Edmonton homeless agencies ramp up supports as temperatures plunge

·3 min read

Shawn Bennett waited outside Boyle Street Community Services for a warm meal, some warm winter socks, and a reprieve from the extreme cold Saturday.

With temperatures dropping below -30 C, he's one of around 900 people who will sleep in an Edmonton shelter this weekend.

"A lot of the people out here, they look after each other hey, it's like a street family," Bennett said.

With Edmonton and much of the province firmly in the grips of a polar vortex, homeless-serving agencies are working together and ramping up supports.

"For us, the more options that people have is just always the better," said Kassidy Green, community relationship lead with Boyle Street. "So the collaboration that we've seen with the inner city organizations is really putting the wellbeing of our community members at the forefront, which is what's important: keeping people safe and healthy right now."

Extreme weather response

The City of Edmonton activated its extreme weather response to help keep vulnerable Edmontonians safe on Thursday.

The response has seen Edmonton Transit Service providing two overnight buses looping around the city on dedicated routes to ensure that people needing access to emergency shelters have a way to get there. The north route supported 30 people and the south route supported 29 people during its first night of operation, said Priya Bhasin-Singh, a spokesperson for the city.

Community agency staff will be on board each bus to provide support, including screening community members for COVID-19, providing masks to those who cannot supply their own and determining the most appropriate shelter to meet individual needs, she added.

Increasing call volume

Ryan Harding with Hope Mission says it's adding two extra crews to its crisis diversion vans, dispatched through 211.

"Right now our call volume is increasing," Harding said. "We expect over the weekend to be very busy, but we are glad we were able to increase our capacity to carry the load."

During last year's cold snap, calls went from about 1,200 to 1,700 a month, Harding said. The crews expect call volume to rise by 40 per cent in periods of extreme cold.

Knowing the cold weather was happening, Mustard Seed along with Boyle Street, Bent Arrow and Bissell Centre upped capacity from 300 to 350 on Thursday at Tipinawâw, the Edmonton Convention Centre shelter.

They had 355 in the space on Friday night, said Kris Knutson with Mustard Seed.

In addition to shelters at the Moravian Church, and the southside Trinity Lutheran Church, Al Rashid Mosque is also providing 72 shelter spaces for the duration of the extreme weather response.

"With this type of cold we just need to be open and providing space for people to just come," Knutson said, adding COVID-19 measures have exacerbated the situation.

"For our homeless population, all the places that they used to go have now been shut off from them, so for them to just find shelter and get out of the weather and just stay warm and stay safe, we needed to get these places up and running and do it quickly."

They need more blankets, more mats, more storage space. And, just as importantly, more food with more than 1,000 meals a day coming out of the convention centre kitchen.

Agencies are also asking for winter clothing donations.

The brutal cold front is forecast to keep Albertans shivering for at least another week and the city's extreme weather response is expected to remain in effect until next Saturday.