Edmonton’s homeless population has doubled since the pandemic, city says

Three thousand people are living on the streets of Edmonton, city officials say. That number has doubled since before the pandemic. City council has approved nearly $2 million in funding for one social agency, but officials say it won’t be enough.

On Tuesday, about a dozen people were huddled at the entrance to The Bissell Centre to stay out of the wind. Since last May, the centre has been offering shelter space and other services 15 hours a day, seven days a week.

“We connected with 5,200 unique individuals in that period,” said Gary St. Amand of the Bissell Centre. “That’s a lot of different folks coming through our doors.”

Since May, the centre has provided 98,000 meals, 13,000 showers, and 7,000 loads of laundry.

“It really means so much to people who are experiencing homelessness to be able to access those services.”

City council has approved $1.8 million from its COVID-19 relief funding to help keep the centre running, but staff say even with the money they’ll have to cut their hours.

“We need to be helping our most vulnerable any way that we possibly can,” said Erin Rutherford, Ward Anirniq councillor.

“It’s a challenge on the perceived and real safety front, it’s a challenge on our encampments, it’s a huge cost to the city, it’s a huge cost to health services you know with hospitalization and emergency visits.”

St. Anand says when clients can’t access the services they need, homeless encampments pop up.

“Encampments are really a by-product of the inability of systems to provide the appropriate supports to folks.”

A fence still surrounds the field that became known as Camp Pekiwewin in summer of 2020. Edmonton’s city manager is working on a strategy to stop tent cities from popping up. In 2021, the city used police and social workers.

“The city can only do so much, you know?” said Keren Teng, Ward Karhiio councillor. “$1.8 million out of a COVID funding, that’s not a sustainable source of funding.”

The city is hoping the province will step up, because housing and health are provincial jurisdictions. 

With files from CTV News Edmonton’s Jeremy Thompson.

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