Keeping Our Neighbours Safe During Extreme Weather

When temperatures drop, Edmontonians can keep warm inside their homes. But where do you go when you don’t have a home? For our vulnerable neighbours experiencing homelessness this is a frightening reality that can be dangerous without contingency plans in place.  

Every winter, members of Edmonton’s homeless-serving sector—comprised of Homeward Trust, the City of Edmonton and more than 25 system partners and agencies—coordinate an emergency response to reduce the risk for people experiencing homelessness by getting them into a safe space as quickly and as easily as possible. The current public health crisis has exacerbated the risk for people experiencing homelessness, highlighting a need for an emergency response that goes beyond extreme weather to address unforeseeable challenges. 

This coordinated response has resulted in a shift in focus to a broader Sector Emergency Response (SER) to reflect the year-round need to ensure networks are in place and active in order to support individuals when shelters are at capacity and the weather takes a turn for the worst.

“We know people experiencing homelessness are already at increased risk. The compounding effects of extreme cold weather and COVID-19 exposure and restrictions only adds to those dangers,” explains Matthew Ward of Homeward Trust. “Our Sector Emergency Response, which builds off existing control measures to keep the COVID-19 virus from spreading, are important steps to help our vulnerable neighbours stay safe.”  

A collaborative and proactive problem-solving approach is taken to address arising challenges, which involves partners working together in sharing timely data and resource information between shelter providers, emergency services, transportation services and other service providers across the City to deliver supports to those who need it. 

Triggers that activate the Sector Emergency Response in winter include temperatures of -20 or below (including windchill) and/or shelter capacity reaching 90% or higher. The response would typically involve lifting bans at shelters under the discretion of providers, opening overflow spaces, increasing current shelter capacity where possible and providing supplementary transportation services. In the past, Edmonton Transit Services has also operated additional buses to serve as a warming space and transport people to shelters.  

And in the summer, extreme heat or poor air quality are conditions that could activate a Sector Emergency Response. The response looks at weather warnings from Environment Canada, existing capacity of the city’s emergency shelters, and other emerging concerns expressed by the group.

While the best solution to homelessness is permanent housing, the Sector Emergency Response ensures that people experiencing homelessness have access to life-saving services in times of immediate crisis and are protected from the risks of COVID-19 and cold weather.  

Winter shelter is available at the following locations: 

For the latest updates on the Sector Emergency Response, visit homewardtrust.ca 

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National Philanthropy Day: Hillcrest Junior High

For National Philanthropy Day 2020 we nominated The REALTORS® Community Foundation, Ledcor Group, Collin and Janel Bruce, No Room in the Inn, and Hillcrest Junior High to recognize their incredible support of YESS!

Hillcrest Junior High

Each year the Edmonton Oilers NHL team runs a Hockey Helps Kids campaign. Schools pick a charity to support and submit a proposal to be selected as one of four school groups, each of whom, represent their chosen charity in the campaign. Hillcrest School chose Youth Empowerment and Support Services (YESS) as their charity. The group creates a video presentation about the charity, which is then shown at NHL hockey games and works online as well to get votes for their video. Hillcrest School was able to accumulate a large number of votes and was able to get an award of $10,000 for YESS, which is used for clothing, food, shelter, youth training, and many other things. The students at Hillcrest did an outstanding job of representing YESS through the creation of their video, all of which they did themselves, and directly helped a large number of traumatized youth in doing so. They are an outstanding group of kids with an incredible understanding of social responsibility.

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New YESS Artwork

We were so excited to premiere the incredible artwork from local artist Jonathan Busch on the cover of our 2019/2020 Annual Report. This was a very special project spearheaded by Manager of Shelters Tessa Mulcair.

Hear more from Tessa on her aim for this project, get to know Jonathan, and learn how this collaboration created some incredible artwork!

Our youth are incredibly diverse in so many ways, they represent many cultures, races, religions, sexual orientations, gender expressions, and different neuro and physical abilities. When youth who are experiencing trauma are looking for support it can difficult for them to know where they will be accepted. I wanted to have some artwork created that could signal to youth that they will be accepted at YESS, that these diversities would never be a barrier to getting the support that they need from us.

