Conditions at Edmonton Convention Centre shelter unsafe, clients say

Two men who spent time at the Edmonton Convention Centre say it's a dangerous place to be.

The facility has been operating as a shelter since late October. At times, more than 300 people have been staying at the facility that's being run by four organizations that work with homeless people.

"No one feels safe there," Peter Noivo told CBC News. "There was constant fighting and screaming. It's a very bad place to be. "

After spending four nights at ECC a couple of weeks ago, Noivo, 52, moved to a hotel with his partner. They're hoping to get into an apartment soon. He vows to never return to the convention centre shelter.

Noivo said he concerned about widespread drug use inside the 24/7 facility, even though there is a safe consumption site.

Travis McEwan/CBC
Travis McEwan/CBC

"When it gets to injection hour, you can't use the washroom," Noivo said. "There's needles all over. It's normal to get into a washroom and see blood and syringes on the floor."

Ben Young agreed. He was staying at the convention centre for the past week and a half, but just tested positive for COVID-19 and he was transferred to a hotel to isolate.

Young, 29, was alarmed by conditions at the shelter. He's been documenting his observations for the past two weeks on Reddit.

"Something needs to change because people are dying, people are overdosing, people are getting sick," Young said. "If a light isn't shown on this, it's just going to get worse and worse and worse."

Young said overdoses were a regular occurrence at the facility and said he personally administered Narcan three times. He also said he saw three people die inside the shelter.

Submitted by Ben Young
Submitted by Ben Young

"Well, the first one that I saw was an older lady who I talked with a few nights," Young said. "When I walked into the food hall, she was on her back, dead, black in the face dead."

He said nurses managed to revive the woman, but he found out she died later in hospital.

"I freaked out the first few times," he said. "Now I see someone overdose, it's become regular. At one point there were five overdoses in seven minutes."

When asked for comment the City of Edmonton referred CBC to contact one of the organizations operating the shelter.

A spokesperson for the Boyle Street Community Services confirmed the overdose situation inside the convention centre mirrors what's happening in the inner city. Elliott Tanti said an overdose prevention site (OPS) wasn't in the original plan for the facility, but was opened after the first couple of weeks.

"Certainly there were concerns in the first two weeks when we didn't have the OPS around the number of overdoses taking place in the building because there simply wasn't a safe place for people to go," Tanti said. "Since the OPS has opened, we've seen a dramatic reduction in the number of overdoses on site outside of the OPS and it's had a major impact."

Tanti said security staff regularly check washrooms and there is a specialized team devoted to emergency overdose response on hand during the day and through the evening until 11 p.m.

Outbreak at ECC

Alberta Health Services confirmed there are 60 active COVID-19 cases at the convention centre linked to the current outbreak.

Young is convinced he would not have contracted the virus if he had been staying somewhere other than ECC. His case has not been officially traced to the facility.

"I would be shocked if everyone in that building didn't have it at one point or right now," Young said. "It's completely unsafe there. It's horrible."

Submitted by Ben Young
Submitted by Ben Young

Young shared a picture of overflowing garbage cans inside the facility. He claimed he never saw any surfaces being sanitized.

"There's no cleaning," Young said. "We take care of the cleaning ourselves. Like I mop, I clean the bathroom. I sanitize everything."

Tanti disagreed with Young's assessment.

"We had very stringent cleaning and hygiene standards when it first started, but we've increased the number of cleaning in public spaces to ensure the safety of the people that we serve," Tanti said. "Since the start, we've been conducting electrostatic decontamination every 24 hours of all the public shelter spaces."

Tanti added that anytime that someone tests positive, the area they were in is also immediately decontaminated.

"We're taking hygiene of the facility very seriously and working quite closely with our partners at the convention centre janitorial staff to make sure that the space is safe," Tanti said.

Young believes there's a strong need for a 24/7 homeless shelter in the city and he applauded the work of the staff who are trying to help. But he thinks ECC needs to make dramatic changes in order to be safe for everyone who stays there.

"We're struggling in the shadows out here," Young said.

"We need help. We need a lot of help and we're not getting it.".