Thursday, April 22, 2021

Portrait of a COVID response for the homeless

Edmonton's summer skyline - photo by Matthew Boonstra, Creative Commons

GUEST BLOG - Lilit Houlder is an urban planner working with a consulting firm in Edmonton, Canada. She is the most recent member of the SafeGrowth team and in this blog she describes her observations of the urban homeless in the middle of a global pandemic – a situation far too common across the developed world. 

Edmonton has the largest number of unsheltered homeless people living within a Canadian city - approximately 1,070 persons

While there are many support services, there are not enough beds or shelter spaces. This poses a problem for Edmonton, which is a place also known as a winter city. With temperatures dropping significantly below freezing during its long winter season, the city has an emergency plan

For temperatures below -30 Celsius, the city’s Sector Emergency Response program gets activated to provide free public transportation, essential services, security, and a place to sleep. The city encourages citizens to keep an eye out for anyone in distress during the extreme cold and contact the city response team. The program consists of 25 partner organizations that communicate with each other and share resources. Partnerships such as this strengthen the municipal capacity to address an intractable urban problem.

Rundle Park - one of many in Edmonton. Unsuitable for the homeless in a
sub-zero winter city - photo by Kmw2700, Creative Commons


The city mustered money with support from provincial and federal governments to purchase and repurpose underutilized hotels and to run 24/7 shelters. All necessary supports are given in one place, and people can socially distance themselves to avoid the spread of COVID. This is similar to British Columbia’s legislation last year to use motels for the homeless, as reported in Jon Munn’s blog

Purchasing and repurposing hotels is an initiative created by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities to adopt more non-profit housing for homeless Canadians. Edmonton purchases hotels that would otherwise operate at extremely low capacities and become a financial burden on the landowners. 


Some cities like Portland are creating temporary community support shelters, such as those reported by Tod Schneider. But with Edmonton’s much colder weather, another approach emerged that is showing up in cities across North America - repurposing civic facilities

The city turned the Shaw Conference Center into a 24/7 shelter that offered space for socializing, COVID testing, treating basic medical and mental health needs, and connecting to other support services. What made this venue different is that it was large enough to provide users space for self-isolation if showing symptoms of COVID. Smaller spaces, such as local churches or community halls or community support shelters would not have had sufficient space to accommodate this unique challenge. 

Shaw Conference Centre, Edmonton - photo WinterE200, Creative Commons


Although deployed across an entire city versus a single neighbourhood, each of the municipal strategies underway in Edmonton emphasize the power of 2nd Generation CPTED principles as a way to respond to municipal social problems. 

For example, connectivity tactics included linking to upper-level governments for resources and funding. Finding a civic space with enough capacity to house such a large population is, by definition, the very heart of the connectivity principle. It was the same for connections with the 25 organizations in the Sector Emergency Response program – they had the ability to bring food, health, financial support, clothing, and other resources to alleviate the suffering of people with no place to sleep. 

Another example - By educating people about the needs of the homeless during the coldest time of the year, citizens across the entire city participated in watching for vulnerable people during extreme weather. Social cohesion at such a large scale in Edmonton illustrates that, when integrated into part of urban culture, citizens who are organized to work together on a common purpose can go a long way to making life safer for the most vulnerable.