Episode 157 – King Thunderbird

Boyle Street Community Services has been supporting people experiencing homelessness and poverty since 1971. And for many of those years, it was operating out of a dilapidated facility on 101st Street and 105th Avenue.  

In late 2021, Boyle Street announced it was purchasing a new building a few blocks north of their original location and they were getting set to break ground on okimaw peyesew kamik, which is Cree for The King Thunderbird Centre.  

But what was supposed to be a rather straight forward move began facing major hurdles, first with building permit issues, then community backlash and that was only the beginning.   

On this episode, we speak with Jordan Reiniger, Executive Director of Boyle Street Community Services, to get an update on okimaw peyesew kamik and what’s next for Edmonton’s inner-city communities. 

Learn more about Boyle Street Community Services.
Learn more about the history of The King Thunderbird Centre.
Donate to the okimaw peyesew kamik (King Thunderbird Centre) endowment fund. All donations will be matched up to $45,000.

ECF Happenings:
Find out how to create an Endowment Fund of your own.
Read the latest on our blog.
See how ECF connects you with Edmonton’s community.
Check out some of the amazing funds our donors have created. 

ECF Grants:
* Click here to see all ECF Grants. 

Upcoming Student Awards:
* Click here to find details for all of our student awards! 

The Well Endowed Podcast is produced by Edmonton Community Foundation. 

Photo courtesy of Boyle Street Community Services.


[The Well Endowed Podcast theme music plays] 

Andrew Paul [00:00:25] Hello everyone. Welcome to ECF’s The Well Endowed Podcast. I’m Andrew Paul—


Pruden [00:00:29] And I’m Lisa Pruden. Edmonton is full of generous donors who have created endowment funds at Edmonton Community Foundation.

Andrew [00:00:37] These funds are carefully stewarded to generate money that supports charities in Edmonton and beyond.

Lisa [00:00:42] On this podcast, we share stories about how these funds help strengthen our community… because it’s good to be well endowed.

Andrew [00:00:48] Now, before we get into this episode, we have some bittersweet news to share. Uh, Lisa, this will be your last time in the hosting chair. I can’t believe that. [laughs] 

Lisa [00:00:58] I also can’t believe it. It is— it’s… it’s big. But yes, I’m… I’m heading on to a new adventure over at Odvod Media in the new year, and I’ll be getting to help with project management for some exciting things they have in the works. So I’m looking forward to that. But it is— bittersweet is the right word.

Andrew [00:01:16] Well, you know, I honestly feel like it was yesterday when you walked into the office here at ECF and pitched the idea of starting, uh, this very show. [Andrew and Lisa laugh] But I guess that was, like, what, almost six years ago now and, like, 157 episodes ago.

Lisa [00:01:32] Wow. Yep. That’s a lot of episodes. [laughs] 

Andrew [00:01:34] Yeah. Not to mention, you know, a few national awards and of course, like, so many wonderful stories that you’ve brought. Uh, so what have been some of your most memorable, uh, moments from producing the show?

Lisa [00:01:47] Oh my gosh. It’s— There are a lot. Um, I’ve gotta say, though, Andrew, working with you has been… just… amazing. Um, I’ve learned a ton, and so thank you. And yeah, for the stories themselves, I think one of the biggest highlights was, uh, our field trip ones. So getting to go and hear the bats for our episode on bats and getting out to go with, uh, WILDNorth and [laughs] watching, uh, some of their teams there wrangle geese in the parks of Edmonton was… was pretty special and cool. Um, but yeah, it really is just getting to see the [emphasized] crazy amount of organizations and people in Edmonton who make this city the amazing place it is.

Andrew [00:02:35] Ugh. Well, we are so sad to see you go. Uh. You honestly, were, like, the driving force behind the show. Uh. So you will be sorely missed. Uh. But I’m gonna try to wrangle you into, uh, maybe producing some stories, uh, down… down the road for us still. 

Lisa [00:02:51] But I’m still here for this episode. So, should we get into it?

Andrew [00:02:55] You bet.

[The Well Endowed Podcast jingle plays]

Lisa [00:02:56] Boyle Street Community Services has been supporting people experiencing homelessness and poverty since 1971. And for many of those years, it has been operating out of its facility on 101st Street and 105th Avenue.