I have had the pleasure of being a judge for an annual YESS fundraiser drag competition that Jonathan has organized, and through that have become acquainted with his incredible art. I was drawn to having Jonathan do the art for our youth because the portraits he does have a modern edginess to the them and manage to reflect emotion and mood authentically. I was not disappointed! The art he created for YESS captures not just the diversity of our youth but the spirit and individuality is reflected so well. From the pensive gaze to the all out sass, and many expressions in between.

Get to Know Artist Jonathan Busch

Tell us a bit about yourself!

I’m a queer artist, drag queen, and public library employee, born and raised in Saskatchewan. I make digital art, mostly portraits but other stuff, which I like to share online, also on t-shirts, fridge magnets, stickers, and other kinds of homemade merch. I also do commissioned artworks for a variety of clients. I have two cats.

What was the vision and collaboration behind the new YESS artwork?

Tessa approached me about creating an artwork for the YESS Facebook banner, and I was definitely on board. It was all her vision and also general design, which cohered very well with my style of work.

She and I had also collaborated on a fundraiser for YESS, a drag competition called Mz. Arthaus, which I organized and hosted. To be honest, the project came about more or less because I wanted to host my own competition-style event, and often such events make great fundraisers. A chance conversation with Tessa led me to want to raise funds for YESS, which I had heard of through various channels. It seemed like a perfectly suitable choice because I see drag events as opportunities to inspire and empower others through creativity and to build each other up with self expression. There seems to be a shared interest there.

What is something you wish the community knew about YESS youth?

I guess I just wish people knew that the YESS youth exist, and that YESS itself exists to help provide the empowerment and support that all young people require and deserve to flourish in their lives and society, that it’s going into building a better world.

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Interview with YESS Volunteer Peter Li

Prior to the pandemic, Peter volunteered in our Nexus Overnight Shelter. Though volunteering looks a little different these days, we wanted to catch up with Peter and talk about his focus on mental health.

Tell us a bit about yourself!

I was born and raised in Edmonton. After high school I went to the U of A for Engineering. After the first semester I decided drop out and apply to NAIT for Instrumentation Engineering. 

Then after the first year of NAIT I dropped out again to work for a financial education company. I realized school wasn’t for me. 

Through that company, I gained confidence in becoming an entrepreneur. So I started a CrossFit gym with a good friend of mine and ran that business for 4 years. Then I started working in marketing and now I have my own marketing agency where I help small businesses increase their sales. 

How did you come to volunteer at YESS?

I was a point in my life where a lot of pieces had clicked into place for me. I felt very fortunate to have the resources and time at my disposal. I also knew that there were many people who were in a less fortunate situation than me, so I felt drawn to give back and serve. 

I chose YESS because I feel strongly that youth in the age range of 15-21 are at a fork in the road. Especially those who are homeless with no real support system or family to take care of them. 

I made a lot of mistakes in my late teens and early 20s and I’ve also learned a lot of information that I feel would be helpful for youth in this age group. I’ve also had many mentors and friends who were 5-10 years older than me. I feel having these people in my life helped shaped the direction of my life in a positive way. 

So if I can share some of my experience and knowledge with these youth, hopefully they can choose a more positive path instead of continuing on a downward spiral.  

In what capacity do you volunteer at YESS?

Before COVID, I was going into the Nexus shelter two nights a week. I would run book club sessions and meditation sessions for those who were interested. 

What benefits do you see from reading and meditation as mental health practices?

With reading, I think of it like this… Someone spends a huge portion of their life (10, 20, 30 years…?) studying a subject. Then spends another few years taking all that knowledge and distilling it into a book that I can read in a week or so. To me, I feel like I’m gaining time because I’m able to leverage someone else’s time to learn a subject or topic that interests me. There’s also a saying I heard that goes “the more you learn, the more you earn,” I’ve seen this play out in my life which is why I’m such an advocate of reading. Plus, by reading I’m also able to expand my vocabulary and give my brain a workout in order to create new neural pathways. It’s like going to the gym, but for our brain. 

