Bitter winter and Omicron wave make 'perfect storm' for Edmonton's homeless population

·5 min read
After more than three years on the streets, Shiranda Bull says she has struggled more during this second pandemic winter. (Gabriela Panza/CBC - image credit)
After more than three years on the streets, Shiranda Bull says she has struggled more during this second pandemic winter. (Gabriela Panza/CBC - image credit)

Shiranda Bull sits in a plastic chair inside a pharmacy waiting room, a blanket wrapped around her shoulders, plastic bags inside her soaking-wet sneakers.

A man slumped over in a chair beside Bull is asleep, his hands pulled up inside the sleeves of his jacket. Another man sleeps on the floor, under a chair.

Manager Alyaa Ibrahim says her central Edmonton pharmacy at 10570 96th St. has become a refuge for homeless people who often line up outside nearby shelters. She regularly offers her visitors a warm place to sleep — an increasingly rare commodity during the bitterly cold winter as shelters face staff shortages and capacity limits due to the Omicron variant's surge.

More emergency help is needed for homeless people in distress, Ibrahim said in an interview.

"Not a human, not an animal should be in the cold in the street," Ibrahim said.

Ibrahim also serves free coffee and tends to small wounds. Last month, she called an ambulance for a disoriented man who walked in with fingers so frostbitten his flesh had turned black and begun to rot.

"His hand was all black. He didn't know he was losing his fingers," Ibrahim said. "He didn't know his name."

Gabriela Panza/CBC
Gabriela Panza/CBC

Extreme cold warnings, shelter capacity limits

After days of mild temperatures, a winter storm blew across Alberta Monday, bringing with it freezing rain, blowing snow and icy temperatures around –25 C with the risk of frostbite in minutes. By Wednesday, communities across the province remained under an extreme cold warning while Edmontonians awoke to biting wind that made it feel like –35 C.

The blast of cold came as shelters were already contending with staffing shortages made worse by the Omicron variant, and capacity limits that are part of COVID-19 public health measures.

The province is contending with a wave of COVID-19 infections driven by the new variant. Alberta has 70,223 known active cases, but the true number is believed to be 10 times higher.

As of Tuesday, there were 1,089 people with COVID-19 in Alberta hospitals. The positivity rate hovers around 39 per cent, much higher than in earlier waves.

'A lot harder for us'

Bull, who found shelter Tuesday in Ibrahim's pharmacy, said she puts new plastic bags in her shoes every day in a bid to protect her feet from the bitter cold.

The 29-year-old has been homeless in Edmonton for more than three years, bouncing from couches to shelter beds. When temperatures plunged on Monday, she slept on the floor at the Herb Jamieson Centre, a shelter.

"With COVID, people don't really want a bunch of homeless people around," Bull said. "That's made it a lot harder for us to be anywhere."

She said it's difficult to deal with the looks she gets from other people when she's on the street.

"I get people that look at me and they jump to the side when I walk by them," Bull said.

"People are generally scared of homeless people, thinking we're going to hurt them … And that's the biggest thing, is just being judged."

Gabriela Panza/CBC
Gabriela Panza/CBC

By the city's estimates, more than 2,800 people in Edmonton are experiencing homelessness, a number that has more than doubled since the pandemic began nearly two years ago.

As many as 1,200 people are expected to require shelter this winter.

In a bid to meet demand, the city has added hundreds of beds to the shelter system, keeping temporary spaces open and creating emergency warming spaces at Commonwealth Stadium and other facilities.

Extra spaces just a temporary solution

Shelter officials say the extra spaces are a temporary solution to a deepening housing crisis, one that is playing out during a fifth COVID-19 wave that is undercutting their ability to operate.

An increasing number of shelter staff have been sidelined by the illness as COVID-19 cases continue to surge, increasing the risk to vulnerable clients.

Four active outbreaks have been declared at shelter facilities across the city.

Elliott Tanti, a spokesperson for Boyle Street Community Services, said the downtown facility closed temporarily over the weekend as a "preventative measure" following cases among employees.

But the cold weather on Monday forced the shelter to open again.

"These are dangerous times," Tanti said. "There is always a concern about frostbite and hypothermia."

Justine Pelletier, a manager with Boyle Street, said capacity remains reduced at shelters across the city, putting homeless people at risk.

"The shelter space is still limited because of the pandemic so accessing shelters is not an easy thing to do right now and supports, unfortunately, are limited," Pelletier said.

'Perfect storm of problems'

It's a "perfect storm of problems," said Dean Kurpjuweit, chief regional officer with The Mustard Seed, a Christian non-profit agency.

"This population group has grown over the last couple of years, and yet our agencies have sort of remained the same size," Kurpjuweit said.

"You've got COVID restrictions that reduce what we can do within that space … and we are having the coldest, most miserable winter."

WATCH | Edmonton pharmacy has become refuge for people experiencing homelessness:

The Mustard Seed recently expanded its shelter space, opening a new facility in a church in south Edmonton, but is still struggling to keep up, Kurpjuweit said. The organization's shelter spaces are at capacity every night and even before Omicron hit, the shelter system was operating "on the edge" this winter, he said.

More permanent funding and permanent housing is needed to contend with Edmonton's longstanding housing crisis, he said.

"We need to fix the real issue and not continue to put a Band-Aid on it with shelters," he said

"They're not a solution. They're part of the system.

"And as long as there is a bottleneck at the back end of that system, there's going to be a problem."

Jason Franson/The Canadian Press
Jason Franson/The Canadian Press
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