EXPO Centre: A Place That Sheltered The Homeless Population

When the first cases were recorded in Edmonton in early March, snow was still on the ground. Soon after, restrictions were put on how many people could gather in a place at one time. The first restriction was 50, and then down to 15.

These restrictions had a huge impact on the homeless population. Estimated at around 3,000 people, with 600 people sleeping exposed to the elements, these individuals had nowhere to go. Albertans with homes were isolated inside. The streets of the city were eerily deserted, except for the people whose only home is the streets. 

“This was an eye opener for people in the city. They knew there were many people struggling. They see the number of people and want to have something happen, to have supports in place,” said Rae McEwan, The Mustard Seed’s Mosaic Centre supervisor. Overnight shelters had to reduce their capacity to meet Covid health guidelines. 

In an impressive display of inter-agency and inter-governmental co-operation, Homeward Trust Edmonton, The Mustard Seed, Bissell Centre, and Boyle Street Community Services banded together and presented options to the City of Edmonton and the Province of Alberta. The City mandated the use of the Edmonton EXPO Centre as a day-use drop-in centre and a health facility for members of the homeless community infected with the virus. Boyle McCauley Health Centre, George Spady Society, and Mint Pharmacy operated the Covid isolation unit. The provincial government and Right at Home Housing Society, a federal government program, funded the project.  

Jesika Lefebvre, interim program director with the Bissell Centre, said, “We were struggling to meet demand to make sure homeless people are safe. We have no medical expertise. On Friday, March 20 we got the call to close our centres. We closed [the Bissell Centre] Friday at 2 p.m. and opened at the EXPO Centre on Monday at 1 p.m.”

The EXPO  Centre had 11 quadrants, each of which could hold 50 people, with proper spacing of two metres between each person. The drop-in programs replaced other day-use programs normally available at the agencies. 

“This is a safe space for people to be able to isolate and distance and access physical, mental, and spiritual needs,” said Lefebvre.

A temporary overnight shelter opened up at the Kinsmen Field House. Normally home to a swimming pool and sports fitness facilities, the large space was useful for housing people while still providing adequate physical distancing needed to prevent transmission. Each day, buses shuttled people from the day-use centre at EXPO to the night-time shelter at the Kinsmen. Additional night shelters were added at Trinity Lutheran Church and Strathcona Baptist Church on the south side of the city. 

These restrictions had a huge impact on the homeless population. Estimated at around 3,000 people, with 600 people sleeping exposed to the elements, these individuals had nowhere to go. Albertans with homes were isolated inside. The streets of the city were eerily deserted, except for the people whose only home is the streets.

An 80 day bed centre allowed people to sleep during the day. According to McEwan, “People stay here to get out of the heat [or] the rain at night. Often their camps are destroyed, so they sleep during the day and are awake at night.” McEwan continued, “It’s a challenge to stay warm and dry. They’re jostled, hassled, and moved at night.”

The EXPO Centre had 80 staff and provided three hot meals a day. Alberta Health Services added and staffed medical stations to take care of the community.

The nurse on site was able to deliver prescriptions to the community. Wound care is important for homeless people. When people cannot get clean and rest, small injuries become worse and require medical intervention. 

A striking thing about the precariousness for people without homes is their access to health care. Alberta Health Care cards are made of paper. When people are sleeping rough, they get rained on and their health care cards dissolve. The only health care clinic in the city that will take people without a card is the Boyle McCauley Health Centre. Hospital emergency rooms will also take people without cards, but that adds considerable expense to the health care system. 

The pandemic exacerbated the existing drug crisis. McEwan said, “People are self-medicating because of mental health issues. Homeless people are normal people who have mental health challenges, or who have lost their jobs due to an accident. There is a lot of trauma to be focused on.” She continued, “There are not enough social workers and people are getting lost. We need more money for mental health.” 

Agency workers at the EXPO Centre saw two to three overdoses a day. The border closure with the United States had an unintended effect on the drug supply in Canada. McEwan said, “When the borders closed, the drugs are being made in Canada. They’re random drugs. One we’re seeing is Cotton Candy—people become unconscious and their heart stops within minutes.” 

Fentanyl and Carfentanyl continue to be an issue. This site practised a harm reduction model, which allowed staff to help people reduce their need for escape through drugs.

The most positive outcome of the Covid crisis was agencies working together under one roof, facilitating their ability to collaborate and better support people. 

Masoka Ekangyela was a frontline, street-level worker with The Mustard Seed. When her job shifted to the EXPO Centre, she helped more people find housing. “On various issues, we can get out of our silos.” In normal times, each agency worked independently, and a person referred to a different agency would have to walk or bus to a different agency, and might not be able to go there. 

The cost of busing is prohibitive for most people experiencing homelessness. The City of Edmonton gives agencies bus passes for their clients, but there are not enough passes for everyone. At the EXPO Centre, Ekangyela had the ability to walk with clients to see the next person who can help them.

Lefebvre said, “We have housed 500 people across agencies because of the unprecedented connections we have in one place.” 

Lefebvre explained the EXPO Centre offered services that they normally couldn’t, such as personal storage, day sleeping, and a medical clinic. “How do you keep people safe, reduce sharing, and keep people clean?” 

Other services offered included 10 showers (in pre-pandemic times, only two showers were available to homeless people in Edmonton), 10 washers and dryers (also in short supply), goods such as socks and underwear, feminine hygiene products, pet food, water, and snacks. 

The day-use side had daily medical screening of program participants. People entered and funnelled through one set of doors, where staff asked screening questions, such as: “Do you have a cough, a fever, do you feel unwell?” People without symptoms entered the day-use centre, and people with possible Covid symptoms went to the isolation side of the centre. There, staff tested symptomatic individuals, kept them in isolation, and gave them access to cots, showers, and medical assistance. In the four months the EXPO Centre operated, there was not a single case of Covid in the day-use side. 

The EXPO Centre closed on July 31. Services for homeless people remained at one-third of capacity throughout the agencies in order to address physical distancing guidelines.

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