Andrew [00:03:13] That building was an old banana ripening factory before Boyle Street moved in and it was certainly beginning to show its age. There were multiple flooding incidents due to old plumbing and major structural issues were starting to show.

Lisa [00:03:24] In late 2021, Boyle Street announced it was purchasing a new building a few blocks north of their original location, and they were getting set to break ground on the project.

Andrew [00:03:33] But what was supposed to be a rather straightforward move began facing major hurdles, first with building permit issues, then community backlash.

Lisa [00:03:39] This was just the beginning of the challenges, and caught in the middle was Edmonton’s inner city population.

Andrew [00:03:46] The need for Boyle Street Services is dire. 118 people died in Edmonton’s inner city between July and September of this year, primarily from drug poisonings. And another 53 died in October alone, the youngest being only 14-years-old.

Lisa [00:03:58] Many of these people access supports from Boyle Street Community Services.

[The Well Endowed Podcast jingle plays in background]

Andrew [00:04:03] In this episode, I sit down with Jordan Reiniger, the ED of Boyle Street Community Services, to learn about the trials and tribulations of the project as well as the successes as they move closer to opening the King Thunderbird Centre. 

Could you introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about Boyle Street?

Jordan Reiniger [00:04:20] So, my name is Jordan Reiniger. My pronouns are he and him, and I’m the Executive Director of Boyle Street Community Services. Boyle Street is a charity in Edmonton that’s been around for over 50 years, uh, supporting people who are at risk of homelessness or experiencing homelessness. Uh, we focus on prevention and we focus on intervention for those who unfortunately find themselves in that circumstance. We’ve got an amazing team of people working across 15 different sites in our city, and, uh, providing supports to over 10,000 people each year.

Andrew [00:04:52] About a year ago, we ran a cover story in our Legacy In Action magazine at Edmonton Community Foundation about the King Thunderbird Centre, which is a new development being spearheaded by Boyle Street Community Services. And it’s been a little bit of a journey for you folks, uh, getting this project off the ground. And it’s been long enough that I think, uh, we’re all very interested to get an update on where you’re at now. Uh, but maybe we can just go back and do a little bit of a recap about how this project began, uh, and why it was needed. Uh, and maybe you can start by telling us a little bit about your, uh, original building that you’re in.

Jordan [00:05:31] Um, in our old building on 105th Avenue is— uh, previously was a banana ripening warehouse. Uh, it was quite literally crumbling. It was flooding on a regular basis. There were multiple times over the last number of years where we had to shut down our services, which are— you know, we serve over seven thousand unique individuals a year out of that space. All people who are experiencing homelessness or at risk of it and really need those supports to be able to keep going day-to-day. And, um… and so the need for the new building has been evident for quite a long time. And we’ve been circling around a-a project for, you know, the better part of the last decade, really, uh, realizing that need. And, uh, we found this facility that was sitting there on 107a Avenue, uh, and, uh, it’s literally… it’s the old school board site. It’s a concrete structure that everything else has been stripped away. It’s just a big chunk of concrete, but it’s good concrete.

[00:06:26] And, uh, so we were able to purchase that, uh, thanks to the donation from the Edmonton Community Foundation, thanks to the sale of our building. And that kicked us into a capital campaign to really get the project running. And, um, the… the need for it is being able to have a purpose-built facility, um, that is designed for the kind of work that we do. Uh, our work is never about a building, but having a building that facilitates the work, uh, is super important. Uh, and having, uh, an environment. We know that environment is a huge part of how you feel, even just about your life and moving forward. And so being able to have people come into a beautiful environment with natural light, uh, we know is gonna be significant for the folks that we serve ‘cause we think they deserve a beautiful building.

[00:07:12] Often they get the… the crumbs, the— I call it the baloney sandwich of real estate. Uh, people kind of fit them into wherever, uh… wherever they can. And, uh, so to have a beautiful purpose-built building, we know is gonna lead to better outcomes for the people that we serve, uh, a more dignified place for our teams to work out of. And so we’re just super excited. And that building has now become, uh, through the name and ceremony, the King Thunderbird Centre, or in Cree, my pronunciation probably isn’t gonna be perfect for any of the Cree speakers, but okimaw peyesew kamik, uh, which means King Thunderbird Centre.

