EDMONTON — The Alberta government has announced more than $124 million over two years for addiction and mental health services in Edmonton and Calgary, with another $63 million aimed at reducing homelessness in the province over the same period.
The funding for Edmonton and Calgary will go toward increasing treatment spaces while expanding addiction services, with $70 million earmarked for capital spending and $54 million to assist operations.
A 75-bed, co-ed long-term treatment facility is planned to be operational in Edmonton by the end of 2023, while a similar facility is to be built in Calgary by early 2024.
The $63 million is to support steps outlined in the government’s action plan on homelessness.
Premier Jason Kenney stressed his government's recovery-based approach to the addictions issue when he announced the funding Saturday, calling British Columbia's recent move to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of hard drugs in January "reckless."
"In the area of addressing addictions, there are many that believe recovery is a false hope. It's not possible, and instead what we should do is actually to facilitate dangerous addictions rather than to offer an off-ramp to freedom from addiction," Kenney said during the announcement at Edmonton's Herb Jamieson Centre.
"The whole point is to give people a fighting chance to escape from the grips of addiction so they have the opportunity to build a new, safe fulfilling life.
"Recovery works. It's not a new concept or an untested Utopian theory," he said.
Under the Alberta plan, the number of winter shelter spaces will be expanded in communities like Edmonton, Wetaskiwin and Lethbridge, and in rural communities where there is an urgent and unmet need.
All provincially funded shelters will also provide round-the-clock access seven days a week, while funding will be equalized between community-based organizations in Edmonton and Calgary.
The funding will include $5 million to create up to 450 additional shelter spots in Edmonton, bringing the number of emergency spaces in the city to over 1,000.
The plan also includes $2.5 million in 2022-2023 to test the so-called service hub model in two pilot programs in Calgary and Edmonton. These six-month long programs will connect people directly with support and services such as addictions recovery, housing and emergency financial support, beginning this fall.
Meanwhile, the addictions funding will be used to increase the ability of direct outreach teams through Edmonton police and Alberta Health Services to provide support and overdose prevention services. The same expansion of services will also be carried out in Calgary.
Edmonton police chief Dale McFee lauded the fact that housing options include support for mental health and addictions as he personally thanked Kenney for the new funding.
"This is the biggest single investment that I've ever seen over the course of my career in actually addressing the system versus putting more money into silos that are actually generating a lot of the problem," McFee said at the announcement.
Edmonton Mayor Amarjeet Sohi said the funding would tackle the root causes of homelessness, and also praised the fact the province was delivering on a request to provide enhanced plans when prisoners are discharged from corrections facilities.
In July, the city requested a hub where social workers, firefighters and peace officers could work together to reduce crime and address a spike in violence downtown, in nearby Chinatown and and on the transit system.
"These investments show our collaborative approach is working, and together we are making life better for struggling Edmontonians," Sohi said at the announcement.
But NDP Critic for Seniors and Housing Lori Sigurdson said in a news release that Kenney's government has cut funding for housing, noting buildings that could have opened months ago are sitting empty because the government hasn't provided operational funding.
"The money announced today does not even begin to address the deeper need for permanent supportive housing, social housing and affordable housing in this province," she said.
According to the province, over 6,400 Albertans were experiencing homelessness— including nearly 4,000 using emergency shelters or on the streets — as of Jan. 31.
Alberta saw more than 1,600 opioid-related deaths in 2021.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 1, 2022.
Rob Drinkwater, The Canadian Press