Now when it comes to meditation… In this day and age there are so many external elements trying to steal our attention. Attention spans these days are shrinking more and more which is kind of scary. The ability for someone to focus seems like a lost art nowadays. That’s one of the reasons why I meditate. 

What happens if you don’t take out the garbage from your home and you leave it piling up for weeks or months? The same needs to happen for our mind. There’s so much clutter and noise that I feel it’s important to take the time to sit quietly and “take out the garbage” within our own mind. Give my mind room to come up with new solutions for problems, clear the mental clutter, think clearly, better focus. Less “chasing” and more “being”. Connect back to who we truly are instead of what society tells us we should be.

What is one thing you wish the community knew about YESS youth?

There are many smart and savvy youth at YESS. But unfortunately, due to their circumstances, they’ve had to grow up in pretty harsh and abusive environments. Often I think to myself, “if I went through what they went through, I’d be in the same position….”

Many of us are fortunate enough to grow up in a “normal” environment, whereas a lot of these youth didn’t have that luxury. Before you judge someone based on their looks, status, age, sexual orientation, colour, etc., first put yourself in their shoes and try to feel the pain they went through that brought them to their current situation. 

We are not separate, we are all connected… So if one part of the whole is suffering, then we’re all suffering.  

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Bent Arrow Traditional Healing Society

It takes all of us working together to create spaces where we can all heal together and thrive together. We talked to Sherry Fowler, Community Engagement Coordinator at Bent Arrow Traditional Healing Society, about how they create these spaces for the community.

Tell us about your organization.

Bent Arrow is committed to building on the strengths of Indigenous children, youth and families to enable them to walk proudly in two worlds both the Indigenous and non-Indigenous world.

Although Bent Arrow’s programs have Indigenous base to them, we welcome people of all races and backgrounds.

Bent Arrow Traditional Healing Society has been serving Indigenous children, youth, and families in Edmonton and area since 1994. 

The founders believed strongly that keeping culture at the centre was crucial and that this important work was best done in partnership. 

Bent Arrow provides programming and services for all ages from pre-natal to seniors ensuring that we look at all programming to ensure we are providing a wholistic perspective encompassing the mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical wellbeing of all participants.

How does your organization bring focus to mental health?

When looking at an individual’s mental health it is done from a wholistic standpoint ensuring we look at the whole person and what needs are not being met.  A person who is struggling in one area may be struggling in all. Mental health supports may include but are not limited to: connection to community and culture through phone calls, video chats, social distance meetings, or meeting face-to-face (in a safe way) with an Elder.

We also offer onsite therapy/counselling sessions for participants of the programs offered at Bent Arrow.

What is one thing you would like the community to know about young people and mental health?

When we look at mental health just remember you are never alone. Many people struggle in silence, don’t be one of them. There are people out there who can help; you just have to let them. You are stronger than you think and braver than most, keep on being strong and talk to someone.

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Meet Don and Elaine Geake

Don and Elaine Geake have been giving to YESS annually for over 20 years, but their story with YESS begins long before that. Get to know these incredible members of our community and how they have taken action on their lifelong beliefs to help those who need it.


I [was born] two days prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor. Even though growing up during WWII and early post-war time wasn’t always easy for our family, my three brothers and I were made aware of the need to help others less fortunate. This philosophy is one that my wife Elaine and I passed on to our children who have continued this practice in both career choices and daily life.

I focused my high school courses on a career in engineering, but in Grade 12 I felt an urge toward a “helping” occupation. I enrolled in education instead and worked with the Edmonton Public Schools for 34 years as both teacher and principal.

My first contact with YESS came in the mid-1980’s when I was principal at Mill Creek Elementary School.  At Christmas, the school community would donate [gifts] of non-perishable food items which were given to YESS.

As an educator, I recognized the importance of providing children with a sound base in a safe and encouraging environment for a happy and fulfilling life. In addition to meeting their basic needs for food and shelter, it is also necessary for mental and emotional support.

My wife and I have continued to contribute to YESS because it plays an important role in supporting youth in crisis with not only the necessities of life, but also in achieving mental and emotional stability.