Andrew [00:07:42] And you took an interesting approach to the design of this building, too. You mentioned the… the Cree name of the centre. Can you tell us a little bit about the role of Elder Clifford Cardinal, uh, and how you approached this project kind of from the get-go?

Jordan [00:07:57] Yeah. When we— We were kind of at a standstill in our project a few years ago. Uh, you know, there was nothing really on the horizon for us. We were trying to evaluate, “Well, do we just… renovate our building? Do we go— try and keep going and find something new?” Uh, and, uh, that’s when I approached our Elder, Cliff Cardinal, and I sort of said, like, “Something needs to happen. We need to figure something out.” And, uh, he said, “Well, the right thing to do is to start in ceremony.” So, uh, we had a pipe ceremony then. And that really was the beginning of the project. And through that whole process, our Elder, Cliff, has been with us. We have a circle of elders and knowledge keepers at our organization that have also then been with us on the journey, uh, and really been informing the design all the way through to make sure things, even as detailed as the colours, uh, in each of the facilities, make sense and there’s meaning behind it. And, uh, that’s been really important for us, uh, to represent, you know, the— more than 75% of the people that are coming into our facilities are Indigenous. And so to make sure that they walk into a place and there’s a sense of home and belonging.

Andrew [00:09:02] Yeah, yeah, absolutely. They’re culturally appropriate from top to bottom, inside out. Uh, I really love that. 

So initially, were you planning to move all of your services into this new facility? Sort of just essentially taking what you had, uh, and just moving it a few blocks north and opening up Boyle Street [laughs] 2.0 almost kind of deal?

Jordan [00:09:23] Yeah, we really used this as an opportunity— the new facility, as a way to reevaluate the way that we deliver services. So, you know, a lot of, um, you know, real estate and facilities have a tendency to dictate how you do things because you have to work within the walls that you have. And so we said, “Well, if we could start from scratch, how would we deliver these services? What would be different about what we could do?” And so really, we started the process with our service delivery design. We did— have done a lot of work over the years going to other jurisdictions, seeing what other organizations are doing, looking at best practice. And, uh… and so we designed service delivery, and then we built the building— or designed the building around that service delivery model. So changing from, uh, just an open drop-in to smaller community-oriented spaces that people can become members of, almost like a club. And they have wraparound supports. Instead of having to go to this office and then this office and then this office to get all the different services you need, a community space where all those services can be brought to you. Um, and that was a huge part of it.

[00:10:28] And then another one was just recognizing that probably about 80% of the people that were accessing our facility, uh, were just looking for emergency support. So they… they needed to get ID or they needed to connect to a housing worker or something like that. And so how do you make that as easy as possible rather than having somebody go through the whole building and try and wayfind? Uh. We were able to kind of create an upfront, uh, triage emergency sort of space at the beginning so people could come in, they could access those services. They were all there, it was really easy for them. So really, the design was built around the… the community members that are accessing our services and how we could make that really simple and easy and reduce the barriers to getting those services that they need. 

Andrew [00:11:11] Yeah. So when you found this building and you already applied for some building permits, can you maybe just tell us about some of the hurdles that sort of came up in those kind of early days when you first started, like, wanting to put, you know, shovels in the ground?

Jordan [00:11:24] Yeah, so we… we went through the process. We did extensive due diligence. Um, you know, the zoning and the uses in the new building were the same zoning and uses that we had been living with for the last 25 years in our current building. Uh, so we didn’t anticipate there would be any challenges, uh, there in terms of the zoning process. Um, but we were also running into what was a very— like, we were in COVID, coming out of COVID. It was a really charged political environment. Uh, and we just know that the people that we serve, there’s a lot of prejudice about the people that we serve, a lot of fear, uh, about people who are experiencing homelessness, who are, you know, experiencing extreme poverty. And so there was a lot of fear associated with us moving, even though it was a two block move. [Andrew: Yeah.]

[00:12:06] Uh, there was a lot of fear associated with that, a lot of misunderstanding. You know, people thought, “Oh, this is another overnight shelter.” We don’t do any overnight. It’s all daytime services. People thought we were gonna put a supervised consumption site in that facility. We had never planned to do that. So there was just a lot of misinformation, a lot of fear. Uh, and so when we got our development permit, um, a group of people appealed that. Um, and ultimately we lost our development permit. I think partly because of a misunderstanding of some of the work that we were doing. 

