EXPO Centre opens to Edmonton's homeless during pandemic

The province, City of Edmonton and social agencies will house homeless people at Edmonton's EXPO Centre, starting Monday. 

"This joint response aims to best meet the needs of vulnerable populations as the COVID-19 situation intensifies," the city said in a news release Monday afternoon.

The EXPO Centre will be used in two ways.

One portion will be used as an isolation shelter for anyone who is homeless, currently using shelters and exhibiting any COVID-19 symptoms.

The isolation section opens Monday evening and can accommodate up to 150 people. It will operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The Boyle McCauley Health Centre will take the lead on primary medical care. Alberta Health Services will provide additional services including infection control and environmental public health support for the site and its temporary residents.

Jackie Liu, director of operations at Boyle McCauley, said staff have two criteria to check before admitting visitors, which are COVID-related symptoms and whether the visitors are indeed homeless.  

"When the doors open, we're running basically a screening and triage right at the very front door," Liu said. 

Another portion of the EXPO Centre will be used as a day drop-in service, open from 8 a.m. until 8 p.m.

It will welcome anyone who is homeless, currently staying in shelters and not exhibiting any COVID-19 symptoms.

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The drop-in day service opens Tuesday and will be monitored by Homeward Trust. 

Susan McGee, CEO of Homeward Trust, said they are set up to practice social distancing. 

"People sitting at large tables with just a few people to it so that they maintain a metre-plus distance, so that we can provide food to them that is not in a buffet-type setting but individually served — packaged sandwiches and meals."

The space at the Edmonton EXPO Centre helps provide overflow support for facilities that have had to limit their capacity, change hours of operation or close entirely.

Homeward Trust is working with the Bissell Centre, Boyle Street Community Services, and other organizations to operate the drop-in, which McGee estimated can accommodate up to 500 people. 

The EXPO Centre is not currently operating as an overnight shelter for individuals who don't require health services related to COVID-19.

Liu said nurses and nurse practitioners are on hand to support clients with routine therapy and daily medication, including those going through withdrawal from drugs or alcohol.

Existing overnight shelters will continue to operate and accept those individuals who are not showing symptoms of COVID-19 and do not require isolation.

The EXPO Centre is not open to the general public for regular programming and other events.