Groundbreaking design offers a Way to House the Homeless
By Scot Morison | August 8, 2022
For Michael Janz, it’s simple.
“All of us are closer to becoming homeless than we are to becoming billionaires like Elon Musk. All of us need to recognize we are one workplace accident, one life tragedy, one unfortunate step away from precarious housing ourselves,” observes the first-term City Councillor for Edmonton Papastew. “So we need to build a city that is empathetic to our neighbours, no matter their circumstances.”
Ultimately, homelessness impacts all of us, points out Christel Kjenner, director of affordable housing and homelessness for the City. “It’s hard for Edmonton’s economy to thrive when not all residents are having their needs met. We hear from businesses downtown about lost investment opportunities, employees not feeling safe going to work, and other really negative externalities with people experiencing homelessness, and the depressive effects that has on the economy,” she says.
Estimates put Edmonton’s current homeless population at about 2,800. That number has roughly doubled since the arrival of COVID. It includes individuals living rough outdoors, staying in temporary and emergency shelters, and, to borrow a term the City uses, “provisionally accommodated.” That might be couch-surfing, staying with friends by casual agreement, or in some other living arrangement without the protections of a lease. Obviously, none of it is very secure.
Ending homelessness, and the constant threat of it which many face, through the provision of more affordable, supportive housing is a declared priority for elected officials like Edmonton Mayor Amarjeet Sohi, Michael Janz and his fellow councillors. Their words and policymaking are backed by the work of many dedicated staff and volunteers with the human services arm of City administration and organizations like Homeward Trust. “In addition to great roads, great schools and rec centres, I see supportive housing and supporting vulnerable people as part of the solution to being the city we want to be,” says Susan McGee, CEO of Homeward Trust, the not-for-profit that has been at the forefront of community efforts to address homelessness in Edmonton since 2008.
This summer, Homeward Trust, which already oversees apartment housing for 1,000 people in Edmonton, assumed ownership and administrative responsibility for new supportive housing in five neighborhoods around the city: Westmount, Inglewood, King Edward Park, Terrace Heights and Wellington/McArthur. Constructed at a cost of $79.8 million, with funding from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation ($35.1 million) through the Government of Canada’s Rapid Housing Initiative, the City’s affordable Housing Investment Program ($28.3 million) and the Province’s Municipal Stimulus Program ($16.4 million), the project will make 210 new units available to Edmontonians who might otherwise not find a place to call home. The buildings will be managed and operated by social agencies contracted by Homeward Trust, including at least one Indigenous-led organization.
All five buildings, which feature between 30 and 55 suites each, are modular. Units from the second floor up were built off-site, then trucked in and lifted into place this past spring with cranes. According to Ryan Christensen, senior project manager for Delnor Construction, the company in charge of the work, it is the first multi-residence modular project in Edmonton.
It was also finished very quickly — proceeding from finishing design to completion in just 16 months. “The term ‘fast-track construction’ gets thrown around a little too loosely, but I’ve done a lot of projects and this one really was,” says Christensen. “Traditionally, the City is good to work for, they’re just not fast. In this case, they showed real commitment to make this happen on time. And, really, the motivation for our whole team was that you’re providing housing for people who otherwise might not have it.”
Rent will be geared to residents’ incomes, scaling up as their means increase, but is intended to remain less than market, according to Homeward Trust’s McGee. “That’s an important part of what makes it viable for many individuals.”
Belinda, a young mom who has been living in a Homeward Trust apartment with her kids since last November, felt scrutinized and judged by neighbours in her previous, privately owned residence. She says it was as if they were just waiting for a misstep to report to her landlord. It’s very different now. “This is cultural-based housing, and with me culture is important and something I want my kids to grow up in. Here, we’re always around it, with like smudging all the time. In another kind of building, they would be questioning that.” She describes supportive housing like hers and these five new sites as “awesome” and adds, “I just hope that Homeward Trust can continue what they’re doing and maybe come up with more buildings like this to help other families.”
There is much to recommend about these new buildings. For Kjenner, it’s setting. “We’ve worked hard to ensure there is supportive housing in multiple parts of the city. They’re located near other residential, and they’re all really integrated into their neighbourhoods. They look great,” she says.
McGee is pleased by the amenities. “There is programming space and access to a common lounge where residents can build community.” One site features a commercial kitchen, but she’s hesitant to call it a teaching kitchen. “Many folks experiencing homelessness are much better chefs than I am, so I don’t presume anything in that space,” she says. But while it is not a common kitchen and residents won’t be storing their groceries there, she believes they might see it as an opportunity to bond. “They may buy food together and then divvy it up,” she says. “It just creates a space where within the building there can be a connection over food.”
Christensen appreciates the beating heart in work like this. “Sometimes you’ll build a really nice warehouse for some rich guy you’ve made richer by building him something he’s going to flip around or find a tenant for. With these types of projects, where you pulled harder when push comes to shove, when you get to open them, it means a lot more. It’s extremely rewarding,” he says.
“Projects like these offer hope, opportunity, a bridge to possibility,” says Janz. “Without a home, it’s really hard to make a life, to find dignity, to enter and continue in the world of work, to raise a family, to make friends and just to make good choices.”