EDMONTON — The Alberta government says it will boost spending to help those experiencing homelessness, a population that has surged during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Premier Jason Kenney announced $21.5 million Wednesday to address homelessness and domestic violence, as well as for isolation spaces for vulnerable people infected with the virus.
About $13 million of the money is to aid 14 shelters to expand space and provide meals, showers, laundry services, and access to addictions and mental-health services.
Another $6.5 million is to help open about 285 isolation spaces in 10 communities, and $2 million is to support emergency women's shelters.
Edmonton Mayor Amarjeet Sohi said the funding comes at a crucial time. The city's unhoused population has doubled during the pandemic and not enough shelter spaces are available.
"If you look out today, you know how critical it is that every Edmontonian should have a warm place to rest," said Sohi, referring to heavy snow and cold temperatures that hit the city earlier in the week.
"Today, and moving forward into this winter, many Edmontonians who would otherwise be sleeping on the streets or in the back alleys or in the river valley now would have a warm place to go."
Kenney said all levels of government and the non-profit sector had made progress in recent years to address homelessness in Edmonton, but the COVID-19 pandemic “turned that on its head.”
Sohi met with Kenney at the start of November shortly after Sohi was elected mayor.
At that meeting, he said, Edmonton was short 350 of the 1,200 shelter beds needed, and he requested the province make funding available to open Commonwealth Stadium, home of the Canadian Football League Edmonton Elks, to provide a temporary shelter for the homeless this winter.
Both needs are to be addressed with the allocated money.
There are about 2,800 people in the Alberta capital experiencing homelessness — double the number it was in 2019, said the organization Affordable Housing and Homelessness in Edmonton.
Kenney said all of Alberta has seen a rise in unhoused individuals. The provincial funding announced Wednesday is to be in place until March to address the acute need for shelter not only in Edmonton, but in cities including Calgary, Lethbridge, Red Deer, and Wetaskiwin.
Long-term solutions need to be explored, Kenney added.
“These issues are complex because they are related often to addiction and mental-health challenges, sometimes to social disorder and where law enforcement comes in,” he said. “We need to put all of that together as we develop a more comprehensive strategy.”
That's why the province also announced a new committee to address homelessness. It is to include social agencies and service providers, law enforcement, and other stakeholders.
"The task force will start by looking at Edmonton to develop an action plan and a model that can be adapted to local demands and available resources in other communities," said Kenney.
"The measure of any society is how we treat our most vulnerable."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 17, 2021.
— By Alanna Smith in Calgary. With files from Bill Graveland
The Canadian Press