After sitting empty for over a year, the commercial spaces in Nova Plaza at 89 Street and 118 Avenue are poised for occupation. The building owners confirm that four new businesses are coming: a cannabis shop (Venus Cannabis), a game store (Common Box Games), a daycare, and a non-profit group called New Life Phoenix Society (NLPS).
New Life Phoenix Society is planning a centre for homeless and at-risk people in need of a warm meal, among other services.
“The primary purpose is a resource centre, and secondary as a drop-in service,” explains Delano Thomas, director at NLPS.
With over 10 years of experience as a social worker, including four as a crisis diversion worker in the city core, Thomas is currently employed by the John Howard Society and Youth Empowerment Support Services (YESS).
He incorporated the non-profit seven months ago with business partner Garfield Aikman. Thomas says the intent is to work holistically with clients using an array of services, including referrals, legal aid, and mental health counselling.
Intake will start with creating a profile for each client to assess their needs.
“For example, if an individual needs housing or is transitioning back into the workforce, we work with them toward that, or people who’ve been pulled into gang-related activity,” says Thomas. “We come up with options and support.”
All services will be provided by qualified professionals with experience working with adult homelessness, with round the clock security.
But some community leaders expressed concerns about the prospect of another potential gathering place for unwanted activity in a neighbourhood already feeling saturated with the effects of homelessness.
Over the past year, transitional housing has been set up at the EXPO Centre, the former jockey dorms, and at the Coliseum Inn. The Alberta Avenue area has a history of derelict buildings and problem housing.
Ali Hammington, president of Alberta Avenue Community League, would like assurance that a non-profit less than a year old has enough experience to work with vulnerable people.
“Certainly we need the services . . . I’m in favour of helping homeless people get re-established, but I need to know they are properly cared for,” says Hammington, who has a sociology degree and many years experience as a crisis counsellor in Edmonton’s inner city. “I’m absolutely in support of anything that helps homeless people, [but] a program like this, if poorly managed, could be a disaster.”
The Nova Plaza location is surrounded by below-market housing and several vacant properties, and gets several calls a week for police. A liquor store has opened across the street, which is another concern.
“It’s difficult for at-risk people when they don’t know where to go; we struggle to help them already,” says Christy Morin, executive director of Arts on the Ave. Morin also sits on a couple of support circles in the neighbourhood.
She reiterates the feeling in the community that transitional housing and related services need to be spread out over the city.
“You put vulnerable people all into one community . . . It creates an ecosystem that is not going to support them or the neighbourhood,” Morin says.
Rev. Tim Choi of the Edmonton Urban Native Ministry, which operates out of St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, explains NLPS will be able to offer services they cannot provide. In normal times, his ministry offers a free meal four times a week and Sunday service for the Indigenous community.
“We have no showers, no career counselling. This will be very helpful for people right now,” says Choi.
Thomas’ first order of business with NLPS was to contact local Indigenous organizations, and at some point he wants to reach out to police to set up regular visits. He’s also been working closely with the Nova Plaza owners, and while he acknowledges there are problems in the building such as vandalism and addictions, he says that an important next step will be reaching out to the community.
“Our agenda is not to work in isolation,” he emphasizes. “It’s important to engage with the community, to bring in other organizations that are willing to be part of this.”
The society is working on funding and has some grants in place. They will employ four staff and initially open with limited hours and intake. They hope to open in early May.
Alberta Avenue District Council, which includes seven community leagues and the Alberta Avenue Business Association, invited NLPS to a meeting in mid-April to discuss concerns.
“Their plans for helping the vulnerable sound like a very ambitious undertaking,” says Donna Yateman, the president of Eastwood Community League who also chaired the District Council meeting. “I would have liked to see a more detailed business model and more proactive engagement with the community they seek to provide services in.”
Further meetings with NLPS are being planned to discuss operations, risk mitigation strategies, and to develop a good neighbour agreement. For more information on NLPS, visit nlpsociety.ca.