Edmonton city councillors agree to fund $7.5M in temporary shelter spaces

The city started taking down seven encampments in core areas of Edmonton Wednesday.  (Kory Siegers/CBC - image credit)
The city started taking down seven encampments in core areas of Edmonton Wednesday. (Kory Siegers/CBC - image credit)

The City of Edmonton is trying urgently to open more emergency shelter spaces for homeless people before the weather gets colder.

City council's executive committee agreed at a meeting Wednesday that the city needs to fund 210 new spaces at the Jasper Place Wellness Centre this winter to fill the shortfall in beds.

Andre Corbould, city manager, requested that this year's operating budget be increased by $7.5 million to pay for the shelter spaces at 155th Street and Stony Plain Road for six months.

Coun. Andrew Knack supported the request but questioned why, in late November, the city was having to step up to fill the gap.

"We're hearing about the folks who are dying on our streets right now," Knack said. "And it's getting frustrating to see this year after year."

Housing and shelter spaces are the province's responsibility, Knack noted. He said the piecemeal approach every year isn't working.

"Not filling this gap is just going to result in more of our neighbours dying unnecessarily," Knack said fighting back tears.

Knack said the province could use some of their $13 billion surplus to help create housing for those in need.

"Where is the order of government who's responsible to ensure the lives, safety and well-being of every Albertan — not just those of us who have homes?"

Coun. Anne Stevenson asked the city to confirm that homeless people have died this fall.

Corbould said the city doesn't have the details to comment on the causes of death, but he knows there have been some deaths involving people experiencing homelessness.

"We definitely know that homeless people, people who are in a houseless situation have died tragically this month for sure," Corbould said.

Shelter gap

The added capacity at Jasper Place Wellness Centre would bring the total of overnight shelter spaces to more than 1,250, which is the number of people sleeping in shelters or outside on any given night, Homeward Trust reports.

Council will be asked to give final approval in early December to the Jasper Place Wellness Centre proposal, a partnership with Tallcree Nation that includes 150 congregate living spaces and 59 private rooms.

Weather response

Corbould said depending on the weather, 150 to 400 people a night require transportation from transit stations to safe locations.

"Once the temperature drops below -10, shelters are full," Corbould said.

Last year, there were about 40 nights that dropped below -20 C, he noted.

"Given it takes at least four weeks to stand up shelter beds, waiting isn't really an option."

The city is adjusting when it enacts its extreme weather response, from -20 C to -10 C, Corbould said.

Shigella outbreak

The city started taking down seven encampments on Wednesday, where an estimated 160 people have been living for an extended period of time.

The camps are considered high-risk to public safety, a fire risk and significant impacts on the surrounding community, the city said in an email.

The city, police and the Radius Community Health and Healing, formerly Boyle McCauley Health Centre, are working to curb the spread of the Shigella outbreak among the homeless population.

The province says there have been 176 cases of Shigella Edmonton this fall, and 115 people have been hospitalized with the bacterial infection that affects the digestive system.

Mayor Amarjeet Sohi said the additional shelter spaces, for people to have access to proper hygiene, will be crucial in curbing the spread of Shigella.

"What we want to do is prevent this spread from happening, by working with this health agency we'll be able to provide more support as we look at encampments and we look at providing more appropriate places for people to live."