Mustard Seed opens up beds for homeless in Edmonton's Kinsmen Recreation Centre

A new homeless shelter set up in a river valley recreation complex has been added to the growing patchwork of services aiming to ensure that Edmonton's homeless population is looked after during the COVID-19 crisis.

The Mustard Seed has closed its 40-bed emergency shelter, located in a church off Whyte Avenue, to open a 180-bed overnight shelter in the Kinsmen Sports Centre, the organization said Thursday.

The increased beds are needed given distancing measures that have reduced sleeping spaces at the Hope Mission Emergency Shelter and the recent closure of the Herb Jamieson Centre, which is being rebuilt, said Dean Kurpjuweit, the Mustard Seed's executive director.

"Before, mats could be within a couple feet apart, now mats need to be a metre apart," said Kurpjuweit. "That means the space that could at one time hold a couple of hundred can maybe now hold 150, 160 people."

The rec centre near the south side of the Walterdale Bridge has enough space to maintain recommended physical distancing while offering a warm respite to people who normally sleep rough, he said.

Natasha Riebe/CBC

The new space, open daily from 8 p.m. to 7 a.m., is for people who are not experiencing symptoms of COVID-19. People who are sick are being taken by bus to Edmonton's Expo Centre, which has a designated, separate area to keep illness from spreading, he said.

In the morning, anyone staying at the shelter is given breakfast then ETS buses are on site to transfer them to the Expo Centre, where services including lunch and dinner are offered.

The Mustard Seed's Whyte Avenue overnight shelter normally operates only during  winter months and would close down by Easter, he said.

But funding from the Alberta government is in place to keep the Kinsmen facility open for six months, if it is needed for that long, he said.

'All changed in eight, nine days'

Kurpjuweit pointed out that almost all of the normal supports used by the homeless, including food lines and other places where they would gather, have been impacted by COVID-19 health measures.

"A lot of things that they depended on for their day-to-day survival have all changed on them. And it's all changed in eight, nine days."

But Kurpjuweit said the organization is looking for donations to help it cover some of the costs of moving and future expenses.

Meanwhile, the executive director of Homeward Trust said she is amazed at how well things have come together in just a few days to launch the large homeless shelter at the Expo Centre.

The centre was used by almost 500 people on its first day of operation earlier this week.

Susan McGee told CBC Radio's Edmonton AM  that the efforts of smaller shelters are also a key part of the overall solution. 

"There's a lot of other work going on in our community," she said on Thursday. "Like we have for the last couple of weeks, we'll continue to monitor, and if we need to make other decisions and look for other facilities then we will.

"But for now, we're working really closely with shelters — overnight shelters for people who are asymptomatic — to co-ordinate between sites and to ensure that individuals can also get from a safe place in the evening to a safe place during the day."