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Rethinking Homeless Shelters

Rethinking Homeless Shelters

Posted by: Mark Holmgren / December 01, 2018

There has been a lot of press lately about homeless people camping in the river valley. You can read a few articles here and here.

The City of Edmonton is undertaking a study on alternative ways to provide interim housing to the homeless that would serve as an alternative to camping rough and lessen the effects of camps of homeless people on area residents. That study is scheduled to be completed in March of 2019.

Shelters in McCauley
We understand from our many conversations with McCauley residents that having large shelters in their neighbourhood is one more burden on the community, given that McCauley is also home to many social service agencies that serve homeless people and subject to an array of impacts, such as used needles strewn  in parks and yards, people urinating and defecating in alleys and doorways and vestibules, and frequently sleeping in doorways or behind garages. There are other effects as well, but you get the gist.

Hope Mission’s intention to knock down the old Herb Jaimeson Center and build a new 400 bed shelter is not sitting well with area residents. Many feel that this would be the time to locate a shelter elsewhere and in the process decrease the number of shelter beds in their neighbourhood. It’s facile to accuse these residents of NIMBYism, given that their “backyard” is full already of social housing and shelters.

Addressing Neighbourhood Pain
As a former McCauley resident and the former CEO of Bissell Centre, I understand these concerns of residents. I also had to pick up needles in my front yard and clean up the occasional excrement in the back lane. My neighbour put spikes into his fencing to stop the frequent thefts he experienced when homeless people scaled his fence to steal from him. I don’t condone what he did, but it speaks of a family desperate to cope with the impacts of homeless they are experiencing.

Support Services Needed in Other Neighbourhoods
While Bissell Centre regularly cleans its property of needles and waste, it is true that the agency and others like it, Boyle Street, Boyle McCauley Health Centre, Mustard Seed, etc. provide an array of services to homeless people. While the numbers of those without a home are rising in other areas of town, it is true that these agencies and the good work they do to help the homeless are a major reason why there are so many homeless people in the neighbourhood.

Another reason why shelters are perceived to be a major problem by local residents is because each morning those staying there are forced to leave. That means that hundreds upon hundreds of homeless folks are sent out into the neighbourhood, and given that they likely will want to return to the shelter later, they stay in the neighbourhood, attend drop in centres, line up for meals and clothing, visit a nurse for foot care, or seek counseling.

Some McCauley residents want these agencies to move out of the inner city or at least commit to not expanding current services into the area. They want to see a more distributed approach to addressing the plight of homeless people. It’s a reasonable reaction, though it is doubtful these agencies will pick up and move elsewhere, but some, not all, are committing to not launching new services that would be housed in their current facilities.

Those who know anything about me are aware my longstanding commitment to housing the homeless and I believe the agencies mentioned above provide needed services, but the issue for the neighbourhood is the density of such services and the continued addition of new services that add to the reasons why homeless people frequent the inner city.

I think it is just plain wrong that people in our city are homeless. It makes me sad and it makes me mad that in a prosperous city, there are people who do not have the means to have a residence. That said, while shelters are necessary, they are not an answer to homelessness. Housing in its various forms is the answer,  and I am heartened to see the City of Edmonton making housing the homeless a priority in the years to come and to see more affordable housing being built by Capital Region Housing, Right at Home, and others. The Edmonton CDC’s ArtsCommon 118 project includes in its design 78 units of affordable housing for low income artists.

In the meantime, what should we be doing about shelters and locating so many in a condensed area of town?

Tiny Homes
One example of alternatives to shelters that we should consider isHomes for Heroes, which focuses on providing tiny homes/modular housing in a community setting. This is happening in Calgary through the Homes for Heroes Foundation in partnership with Mustard Seed who will provide services that help homeless veterans transition back into community life.

While Homes for Heroes is focused on homeless veterans, there are other similar projects aimed at the homeless in other communities like Second Wind Cottages in New York. There are other development in the US as well as captured in the image below:

See Charter for Compassion’s website for more information about these kinds of projects in the United States.