[00:12:36] Uh, for instance, the Indigenous cultural and ceremonial spaces that we were having and planning— the activities we were planning to do there were deemed to be community recreation. And, um… and I think that’s a highly inappropriate way to label those kinds of, uh… uh, supports and activities. Um, so it was a— it was an unfortunate situation, but we pivoted and the decision ultimately said that the vast majority of the services that we were providing were permitted there. Uh, they just had issue with some of them. Uh, so we submitted a new development permit with those permitted uses there. Uh, we had to omit certain things like, uh, Indigenous cultural and ceremonial spaces, which broke all of our hearts to have to do that.

Andrew [00:13:18] Yeah. Given that, that was the— at the very heart—

Jordan [00:13:21] Of what we were trying to do. Um, but we also knew, um, that there was the new zoning bylaw renewal coming. [Andrew: Mm-hmm] And the… the likel— likelihood of that being approved in time for us to be in the new building where we could start to pull some of those important pieces back. And so, um… so that is the plan in terms of, you know, we— when we open the building, the main thing that we wanna bring back is those Indigenous cultural ceremonial spaces. That’s… that’s key to the healing and the work that we do. Uh, and that we want to do in that building. So we will do that, um, through the new zoning regulations, and we can do that through the new zoning regulations. Uh, but we’re back on track and we were able to start construction, actually, earlier in the month of November. And, uh… and so we’re just excited to get the project moving.

Andrew [00:14:09] So during this time while you were going through the building permit reviews, and you were expecting to be able to stay in your, you know, original location during the construction period, and then it would be, you know, a nice, you know, uh, air quote, “seamless move,” as seamless as any move [laughs] goes, uh, to the new, uh, building. But that didn’t happen. You had to, uh, deal with some other adjustments, uh, and changes of plan. Can you tell us a little bit about, uh, that time where you needed to move out of your existing building and how you restructured your, um, supports?

Jordan [00:14:44] Yeah. So we had to move out of our current facility. Um, and so really, we used that as an opportunity, uh, to begin to experiment with this new way of delivering services. So we said, “Okay, if we’re gonna… if we’re gonna look at, uh, more community-oriented spaces, more wraparound supports, we have to find new spaces on an interim basis. How do we… how do we navigate having those spaces that can start to— we can start to actually live out this model that we are planning to move into the King Thunderbird Centre.” And so that’s what we’ve done. We were able to— We’re— We’re in about— We’re in five different locations as opposed to the one sort of main location. Um, the good news is because our building was so bad, uh, [laughs] y-you know, that all of those spaces are actually a lot nicer, uh, than the space that we were— that everybody was in before.

[00:15:33] Uh, and we have the ability to experiment and to work with these new service delivery models, um, that are going really well. So we have partners, corporate partners, uh, community partners, our friends at Bissell, even, like, welcomed us in to be able to deliver some services. Um, and so we’re in a really good spot. There was— We were able to do it thanks to an incredible, incredible team at Boyle Street without any service delivery disruption to our community members, uh, other than, you know, the wayfinding. How do we— they know where to go? We did a lot of work to make sure people knew where to go. And, um… and so now we’re in those spaces until we’re in the new building and we can kind of take all of that service delivery and the learnings that we’re creating through that and move it into the new building and, uh, we’re really excited about that.

Andrew [00:16:17] Yeah. Uh, well, maybe you can break down, uh, the different locations and what— uh, and how you parsed out those specific services and maybe why these locations were a good fit.

Jordan [00:16:28] So we worked with our… our friends at Bissell. And so we started to say, “Okay, we’re gonna have this emergency triage space where people can go and access all the supports they need. They may not be coming to stay for a long-term, but they need those emergency supports.” And so the Bissell Centre out of their Bissell East building gave us the space to begin that process and begin to experiment with that model. Uh, and that’s been going really well. Uh, our friends, the Pope family, uh, worked with us on the third floor of the Mercer Building to begin to experiment with this. We call them the Den model. So these community spaces where we have wraparound supports, uh, and so we have community members that are part of those clubs, accessing those spaces, um, and able to really, through that, uh, community space, through that wraparound support access that, um, community-based peer support that is so critical to moving forward.

