'More or less in a corner': Despite expected issues, council OKs new warm-weather shelter plan

·4 min read
The Tipinawâw temporary pandemic shelter is set to close at the end of the April, so the city approved a new plan for other shelter spaces over the next six months. (Trevor Wilson/CBC - image credit)
The Tipinawâw temporary pandemic shelter is set to close at the end of the April, so the city approved a new plan for other shelter spaces over the next six months. (Trevor Wilson/CBC - image credit)

As Edmonton's temporary shelters are closed after getting the city's homeless population through the winter, city council has approved $8.1 million along with a patchwork plan of new shelters and centres for the next six months.

The money, being redirected from the COVID-19 reserve fund, will cover costs until Oct. 31 to provide city buildings and support for temporary shelters, along with temporary mobile washrooms with attendants in six different downtown locations.

The city will be closing Tipinawâw, the temporary shelter at the Edmonton Convention Centre, at the end of April. The Mustard Seed's Cessco warehouse shelter location closed on March 31, but the organization is using some churches south of the river to help fill the void.

The 24/7 shelter operated over the winter by Hope Mission at Commonwealth Stadium will move to the Spectrum building, located on the former Northlands racetrack site. There will be capacity for 150 beds in self-contained units and room for more if needed.

Homeward Trust is expected to open 200 new transitional housing spaces to help supplement the need.

Meanwhile, a city-owned building at 10542 105th St. will be opened as a daytime drop-in centre. Additional drop-in space will be available at both Boyle Street Community Services and Bissell Centre along with expanding its hours to be open 7 days a week.

In total, the plan approved by the city will have an additional 152 day-use spaces, which would serve nearly 700 people each day.

For the May through November period, the city's focus is more on smaller facilities than the large spaces used in the winter months for temporary shelter.

The city also hopes the plan will deter homeless people from congregating in large encampments that sprouted up last summer, such as Pekiwewin in the Rossdale neighbourhood and the Peace Camp in Old Strathcona.

Camp Pekiwewin started in the summer of 2020 in the Rossdale neighbourhood, before the city shut it down in the fall.
Camp Pekiwewin started in the summer of 2020 in the Rossdale neighbourhood, before the city shut it down in the fall. (Travis McEwan/CBC)

Ongoing frustrations

Despite council's unanimous approval of the plan on Friday morning, many councillors expressed both frustration and fatigue about this issue.

Coun. Tony Caterina represents the ward where the Spectrum building will be opened as a 24/7 shelter. He voiced concerns over potential social disorder in the area, such as what he says was experienced last year when the Expo Centre was used as an emergency shelter.

"We really need to be compassionate to the neighbourhood and the constituents of Edmonton that are affected in a different way than the vulnerable people are," Caterina said. "They deserve the same sort of consideration."

Coun. Ben Henderson supports the plan but expects it will spark future issues that the city will have to work through.

"I support this, understanding that it will probably come back to us to respond to the pressure points that will inevitably come up with this," he said. "I think it's the best solution that's available to us."

Mayor Don Iveson acknowledged the different frustrations, noting the "damned if they do, and damned if they don't" decision council was facing.

"If we open shelters but they have spillover effects, that's our fault. If we don't open shelters but bring to our public the attention that the province isn't opening sufficient shelter space, then we're passing the buck. If camps form and we don't close them immediately, then we're allowing the disorder from the camps," he said.

"It seems to me we are more or less in a corner at this point."

Like other members of council, he also voiced disappointment with the provincial government. The federal government provided more than $40 million to construct 200 housing units, he said, but the province declined the city's application to fund more units.

"The new analogy might be, do we want more vaccines or do we want more masks? It feels like today we're buying $8 million more of masks but it's not our job to buy the vaccine ... to buy the cure," Iveson said.

Coun. Tim Cartmell asked city administration whether there is potential for designated encampment areas over the summer, suggesting that some people may prefer that over indoor shelter spaces.

City staff said the concept was being looked at but didn't offer any specifics.