The story, and the unfinished story, of Edmonton EXPO Centre in the pandemic

For Susan McGee, the calls to “self-isolate” or “shelter in place” to protect ourselves during the COVID-19 pandemic beg another question, which isn’t really a question.

“People need to have a home in order to isolate, right?” McGee said.

For McGee, the CEO of Homeward Trust, the observation is really an invitation to consider housing in a foundational way. 

“I really want to reinforce that housing is health, and housing, ultimately, is going to be the solution,” said McGee. 

Susan McGee, Homeward Trust

McGee was reflecting on three months of work at the Edmonton EXPO Centre. With the help of partner agencies and the City of Edmonton, Homeward Trust has led the transformation of a portion of the exhibition and trade-show facility into a temporary day drop-in centre serving approximately 675 Edmontonians a day during the pandemic.

Still vivid in McGee’s memory is what life was like in March 2020 as COVID-19 closed doors and the EXPO Centre opened its.

“We saw public spaces closed and then we saw semi-private public spaces, too, shopping centres closed, libraries—areas that became inaccessible to community members who have absolutely nowhere else to go during the day,” said McGee.

“We all have had some of those experiences where our lives had to adapt to change because things closed. But none of it in terms of  ‘I can’t eat today’ and ‘I have nowhere to go.'”

And nowhere to stay safe against the threat of COVID.

Edmonton cares

The EXPO Centre was repurposed to serve those community members. 

Since March 23, 2020, the Edmonton EXPO Centre has been a living, 500,000-square-foot example of how Edmonton cares. There are two parts to the EXPO Centre. The day drop-in centre, and, separated by a long hallway, an isolation shelter led by Alberta Health Services and Boyle McCauley Health Centre, that delivers medical care to people showing symptoms.

The day drop-in has seen up to 860 people a day, while the isolation shelter has accommodated up to 80 people. 

“Nowhere else could we accommodate the number of services or the number of people without this square footage,” said McGee. 

Louise Traynor, Bissell Centre

People

McGee’s word—people—is a word Louise Traynor wants Edmontonians to not gloss over when thinking about the pandemic-era work of the EXPO Centre. 

Traynor is the Chief Operations Officer at Bissell Centre, an agency that helps lead EXPO’s day drop-in centre. Open from 7:30 am to 8:00 pm, the drop-in centre provides a safe space for those not showing COVID symptoms to get food, use washrooms and showers, sleep, socialize, do laundry, be tested for the virus, just be, store gear, get spiritual guidance, get temperatures taken, get first aid, and get connected to support services, including jobs, housing and financial services.

Many social agencies closed or curtailed their services after public health guidelines were put in place.

Day drop-in centre, EXPO Centre, Edmonton

For Traynor, the people who need the EXPO Centre are essentially no different than the people in Edmonton who don’t need the EXPO Centre. 

Traynor framed it as a community health expert, and kind of like a parent.

“Citizens who find themselves in a different circumstance for whatever reason require a different response in the same way that, let’s say, my children require different supports when it comes to doing school at home,” Traynor said. 

“One of them needs a computer, one of them needs moment-to-moment attention and one of them might need, well, we won’t go there,” she smiled. 

Traynor’s point is that everyone in a community under siege from COVID-19 required support. 

“Some folks with a safe place to shelter require emotional support or they require groceries to be delivered or anything else,” Traynor said. “Other folks, like the folks who access EXPO, who don’t have a safe place to shelter, require shelter and maybe some medical support and some food.” 

Or clean clothes, which Bissell along with colleagues at Boyle Street Community Services, helped raise money to buy.

“It’s not that those responses are less valuable than any other response our city is offering,” Traynor said. It’s just different because they’re in a different situation.” 

Day drop-in centre, EXPO Centre

Connected with housing

EXPO has helped change some of those situations for the better. 

Between March 23, 2020, and May 15, 2020, about 475 people served by EXPO Centre were connected with housing.

“So, that means they left EXPO and they went to a place they could call their home,” Traynor said. “It’s amazing.” 

“Ultimately, the best response to keep people safe during this crisis is for them to be housed in their own homes.”  

Cecilia Blasetti, Boyle McCauley Health Centre

Safe during this crisis

Cecilia Blasetti uses the word crisis to hit her point home. 

Blasetti is the executive director of the Boyle McCauley Health Centre, the agency, guided by Alberta Health Services, that provides health care in EXPO Centre’s isolation area. 

Blasetti’s lesson isn’t that the pandemic hasn’t visited a degree of crisis on everybody in society. It has, she said. It has delivered to most everyone at some time fundamental thoughts about mortality and survival and getting by. The difference is that the people served by Boyle McCauley are rarely not in crisis. 

“They have very little opportunity for a period of stability, a period where they’re not in crisis, where they’re not just surviving,” said Blasetti. “So, for people who are continually in crisis and disarray, EXPO is a place where they can have all kinds of health problems addressed, to be treated and recover, but also a place where they can take a breath.”

Blasetti said health care for people in constant crisis takes a wider perspective.

“EXPO is just one more opportunity to provide care but not in that kind of narrow, just seeing the person as a potential COVID-19 case, but as a person who has all kinds of needs.”

