safe and healthy place to be."
Funding for several around-the-clock emergency shelters was set to run out at the end of November. The renewed funding is expected to support 14 homeless shelter facilities until next March.
The bulk of the money, $13 million, will go to emergency homeless shelters around the province, including in Edmonton, Calgary, Red Deer, Grande Prairie, Medicine Hat, Lethbridge, Lloydminster, Drayton Valley, Leduc, Slave Lake and Wetaskiwin.
About $6.5 million is earmarked for COVID-19 isolation facilities for homeless people who have been exposed to the virus.
Finally, $2 million will support women's shelters, which are dealing with increased rates of domestic violence during the pandemic.
Kenney acknowledged the money is a temporary fix but dismissed a suggestion that emergency shelters don't address the larger, longer-term need.
"This Band-Aid has been saving lives for 92 years. There will always be a need, I believe, for emergency shelters for some folks who, for one reason or another, are not accessing more conventional housing support," he said.
Luan also said the shelters are a place for clients to get a variety of services, including advice on longer-term housing or bridge accommodation.
"Not only we provide 24/7 basic services — like a meal, shower, sleep, laundry — but more importantly we take that opportunity to connecting them to get onto addictions, mental health support services and others, like finding supportive housing in the community."
Of the $21.5 million, about $7.2 million is allocated for Edmonton shelters.
It will go to keep 200 mats at the Spectrum building on the Exhibition grounds and for about 80 spaces at smaller south-side shelters run by the Mustard Seed.
At the beginning of the pandemic, the Mustard Seed set up shelters in four churches around Old Strathcona and Ritchie.
Dean Kurpjuweit, chief regional officer for the Mustard Seed, is relieved to get the funding again but hopes for more permanent solutions.
"I don't want to be here every winter, I don't want to be in the place that every winter, we're wondering what we're going to do — do we have enough spaces for people?
"We want to be able to say, 'if you come to the shelter, we can guarantee you that within a very short period of time, we can find a place for you to live, and that's ultimately the goal for the system," he said.
On top of the $21.5 million, another $1.5 million has been committed to operate Edmonton's Commonwealth Stadium as an emergency shelter this winter, Kenney said.
The stadium shelter, expected to be up and running in early December, will have around 200 beds and provide on-site overdose prevention and treatment services.
Provincial task force
In addition to funding, the Alberta government has launched a provincial task force on homelessness, made up of representatives from social agencies, academics and law enforcement officials.
The task force will first be directed to help the City of Edmonton contend with its critical capacity issues anticipated during the season ahead. Then it will turn its attention to developing a model for responding to people with complex needs and creating an action plan on homelessness for the entire province.
Edmonton Mayor Amarjeet Sohi has been calling for additional provincial assistance as the city contends with a housing crisis exacerbated by COVID-19. The number of people experiencing homelessness in Edmonton has doubled since the pandemic began, while shelters have had to reduce capacity as a result of public health restrictions.
The city estimates 1,200 people will need overnight shelter space this season; before Wednesday's announcement, the city had 720 available beds
Sohi said the city has provided $1.6 million to shelters, allowing them to extend daytime services until the end of the year. He said this will give people access to meals, showers, clothing, laundry, hygiene items and harm reduction supplies.
During Wednesdays' news conference, Sohi thanked the province for acting quickly to address what he described as a critical need for increased shelter capacity this winter.
"You delivered what we were asking for," he said.
"Moving forward into this winter, many Edmontonians — who would otherwise be sleeping on the streets, or in the back alleys, or in the river valley — now have a warm place to go to."
According to Christel Kjenner, the director of Affordable Housing and Homelessness, there are about 2,800 people currently experiencing homelessness in Edmonton.