Creating Community
While Tiny Homes are only one option, they have much more to offer than a shelter. Not only are they providing an alternative to shelters, they are designed to foster a community of residents who are given the chance to engage with one another, take on responsibilities for their “community” and move forward in their lives. Shelters do nothing to facilitate community life.

Yurts for the Homeless
In Hawaii, folks are exploring Yurts for the Homeless. I realize that part of the world is not challenged by winter like we are; however, yurts do exist in cold climes and can be built as a cross between a tent and a building, as well as permanent structures. In the example below  a variation of the yurt is being built for refugees, but with adaptations, they could be worth consideration in our community.

Another example of a Yurt:

These alternatives would provide shelter (or perhaps even transitional if not permanent housing) for fewer people than a 400 bed shelter, but smaller shelter projects could be dispersed throughout the city and because they are moveable, they could be located on surplus land and then relocated if and when that land is ready to be developed.

Modular Units
Other options being discussed is to adapt modular workforce housing developed by businesses like Horizons North and deploy them as shelters or even housing on surplus land. I believe ATCO is involved with the Homes for Heroes project in a similar way. We have local builders capable of constructing modular shelters and housing like ACQBuilt, AltaFab, and Habitat for Humanity.

Building on City Land
There are other possibilities for erecting structures that can be moved later on and I am sure more could be identified if we put our minds to it. In Vancouver, the city has committed to building 1,000 units of affordable housing on city land. So is Seattle as touched on in the short video below:

Edmonton CDC Land
The Edmonton CDC has received 10 significant parcels of land from the city for us to develop housing and other structures on that community members want. We envision building affordable housing on many, if not most of these parcels. And we are open to discussions about locating moveable shelters on parcels we will not be developing for two to three years.

A key strategic question for the city is: should it allocate more city land at no cost to non profit developers, and perhaps for-profit as well, in order to expedite the development of more affordable housing?

This is about more than economics
I realize there are challenges involved in bringing power and water and bathroom facilities to these alternative shelters, and there are services to be incorporated into the various sites that would hold such structures. Whether or not these alternatives cost more than building a 400 bed shelter is a question to answer, though I would argue that one has to consider the costs of river bank cleanups, the impacts on neighbouring residents, not to mention that warehousing homeless people on mats should not be a priority. It is inhumane, not to mention dangerous to those in shelters who experience bullying, beatings, theft of their belongings, and incidences of sexual abuse.

Targeting the Varied Needs and Circumstances of the Homeless
One more reason to consider smaller alternative shelters is that it might be possible to target specific needs and circumstances. Homeless people are not a homogenous group. Some have chronic substance abuse issues; others suffer from mental illness; and other are newly homeless and higher functioning. And then we have cultural and demographic differences. Given that the majority of homeless people are Indigenous, shouldn’t we work with that community to craft solutions that work for them?

One-size fits all shelters don’t always fit the need
Shelters tend to be a one size fits all solution for a diverse population of homeless people. Maybe it’s time to be more thoughtful and caring about how we create pathways out of homelessness, beginning with shelters designed to address the various situations the homeless face. We need more places for women, especially those fleeing violence, and likely for youth, and women in general, but shouldn’t we also consider different models for sheltering such populations?

Rethinking Current Practice
Shouldn’t one fundamental purpose of a shelter to be a temporary stop on the way to having a home? Should we rethink shelter design that would allow a person to transition from needing shelter to having a home without having to move? That kind of thinking would necessarily lead to envisioning shelters that do not rely on mats to fulfill their purpose.

Cross-Sector Partnerships
Partnerships will be key across all sectors and this has been the case in all of the examples I have mentioned above. It’s a community problem and it will take the community to make things better. But the City of Edmonton has to be at the forefront and then work with others to co-create solutions.

Incentivising Development
In some communities, municipalities are forgiving or reducing property taxes to incentivise affordable housing projects. Some municipalities are forgiving development fees or providing grants to cover these and other pre-development costs. See this article for more information.

Addressing Complexity
Homeless is a complex community problem. Some say the solutions to complex problems must also be complex, but sometimes the way to begin tackling complexity is with some straightforward approaches that begin with deconstructing current complex approaches with better ways of getting to where we want to be, which simply stated is, to end homelessness in our community.

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