EXPO Centre treatment room

People in the isolation shelter are assessed and have access to a physician or a nurse practitioner for their health care concerns. 

“Individually, it provides people with an opportunity to have access to health care like you and I would want to have,” said Blasetti. 

At the isolation shelter, individuals are assessed, and, depending on their symptoms, are sent for care to different areas of the shelter.

“But we also work really hard to keep them connected with any other services that they need,” said Blasetti. “So housing [support] is coming in, social workers, mental health workers. So they’re healthier and in a better place than when they arrived.” 

Connected to housing

Blasetti said one person with severe mental illness, and who had recently dropped out of sight, reconnected with his mental health worker, got back on proper medication, stabilized and got connected to housing. 

“It was a happy reunion between him and his mental health worker,” Blasetti said. 

Blasetti’s team delivers health care at the EXPO Centre, and honesty, too. The truth is that patients stay there voluntarily. 

“So, if we’re going to attract people and keep them here once they arrive with COVID-19 symptoms, they have to feel like people care. They have to feel that they’re not scared, not worried, just safe.” 

EXPO Centre floor plan

Just safe

Jordan Reiniger says there is organization behind that feeling of “just safe.” 

“I think the thing that has worked really well at EXPO is that everybody is coming to the table with the needs of the folks we’re serving at the centre,” said Reiniger, who is the executive director at Boyle Street Community Services. 

Boyle Street Community Services provides nurses in EXPO’s isolation area and its workers are the first friendly faces seen by people who check into the day drop in centre. 

That coming together of big bureaucracies—Alberta Health Services, Edmonton Police Service, City of Edmonton—and smaller not-for-profit and community agencies was the key to success, said Reiniger. 

“No doubt there have been challenges,” Reiniger said. “But given all the things that were happening, how quickly they were happening, what we set up was really quite remarkable. And, looking back, it absolutely achieved what we were hoping it would.” 

Success

Reiniger pointed to three main proofs of success.

First: the public health situation held steady.

“The fact that we have really not seen any cases in the community we serve that I’m aware of, actual positive COVID cases, to me says it was a success. That’s partly due to the way we were able to respond so quickly. People who had symptoms had a place to go where they could self-isolate.”

Second: people could access a place to feel safe, get better and get a meal. 

“A lot of the food services that they would have access to and locations they counted on for their survival and shelter were closed down. We were able to create a space for people to come, to get access to those really basic needs, especially in the beginning when it was still miserably cold.”

Third: people were not just sheltered temporarily. Some found housing. 

“As time went on we asked, how do we encourage people to go from here into housing? How do we use this situation to connect people to service that they maybe hadn’t connected with before? And so there’s been some great success around that, as well. Even housing people right out of EXPO.” 

Missing people found

As well, thanks to the Boyle Street Community Services database at the EXPO Centre, nine or 10 people officially listed as missing with RCMP were officially located and reunited with family, said Reiniger. 

Reiniger said it’s important to not get backward the mission of the EXPO Centre, and not equate homelessness with dangerousness. 

“People might think EXPO is there so we can have people shelter in place so that they’re not a risk to others,” Reiniger said. “The reality is EXPO is there to shelter our folks from everybody else. We want them to have a safe place to go. Our goal and the goal of EXPO was to protect people from contracting COVID.”

Judith Rohovie, City of Edmonton

The reality

EXPO has been Judith Rohovie’s reality since opening day. Rohovie works for the City of Edmonton. 

During COVID-19, Rohovie has been running EXPO’s facility command post, a nerve centre that integrates the work of the agencies, monitors and applies public health guidelines to centre operations, expands space and services as required, oversees the transport of people to and from the centre and, basically, keeps people inside safe. 

City of Edmonton command post, EXPO Centre

Rohovie said lives have been preserved. 

“We have prevented the spread of COVID-19. We have provided services and shelter and food,” Rohovie said.  “I think if we haven’t saved lives, then we have certainly preserved lives.” 

Edmonton Transit Service has operated a charter to bring people to and from EXPO Centre

Rohovie said among the lives that have been changed was hers.

“Personally, I hadn’t had a lot of contact with the community that sees homelessness as a daily occurrence,” Rohovie said. “I have gained enormous understanding and compassion for individuals who live every day with homelessness. Through a trauma lens, I have really seen things differently, a way that wasn’t familiar to me.” 

EXPO Centre

The familiar

Homeward Trust’s McGee makes a point about the familiar. 

“Our society is desperately trying to get back to some sense of the familiar, some sense of what normal was before the pandemic,” McGee said. “But for the people who have been served at the EXPO Centre, going back to their ‘normal’ is not something we want.’ 

The new normal can’t be the old normal, McGee said.

“We don’t want them to go back to whatever that normal was. We want them to go back to housing.” 

A renewed commitment to that newer normal must be the take-home lesson from the work of the EXPO Centre during the spring and summer of 2020 in Edmonton, McGee said. 

Design of COVID-19 roadside board message

Editor’s note: To learn more about the EXPO Centre, watch Homeless Amid COVID, Episode 1. The video was produced by our partners Homeward Trust, Bissell Centre and Boyle Street Community Services.

This is #YEGCares week at the City of Edmonton and here on the Transforming Edmonton blog. Thanks for reading.