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No room in St. Albert for people without homes

St. Albert Food Bank and Community Village executive director Suzan Krecsy said it is a “disappointment” St. Albertans who don't have homes are not being given a local option to stay in.
The Mustard Seed was in talks with St. Albert and the provincial government early on in the pandemic about opening a temporary shelter in St. Albert, but no funds were granted. The agency has expanded capacity of its Whyte Avenue shelter in Edmonton from 40 people to 180 by moving it to the Kinsmen Sports Centre. HANNAH LAWSON/St. Albert Gazette

St. Albertans without homes looking for shelter in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic are being bused to temporary shelters set up in Edmonton, advocates say.

In the pandemic’s infancy, plans were in the works for setting up a small shelter in St. Albert, Mustard Seed executive director Dean Kurpjuweit confirmed, but no funding was provided by the Alberta government.

“We had talked to the city about it (and) we had talked to the province about it, and it just came to the province's priorities around shelter funding and where they wanted to focus that,” he said. “At this point, it was decided that St. Albert wasn't a place they wanted to focus that funding.”

Last month, Alberta announced $60 million in funding to support vulnerable populations, including $25 million for homeless shelters and another $5 million for women’s shelters. The Mustard Seed has moved its Whyte Avenue shelter to the Kinsmen Sports Centre, expanding its capacity from 40 people to 180.

Kurpjuweit said the temporary shelter has been at capacity every night for the past three weeks.

In addition, the Edmonton Expo Centre has been transformed into a temporary shelter for people who don't have homes and who are exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19, along with a day drop-in for healthy people. An Alberta government press release on Sunday said 14 new shelters have been opened across the province.

St. Albert Food Bank and Community Village executive director Suzan Krecsy said any St. Albertans seeking shelter during the COVID-19 pandemic would be given personal protective equipment and a bus ticket off to centralized locations in Edmonton.

She added it is a “disappointment” St. Albertans who don't have homes are not being given a local option to stay in, and she would love to keep folks in their own community.

Krecsy said to date no one has accepted a bus ticket to Edmonton shelters from the Community Village.

“Once the pandemic hit, they just hunkered down. Maybe not in the best places, but they hunkered down,” she said.

“I think they're scared; I mean if you wouldn't have a roof over your head and you can't practice the hygiene that everybody is promoting all the time, it gets scary.”

According to Kurpjuweit, conversations behind the scene involved how to keep homeless populations in smaller groups, to discourage spread of COVID-19, and whether plans should be in place should the city see an increase in homelessness as a result of COVID-19 job losses.

"If the funding was there to do it, we would have done it, but it wasn't and so we carry on."

City response

After the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, the City of St. Albert began working to determine what supports the city could provide to its most vulnerable and homeless populations.

The Gazette has frequently checked in on the city’s work on assisting vulnerable people. In an April 7 response, a city communications official said St. Albert Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) is in regular contact with community partners to ensure they are aware of new programs and funding available from higher levels of government.

That has included assisting the Food Bank with staffing, distribution and cleaning, along with ensuring people experiencing homelessness have transportation to regional centres and access to counselling.

“More actions will be coming forward and announced in the coming weeks,” communications adviser Florence Ma wrote.

On April 23, St. Albert corporate communications and design manager Cory Sinclair confirmed in an email the city was contemplating opening a temporary shelter in St. Albert as part of its response out of the EOC.

“The Province has a wide variety of important programs, services and supports for residents experiencing homelessness. The City did not proceed and has no plans to do so at this time,” he said, on opening a temporary shelter.

COVID magnifies recurring issue

The COVID-19 pandemic has put a lens on the fact that there are very little supports in St. Albert for people who do not have a roof over their head.

While St. Albert set up a temporary shelter for those fleeing extreme cold in January, there is no permanent space for people to stay in. In addition, there is no service like 211 in Edmonton, which provides on-demand community and social support.

It is both a blessing and a curse to have a major centre like Edmonton so close, as St. Albertans can rely on extensive services available so nearby. But it also means it is more difficult to get funding for local services, as evidenced by Alberta denying funding for a temporary shelter to house people in St. Albert during the pandemic.

“You don't hear people from St. Albert saying they're an Edmontonian very often, and that's true of our homeless population as well. They feel St. Albert is their home, and we have a responsibility to look after our own citizens,” Kurpjuweit said.

One day back in November, as Kurpjuweit was driving along St. Albert Trail, he noticed a woman by the side of the road who “clearly needed help.” He did not know who to call, or where to potentially bring her.

“And if I don't know who to call, somebody else who isn't in this world 24-7 certainly doesn't know what to do, and that’s a concern to me,” he said.

Krecsy noted the Community Village is still operating every day from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., with strict Alberta Health Services protocol in place. Social worker services are available, along with meals, showers and laundry services.

Anyone wishing to support the Mustard Seed’s COVID-19 response can donate here.

Donations for the St. Albert Food Bank Community Village can be made here.

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