Most temporary shelters will operate until the spring

Since the pandemic began, homelessness has become an increasing problem due to people losing their jobs and shelters not being designed for physical distancing. With winter here, shelters and city-operated spaces are finding ways to house people safely.

“The City doesn’t operate bridge housing, but we continue to work with our partners in the homeless-serving sector to find ways to quickly address homelessness,” says Nicole Thomas, spokesperson for affordable housing and homelessness at the City of Edmonton. 

On Oct. 30, the Edmonton Convention Centre opened as a 24-hour temporary accommodation. “Boyle Street Community Services, Mustard Seed Society, the Bissell Centre, and Bent Arrow Traditional Healing Society are working together to operate the facility and ensure it meets the needs of vulnerable Edmontonians. All [Alberta Health Services] AHS public health orders will be followed to ensure the safety of people using and working at the facility,” says Thomas.

The Convention Centre opened as a 24/7 temporary shelter at the end of October. | Stephen Strand

Cheryl Whiskeyjack, executive director of Bent Arrow Traditional Healing Society, says the City is funding the other three organizations to do the work at the Convention Centre, and that “Boyle Street is actually subcontracting Bent Arrow to provide cultural support services for the people accessing services at the winter shelter.” says Whiskeyjack, explaining many people they’ll be serving will be Indigenous. 

Camp Pekiwewin, an anti-police violence, emergency relief and prayer camp established in July,  was not a tenable housing solution. Existing shelters were limited in what they could provide, due to COVID-19. Outbreaks occurred. So, the City opened the temporary shelter site at the Convention Centre and the Stadium as their response.

When the City approached Boyle Street Community Services about the Convention Centre, the organization said they needed to support the Indigenous community in a culturally meaningful way and subcontracted the Bent Arrow Traditional Healing Society to help. 

“What we’re providing is access to Elders and spiritual advisors for the folks who will be accessing the shelter who request that kind of support,” explains Whiskeyjack. Smudging ceremonies will take place morning and evening to create a safe, calm space. Bent Arrow Traditional Healing Society will also provide access to pipe ceremonies, sweat lodge ceremonies, and various other services. “We are also going to be spending time talking with the people accessing the shelter and say, ‘Here is who we are. Here is what we can do. What would you be interested in?’”

“There’s lots of historical trauma, mental health, addictions, all kinds of issues that those folks are experiencing, so we want to be able to help them access programming and supports that have some meaning to them. As opposed to just having Western kinds of responses to those needs,” says Whiskeyjack. Health protocols will be followed. 

The Convention Centre will be used as a shelter until next spring. Additional space is also being provided at the Commonwealth Stadium.

“The City has also supported Hope Mission in opening additional space in Commonwealth Stadium using the west pod,” says Thomas. Pods are enclosed concession areas off the concourse level. “This space opened initially as an overnight shelter to replace overflow space previously provided at the Central Lions Senior Centre. As of Nov. 12, it will offer 24-7 service.” This space is an addition to Hope Mission’s shelter.

Commonwealth Stadium became available out of necessity. “The shelter we were operating at the Central Lions Recreation Centre was closing and we needed a new space to keep people safe during the winter while maintaining adequate distancing,” says Joel Nikkel, Hope Mission’s director of development.

They provide meals, washrooms, a drop-in centre, a shuttle to the Hope Mission main building, housing support, recovery program support, and a place to sleep night or day. Eventually, there will be showers. 

Employees screen for COVID-19 symptoms, including temperature checks. Staff wear PPE as required and AHS Environmental Public Health (EPH) perform audits to ensure compliance with all AHS regulations and COVID-19 prevention measures.

The Stadium will function as a shelter until the end of next March. “Hope Mission is building a new Herb Jamieson Shelter that we plan to have completed before winter 2021,” says Nikkel. 

The Coliseum Inn was also converted into temporary housing in the spring.

People staying at the Coliseum Inn are connected to a housing worker. | Stephen Strand

Bill Lamppost (a pseudonym) had been living at the Coliseum Inn for about six weeks when I spoke to him. He says there’s no time limit on how long people stay. “As long as the support staff see I am working with my housing worker and we are trying to move forward, trying to get me out of here and into my own apartment,” says Lamppost.

“It’s got everything you’d think a hotel room would have. I’m in one with two queen-sized beds. I got a little bar fridge, basically. A microwave, TV. There’s a desk over in the corner. And of course, a full bathroom.”  

Because of COVID-19, people have their own room. This helps keep the risk of transmission down. Rooms are cleaned by staff.

“Housekeeping, they are on an alternating schedule. It’s about every second day.” But Lamppost also cleans his room. “It just takes a little bit of pressure off them. You know what, it’s my mess. Why shouldn’t I clean it up?”

The Coliseum Inn provides meals, which Lamppost feels aren’t quite sufficient. “The meals, as a rule, usually it’s cereal and a piece of fruit for breakfast. You get milk and spoons.” 

Sometimes pastries are included with breakfast. “Lunch is non-existent. Supper can vary,” he says with a laugh. Supper includes food like spaghetti, roasted turkey, or roast beef. His biggest complaint is the portion. “I don’t think there’s enough food in there to fill up a four year old,” Lamppost says. The food is free to tenants, though. Although the meals aren’t the most filling, he says he likes staying there. 

The Coliseum Inn is managed by Boyle Street Community Services and funded by Homeward Trust. “Individuals referred there are connected to a housing worker and they’re already engaged in the housing process,” says Susan McGee, CEO of Homeward Trust. 

Homeward Trust leases the hotel from month to month.

“We are looking at the building, as we are several other hotels, for longer-term use. But there is a whole process around that and it requires a lot of due diligence,” McGee explains. Homeward Trust is working with the City to find a longer-term solution.

Homeward Trust also is opening a bridge housing site at the old jockey dorms at the old Northlands horse racing track, but have experienced a delay in opening. “We were moving a project team to it, and then it was interrupted by COVID.” A project team member tested positive for COVID-19. “Everybody is okay, thankfully. That was a few weeks ago, so we’ve had to go through a process of isolation. It really paused and made us have to pivot around staffing.” They plan to have the dorms staffed and opened by mid-November.

Food will be provided to people living in the dorms because there are no microwaves or fridges to store food. Like at the Coliseum Inn, people staying at the dorms will be connected with housing workers. Onsite supports at the dorms are oriented towards the housing plan, but McGee says it’s important for people to have a safe place to stay. 

While their primary goal is a long-term housing plan, they work with people staying there to  access resources. While Homeward Trust aims to have people housed within three weeks, it may take longer. “Sometimes the best housing option for somebody might have a waitlist.” 

All AHS guidelines are followed at the Coliseum Inn and at the dorms, including disinfecting regularly and limiting how many people eat in the same place at the same time.

So what happens next spring?

“The City is actively looking at how it can quickly create permanent and suitable housing options for people experiencing homelessness,” says Thomas. “Until those spaces are available, the City and its partners will provide immediate access to low-barrier accommodation to help vulnerable Edmontonians stay safe.” 

For more information, contact Boyle Street Community Services, Mustard Seed Society, the Bissell Centre, Hope Mission, and Bent Arrow Traditional Healing Society. Or call 311.


Featured Image: The Stadium will function as a temporary shelter until spring. | Stephen Strand