A big thank you to the staff at YESS for their dedication in providing their clients with hope, healing and safety as well as educational and occupational opportunities.

 By Don Geake


Don’s work with students demonstrates the importance of engaging young people in their community. YESS values working with schools to empower students to support their community and practice leadership. We continue to help with this in the online teaching and virtual worlds, as well as in-person.

If your school is interested in learning more about YESS and our work, please contact us at giving@yess.org or call 780.468.7070.

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The Love, YEG Show Interview with Desiree

Thank you so much to The Love, YEG Show and Legacy YEG for having our very own Desiree on their podcast! Check out the episode below!

From The Love, YEG Show:

Supporting Youth in YEG since 1981…

Desiree Concepcion of Youth Empowerment and Support Services speaks about how they transition & empower youth from traumatic situations to supporting themselves by providing food, clothes, safe shelter & many programs.

They’ve had to shift big time since the pandemic & continue to lead our youth through a trauma informed approach supporting & empowering them every step of the way!

 

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Staff Interview: Rhonda Friskie

Creating a sense of physical safety is such an important part of the work we do! Meet Rhonda, Facilities Maintenance Supervisor, to learn more about the work our Facilities team does and how they are part of creating spaces for healing in our buildings.

Tell us a bit about yourself!

I am originally from Niagara Falls, Ontario. I have been working at YESS for a little over ten years now. I am a single mom of two amazing boys who definitely keep me on my toes. I love Yoga, Indian food, 80s flicks, and the color pink!

How is your department part of YESS’ mission to walk beside youth on their journey towards healing.

The Facilities department provides youth with a safe, clean, and welcoming environment. We are responsible for performing a variety of cleaning duties, as well as the maintenance, and upkeep of our buildings. A few of those tasks include keeping our donation rooms stocked, providing clean bedding, keeping program areas sanitized, and providing the youth with warm nutritious meals. 

Having lived experience with homelessness as a youth myself, it provides me with the ability to understand their needs, and a different perspective I might not have otherwise.

What is one thing you with the community knew about YESS youth?

I wish the community could see how strong and resilient these kids are. 

It takes incredible strength to get up and face the world each day with the barriers they have in front of them. Youth experiencing homelessness face all kinds of stereotypes, and people often assume that they somehow brought this on themselves, or that they’re bad kids, which couldn’t be farther from the truth.

These are kids. They are just like yours, and mine. All they want is to be accepted, to be seen and heard, and most of all to be loved. 

In my ten years at YESS, I have met some incredible youth, and have been blown away by what some of them have accomplished in their short stay here. It’s amazing what one can do when given the proper resources and having someone believe in them.

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YESS Hours Move to 24/7 Model

When COVID-19 made its way to Canada, Alberta, and then Edmonton, we were all asked to take the necessary steps to be sure that we kept not only ourselves safe, but our neighbors, our families, our friends, and our co-workers.  As an agency we implemented policies to keep our doors open and all of you as safe as possible, which meant adapting our working arrangements to reduce exposure for those of us who are required on site to take care of each other and our youth – that because of all the closures had no where else to go. Out of our responsibility to our community and our youth we made the decision to keep our doors open 24/7 – and we will continue to do so permanently.

This decision is so important and is best explained by our Tessa Mulcair, Manager of Shelters:

“With Nexus covering 8PM-11AM and the Armoury Resource Centre (ARC) 11AM-8PM, every single day, we have seen a dramatic reduction in the stress that our youth face when there are no safe places to be at certain hours of certain days. With COVID-19 affecting many agency/program hours and operational abilities, our youth struggle to have their needs met consistently outside of YESS right now. While the pandemic is still filled with fear for all of us, having the 24/7 model in place ensures that our youth aren’t further compounding that trauma with having to worry about finding shelter/food/bathrooms/etc. during the evening and weekend hours…

“From everyone at YESS, we want to say a huge thank you to all of the staff who have continued to work the frontline through all of the many changes to scheduling and procedures. You are an incredible, inspiring team that has never stopped putting the youth first through this all.”

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