[00:17:19] All of our cultural supports are also in that space. Um, and, uh, so that’s been going really, really well. It’s a beautiful space and, uh… and all of the neighbours there have been really welcoming of us. Um, we have a number of sort of drop-in spaces that we’ve opened around the… the community as well, um, including, um, the CO*LAB Space. So these are community spaces that are open for people to go and connect if they need to. Um, we’ve got them in— operating in churches, in different places around the city, which has been really phenomenal, especially it’s wrapping up now is winter and cold is starting to come across, uh, in Edmonton, as it always does. 

[00:17:56] And, um… and we, uh, have opened Four Directions Bank, uh, which is a critical service for community members that we serve. And we’ve opened that actually on trailers on the new site. Uh, and so people are able to access those supports there. Uh, it’ll sit on trailers as we begin construction. And, um… and then we have a bunch of our street workers and a bunch of different groups working out of a warehouse, but they’re doing outreach-based work in the community, and that’s just, uh, a space that they can sort of hang their hat and, uh… and work out of, so. So we’re kind of all over and— uh, but, uh, all close— within a very close proximity and able to support our community the best we can.

Andrew [00:18:34] Um, so there’s… discussion kind of always kind of hovering around, like, you know, centralizing services in either one area of the city for, uh, these communities or, uh, making them a little bit more diluted, uh, and having communities sort of, uh, help, uh, shoulder the… the traffic and the needs. Uh, and I’m just sort of wondering what Boyle Street’s sort of view and experience has been on, uh, that centralization of services versus, uh, kind of expanding it out.

Jordan [00:19:06] It’s a complicated question, and I think wha-what most people have to know, when it comes to people experiencing homelessness, th-the biggest driver of where people go is the shelter system. And, uh, in Edmonton we have, basically a hundred percent— at this point, a hundred percent of our shelter capacity, um, in one location, uh, which is the Hope Mission and Herb Jamieson buildings there. Um, the province has promised, for this winter, a whole bunch more shelter spaces, but there’s not— no details at this point in terms of where those will be or when they’ll open. Um, yeah, we’re getting— we’re into the— uh, well, into the end of November as we’re taping this. And so, um… so they’ve run into some hurdles, I think, and things like that. So I don’t know if that will be distributed, but we’ve always advocated for a more distributed shelter model. Um, you know, when you have a thousand people in one location, that creates challenges. Uh, and so we think smaller an-and more dispersed throughout the city is the better shelter model.

[00:20:04] And then you have the services that follow those sort of things. Uh, Boyle Street has, for sure, a significant service delivery component in the centre of our city. Uh, but we also are a fairly large organization, and we have 15 locations throughout the city, so we’re offering services in the northeast and the southside, and all over the place. Uh, and we know that there’s people, especially now given the number of— the increased number of people experiencing homelessness— dramatic increased number of people experiencing homelessness, uh, who are throughout the city, and those services need to be everywhere. Um, and so, um… so you know, should we decentralize? Yes. Um, but as long as our shelter system is the way that it is— and… and there’s a reality that the core of any city is always sort of the hub of activity, it’s where transit is most easily available. [Andrew: Yep.]

[00:20:52] And so there’s always gonna have to be services in the core of the city. Um, but I think there… there could be a lot of work done to… to create a more distributed grid of services across the whole city. Uh, and Edmonton’s a very large place, uh, and so— geographically, and so that… that requires extra funding to be able to do that. Uh, the notion, I think, that you could just take the services that exist now and sort of place them all over, it’s probably not realistic. Um, but, uh, you know, more work, I think, can be done on that, for sure.

Andrew [00:21:22] So with any sort of big construction project, there’s, like, that initial, uh, capital campaign, usually. Um, how much did you need to raise, uh, with your capital campaign?

Jordan [00:21:33] We were… we were looking at— uh, twenty eight and a half million was our… was our goal. Uh, we have raised, to this point, over 80% of that goal. Now, I think we’re at 82% of that total goal. Um, we are waiting on some other pieces of information to come in terms of, um, different grants and things that we’ve applied for. So we’re confident in being able to bridge that gap. Uh, we’re still gonna be sort of raising money until that gap is filled. Um, but, uh… but we had a really phenomenal capital campaign in a fairly short period of time and, uh… and the community really came out in support. And I think y-you hear lots of polarization out there. Uh, you hear lots of different narratives about people experiencing homelessness, but our experience in this capital campaign has been that the community just wants to help. They want to do something really tangible for the people who are most in need and most at risk in our community. And that was the… the basis upon which we were able to have such a phenomenally successful campaign so far.

