Community advocates calling on City of Edmonton to keep LRT stations open overnight for vulnerable residents during extreme cold snap

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Community groups supporting Edmonton’s most vulnerable are calling on the city to extend hours at LRT stations and not remove residents during the extreme cold snap.

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As part of the city’s extreme weather response activated Dec. 14, residents can access transportation to shelters throughout the night from transit hubs. But with the prolonged cold snap and some shelters reaching capacity, advocates are calling on the city to do whatever it takes to keep residents as warm as possible, including allowing them to spend the night in LRT stations.

Boots on Ground co-founder Alyssa Miller said even though the city is offering transportation, some Edmontonians don’t feel safe in shelters and don’t feel their needs are met. She said the best response would be to support residents wherever they are trying to get a reprieve from the extreme cold that has hunkered down on Edmonton.

“I don’t think anybody is coping well, they’re just coping the best they can. But it is absolutely gut-wrenching to see folks experiencing cold weather-related injuries such as extreme frostbite, hypothermia and the ongoing challenges in our city with ensuring people that are unhoused have a safe place to be during extreme cold temperatures,” she said in an interview with Postmedia.

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The city adjusted its extreme weather protocol after the 2018-19 winter to no longer keep transit stations open overnight. Central LRT Station was used as an overnight warming location for several winters for residents looking for a break from the cold, but the city says it wasn’t an ideal location for warmth. Instead, the city has worked with The Mustard Seed to convert Commonwealth Stadium into a temporary 24-7 shelter through March and there have been several other shelters opened throughout the city with funding from the province.

But Miller said access to LRT stations overnight was ideal as it provided no-barrier access and there weren’t any capacity issues as some shelters are experiencing during the cold snap. She’s hopeful that all three levels of government can work toward a longer-term solution before next winter, including bridge housing, to break the annual cycle. Last winter, the city and the Edmonton Police Service were under fire for removing residents and a support group from Central LRT station during a cold snap.

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“I just don’t understand why the LRT stations were activated historically in past years as emergency warming locations overnight and they are not being used as such right now,” she said. “It seems to me that a far better solution is to allow folks to use stations for safety and warmth. Why not?”

Five supportive housing developments that will provide more than 210 units were initially supposed to open at the beginning of this year but the timelines have shifted to the spring. There are more than 2,900 people currently experiencing homelessness in Edmonton, doubling since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Responding to the removal of residents from stations, Mayor Amarjeet Sohi’s office said he wants to ensure Edmontonians are treated with respect and assisted in finding a safe place to go overnight, but he doesn’t think LRT stations are the right solution.

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“(Mayor Sohi) doesn’t want to see LRT stations used as a shelter space because they’re still quite cold in extreme weather,” Sohi’s communications manager Lindsay Harvey said in a response to Postmedia. “He wants to see each Edmontonian provided access to a warm and safe space because it is a basic human right and he will work with our provincial and federal governments to find long-term housing solutions.”

Harvey also noted the mayor’s office is reaching out to advocacy groups like Bear Clan Patrol to work with them during the winter to help every Edmontonian find a safe space to keep warm.

According to data from Homeward Trust, the shelter system is currently at about 96 per cent occupancy with some still with room each night. The Commonwealth Stadium shelter had 35 empty beds overnight into Wednesday. Capacity at the shelter has been expanded to 200 in response to the extreme weather, but it is set to drop back down to 150 when the cold snap ends.

Social service agencies such as Boyle Street, Bissell Centre and The Mustard Seed are in need of monetary and clothing donations in order to support residents in need.

As of late Wednesday night, the University of Alberta hospital emergency department has treated 15 patients presenting signs of frostbite since Jan. 1, AHS said in a statement to Postmedia.

Edmonton’s extreme weather response remains in effect and there will be three days notice before its termination.

duscook@postmedia.com

twitter.com/dustin_cook3

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