City of Edmonton inches closer to creating new standards for homeless shelters

Edmonton is a step closer to adopting a roadmap to improve standards at emergency homeless shelters, after the city’s community and public services committee recommended a new report be approved by city council.

City council asked for a report with recommendations to improve shelters and how to enforce new standards last March, as accounts of social disorder and safety concerns for communities and clients increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The community and public services committee discussed the report Wednesday. Coun. Aaron Paquette and Coun. Andrew Knack referred the report to city council for approval, and to prepare a strategy for shelters to adopt the new standards.

“I don’t want people that we serve to be stuck on the street,” Jordan Reiniger, executive director of Boyle Street Community Services, told the committee Wednesday. 

“Ultimately we want the same thing, which is for people to be able to be in a dignified environment that’s helping them to change their life and have the life they want to have for themselves.”

The overarching goal of the report, the Minimum Emergency Shelter Standards, is to make shelters more appealing to people who usually avoid them and choose to sleep outside.

Better sleeping conditions, food options, storage for belongings and access to health advice are a few areas the report highlights for improvement.

Recommendations include smaller shelters that are open all day and night, increasing the number of private or semi-private sleeping spaces, and a bed off the ground with bed rails or lower heights for guests with mobility issues. 

Shelters should include spaces for couples and separation between beds and communal eating areas. Service providers must also consider Indigenous historical trauma, the report adds.

Creating the standards will make a difference for future shelters, said Susan McGee, CEO of Homeward Trust. 

“The awareness that folks for many years have been sleeping 18 inches apart on a two-inch mat was shocking to people,” she said.

“The standards right now that are in front of council go a long way to a reconciliation that that’s not acceptable.”

The mass congregate sleeping areas pose some of the biggest problems, Reiniger said. 

Boyle Street was one of the agencies that helped run the COVID-19 pandemic emergency shelter at the Edmonton Convention Centre last fall. 

“Large shelter spaces with massive populations are not conducive to our goal to ending chronic homelessness,” Reiniger said. “In fact, I would say they are prohibitive to that.” 

Last year, Boyle Street helped move and find private and semi-private spaces for 64 people who had been camping at Light Horse Park.   

Of those, 32 moved on to permanent housing within five months, and another 18 went into bridge housing, he said.

The city will look at ways to ensure the standards are met, by possibly creating a bylaw or insisting on the standards in a license or permits. 

Councillors are expected to discuss the options in further detail at a council meeting next week.

Mental health crisis

The shelter standards are one tool for governments to help ease the state of homelessness in Edmonton, said Coun. Aaron Paquette. But he is concerned about how they address the root causes of homelessness.

“Appropriate mental health care is going to solve this,” Paquette said. 

Most of the clients using Boyle Street services don’t have equal access to health services, which is under the purview of the provincial government, Reiniger said.

“It’s clear that there’s a mental health crisis on our streets,” he said.

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