Edmonton’s shelter goals pricey but worth it, city managers say

Convincing people experiencing homelessness to stay in a shelter instead of an encampment may be easier said than done and Edmonton city staff admit it may be a long and expensive road to reach that goal.

The City of Edmonton has new minimum standards for shelters within its municipal boundaries, outlined in a report passed by city council this past summer. 

Christel Kjenner, the city’s director of housing and homelessness, presented the report to the Edmonton Police Commission at a meeting Thursday. 

Police will be part of developing the new system along with city officials, social agencies and the province. 

Kjenner touched on current conditions at most shelters, ranging from problems with safety, security, hygiene and sleeping arrangements.  

Commissioner Jodi Calahoo-Stonehouse questioned Kjenner on how women can be protected better by providing separate sleeping quarters. 

“They don’t want to sleep in the spaces because the men are perpetrating and often we’re seeing the same with our queer individuals,” Calahoo-Stonehouse said. “They’re vulnerable and at risk.” 

Kjenner said there are recommendations to improve sleeping arrangements — the report includes semi-private quarters and areas for couples, and beds off the ground. 

“For sure there’s more work to do with respect to spaces for women specifically,” Kjenner said. 

Jackie Foord, branch manager for social development, said improving shelters is going to be pricey but will be worth it in the long run. 

“If these standards were operational today, I think we would see people housed sooner and we would have less and less need for the number of shelter beds,” Foord said. 

Kjenner echoed Foord’s comments.

“Keeping people homeless is very expensive,” she said. “It’s just that the costs are being externalized for the community and to other systems, whether that’s the emergency rooms or the police.” 

There are no dollar figures included in the report — Foord noted that the province will eventually have to decide how much it wants to invest in the new system. 

New standards

Kjenner said the ideal staff to guest ratio is one to eight, whereas currently there’s usually one staff member for every 20 clients. 

The new standard would be a 24/7 model across the board. 

Shelters should have at least one washroom for all genders, including women and LGBTQ2S people; post signs saying ‘this is a safe space,’ and clearly outline the rules of conduct, Kjenner said. 

There’s also a call for Indigenous-led shelter operators that can promote a sense of safety and provide cultural activities would help entice people to engage more, she added. 

Bylaw to uphold 

The set of standards are enshrined in a bylaw, in that, the city will have the authority to compel agencies to follow the standards or shut them down if they don’t. 

Kjenner said she’s optimistic about the city will figure out how to insist on the standards without having to close any down. 

Police Chief Dale McFee said he thinks the city, police and province can work together to change the system from the ground up. 

Wednesday, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney announced he’s setting up a provincial task force, with people from social agencies, academics and law enforcement, to develop an action plan on homelessness.

McFee welcomed the move. 

“What we’re seeing here is different governments coming together to say ‘let’s actually look at long-term and how we fix this,” McFee said Thursday. “That’s a pretty lofty goal, if failure is what we have [now] then any improvements are better.” 

@natashariebe

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