Community demands clarity as province considers turning old school into homeless isolation space
EDMONTON -- The province is considering turning a former junior high school in Edmonton’s Beverly Heights neighbourhood into an isolation space for homeless people awaiting COVID-19 test results.
The search for such a space has been on for weeks, with Edmonton’s EXPO Centre and Kinsmen Sports Centre no longer serving as temporary homeless shelters as of Aug. 1, and the EXPO’s isolation space set to close Aug. 14.
An anonymous letter recently sent to residents in the Beverly Heights area told them Lawton School, shuttered in 2017, was being looked at as a replacement option, and encouraged concerns to be directed at the ministry of community and social services.
It reads in part: “Our community has not been notified because the Ministry has proposed the site as a temporary rental, and under the temporary status there is no community engagement required. The Ministry has also not shared any project timelines or details with our community league or local MLA, Deron Bilous.
“There is a possibility that Lawton is already the finalized location and that the project is set to open in the near future.”
A government spokesperson confirmed to CTV News Edmonton on Friday that it was looking at the possibility of using Lawton School.
However, they emphasized the site would not be used as a temporary shelter for people experiencing homelessness – only as an isolation space for those with symptoms.
Alberta Health Services would arrange for their commute to and from whichever site the government ended up choosing.
Chris Keeler of the Beverly Heights Community League said the letter prompted a hot debate.
“We are a very empathetic community and understand there’s some strong social needs,” he explained.
But, he added, “If you’re converting a school in the middle of a neighbourhood to a homeless shelter, people are going to have some concerns. They want to know what’s going on.”
He insisted the community concern wasn’t an “NIMBY thing” – a “not in my backyard” response – although that was exactly how it was seen by some others.
“It was obvious what the intent of the letter was, but it was said in a way where it didn’t say explicitly what it wanted to say,” Beverly Heights resident Jeffrey Hansen commented.
“The person that wrote the letter didn’t even put their name on it, you know? I’m Jeffrey. I live over there on Ada Boulevard, and I’d welcome this in my neighbourhood.”
He believes an isolation space would be a great use of the school building no longer in operation.
“The attitude of the community should be, ‘OK, we get it’s hard times, it’s complicated. Nothing is going to be perfect. How can we help?’ Not – ‘How do we complain about this?”
According to Edmonton Public Schools, when it closed Lawton three years ago, it would promised the community would be consulted before the building was repurposed. The division says it knows of no formal decision by the Alberta government.
“We have asked the government to engage with the community before any formal decision about the use of the building is made,” a statement from the district reads, adding the division is supportive of the efforts to care for vulnerable people in the pandemic.
The isolation space at EXPO closes in one week.
“It doesn’t allow much time for an input,” Keeler said. He has questions about how the centre would operate, and what challenges the ministry expects to face.
“If we really understood what the government or AHS is looking at doing, then we could address some of those concerns.”
The government recently committed $48 million, on top of $25 million in March, to help Alberta’s most vulnerable population through the pandemic.
With files from CTV News Edmonton’s Jeremy Thompson