Andrew [00:22:32] Yeah. Well, that’s fantastic news. Now, capital campaigns typically are used for the initial build or renos, uh, but then there’s the other long-term components to maintaining and running a facility, uh, maintaining the programs in that facility once that initial build is… is done. And you have partnered with the Edmonton Community Foundation to establish an endowment. Um, can you tell me a little bit about your endowment and what that’s going to be used for, uh, moving forward?

Jordan [00:22:59] Yeah. The campaign has always been two-fold. First, we need the capital to get the building built, number one. And then number two, it’s how do we build that sustainability into the project? And so part of that sustainability has been the building itself, making sure that we’ve got— you know, for instance, doing geothermal as the… as the way of heating the building and trying to find the most sustainable building and build the most sustainable building that we can. But also, there’s that financial component to it as well. And so we’ve started an endowment. The Edmonton Community Foundation has been great in terms of creating a matching fund connected to that. Uh, that endowment will be used to fac— to facilitate the ongoing expenses that a building of that size has. Um, so everything from heating, janitorial, maintenance, all of the stuff that we need to do to keep that building so it doesn’t turn into the building that we have. [laughs] [Andrew Right? Mm-hmm.]

[00:23:51] Um, and, uh… and then also for programming support because a lot of the things— Boyle Street has always been a very innovative, uh, entrepreneurial organization. And most of our most successful programs have started with us just saying, “We see the need. We need to go do it.” Uh, and having the financial sustainability to be able to sort of experiment, try new things, um, offer new service delivery that we know our community needs, you know, and then worry about the funding for it at— after that, uh, has been really helpful. So there’s a programming component to it, there’s a building sustainability component to that endowment. Uh, and we’re just excited about once that capital has filled, being able to sort of focus on that endowment piece.

Andrew [00:24:31] And for those of you listening right now, there is a hundred thousand dollars earmarked by Edmonton Community Foundation, uh, for matching dollars, uh, for the public’s donation to the endowment fund. And there’s still 45,000 left and end of year is coming up. 

[The Well Endowed Podcast jingle plays in background]

And if you’re looking for, uh, something to donate to, uh, we would, uh, love to offer this as one option. Uh, and you can find more about that on our website at ecfoundation.org. 

Many thanks to Jordan Reiniger for sharing his time with us.

Lisa [00:25:00] Listeners, if you’d like to support Boyle Street Community Services’ endowment, you can find the link in our show notes. 

Andrew [00:25:06] And as usual, we’ll also have links to more information about ECF’s grants and student awards. And you can read our blog for even more stories about the communities we serve in Edmonton.

Lisa [00:25:16] Well, that brings us to the end of the show. Thanks for sharing your time with us.

Andrew [00:25:19] We really appreciate it. And if you like what you heard, please subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. And don’t be shy about sharing the show with your friends.

Lisa [00:25:27] If you have time, please leave us a review on Apple Podcasts and visit us on Facebook where you can share your thoughts and see some pictures from the show.

Andrew [00:25:34] Thanks again for tuning in. We’ve been your hosts, Andrew Paul—

Lisa [00:25:37] And Lisa Pruden.

Andrew and Lisa [00:25:38] Until next time!

[The Well Endowed Podcast music plays in background of outro]

Lisa [00:25:40] The Well Endowed Podcast is produced by Edmonton Community Foundation—

Andrew [00:25:44] And is an affiliate member of the Alberta Podcast Network.

Lisa [00:25:48] This episode was edited by Andrew Paul.

Andrew [00:25:50] You can visit our website at TheWellEndowedPodcast.com—

Lisa [00:25:53] Subscribe to us on iTunes—

Andrew [00:25:55] And follow us on Twitter at @theECF.

Lisa [00:25:58] Our theme music is by Octavo Productions.

Andrew [00:26:01] And as always, don’t forget to visit Edmonton Community Foundation at ecfoundation.org.

[theme music continues playing for a few seconds after dialogue ends]

Read Full Transcript