Emergency injunction granted to stop large encampment eviction in Edmonton

Click to play video: 'Emergency injunction granted to stop large encampment eviction in Edmonton'
Emergency injunction granted to stop large encampment eviction in Edmonton
A plan to clear encampments downtown is now temporarily halted by the courts. The decision comes as housing advocates and social agencies labeled the Edmonton Police Service plan as unprecedented and cruel. Morgan Black reports – Dec 15, 2023

A lawyer for the Coalition for Justice and Human Rights (CJHR) filed an application to ask for an emergency injunction Friday morning, hoping to halt the closure of dozens of Edmonton homeless encampments.

On Friday afternoon, the courts granted an interim injunction against the City of Edmonton and police. They cannot remove any encampments until the courts hear more arguments on why this site removal must happen now. Those hearings are expected Monday morning.

The Edmonton Police Service sent out an email to social agencies Thursday advising them that the encampment response team will be closing and cleaning several high-risk encampment sites Dec. 18 – 22, including those near the Herb Jameson Centre, Bissell Centre, Hope Mission, 95th Street and 101A Avenue, 94th Street and 106th Avenue, 95th Street and 105A Avenue, Dawson Ravine and Kinnard Ravine.

The planned closures are set to include 134 “structures” at eight sites, according to the EPS notice obtained by Global News.

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In the letter, police notify outreach groups that encampment residents might reach out to them for help. Closure notices were handed out to some people staying in encampments already, EPS said Thursday.

Police have asked outreach agency staff to stay out of the site areas but to reach out with any questions or concerns about citizens.

The email ended by thanking social support agencies for all their dedication and work in such a demanding field.

Chris Wiebe, a lawyer representing the CJHR, was at the Edmonton Law Courts on Friday morning, in a race against the clock.

“I’m at the courthouse today because the Coalition for Justice and Human Rights is applying for an emergency interim injunction to put a pause on the city’s and EPS’ intentions to displace an unprecedented number of encampments next week,” he said.

Click to play video: 'Lawyers fighting Edmonton police plan to dismantle homeless encampments ahead of Chrismas'
Lawyers fighting Edmonton police plan to dismantle homeless encampments ahead of Chrismas

According to the court documents Wiebe and his team have gathered, disassembling 134 structures is the largest effort the city has undertaken yet.

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“The most the city has ever closed in one month was in May 2023,” he said. “It was about 110 encampments over the course of an entire month. This is 134 over the course of five days.

“It’s an extreme escalation on the part of the city and Edmonton police. And it’s unprecedented for December as well.

“It’s going to cause immense harm to the people living in encampments, people experiencing unsheltered houselessness, who are the most vulnerable in our community, disproportionately Indigenous, disproportionately living with chronic health conditions and disabilities.”

Global News has reached out to the Edmonton Police Service for comment.

Police said they were waiting for the outcome of court proceedings before sharing a response.

Click to play video: '2 people found dead after weekend fires at Edmonton homeless encampments'
2 people found dead after weekend fires at Edmonton homeless encampments

The executive director of Boyle Street Community Services thinks this will impact between 300 and 400 people living in central Edmonton encampments.

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“We all agree that people shouldn’t be living in encampments. It’s not a dignified or appropriate place for people to live, especially in Edmonton in the winter,” Jordan Reiniger said.

“But this approach of mass de-location of this many people the week before the holidays is not only cruel, I think it’s counterproductive to the objectives that we have as a community in terms of supporting people in the root causes of getting them out of encampments.”

A homeless encampment in central Edmonton on Friday, December 15, 2023. Global News

He said Boyle Street has been given no information about why the encampment closure decision was made, who made it, under what policy and with what goal in mind.

“It’s an erroneous assumption to think that all of a sudden just because the encampments are being torn down that (people are) just going to go to shelters and that’s the end of it,” Reiniger said.

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“They’re going to go into further places that are harder for us to reach and connect to. We’re already experiencing that with the encampment removals that are happening. People that we’ve been working with to get housing, to support for housing, we can’t find them anymore.”

He said social services agencies are already stretched to the max and worries about what impact the displacement will have on their ability to help.

“The outcomes of this mass dislocation of people, moving people around, is not what we want as a community,” Reiniger said. “It’s going to make it harder for people to access services and support and move forward.

“I think we need to call on all orders of government to come together and have an actual plan and strategy that makes sense and gets the outcomes that we want as a community.”

Click to play video: 'Alberta government re-affirms commitment to  50 new police officers to Edmonton'
Alberta government re-affirms commitment to 50 new police officers to Edmonton

“The province recently announced an extra $8 million for 50 more police officers. So clearly we’re doubling down on enforcement as the primary response to encampments,” he added.

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“For that same amount of money, for six months, we could house — in private, temporary accommodations — 350 people,” he said. “That leads to much better outcomes than what’s happening now.”

The province said the action is an Edmonton Police Service initiative and the Alberta government “does not direct or interfere with law enforcement agencies.”

It said Budget 2023 provides $41 million to Homeward Trust for housing and support programs.

The statement said the province has provided funding for 1,700 shelter spaces. It anticipates Edmonton’s emergency shelter capacity will grow from 1,388 to 1,510 by the end of 2023.

“Additional spaces will be coming online early in the new year to reach 1,700 spaces,” said Heather Barlow, spokesperson for the minister of Seniors, Community and Social Services.

“Shelters in Edmonton are currently under-capacity and not turning people away.”

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Edmonton man accused of preying on women at emergency shelters

“Even if there were enough shelter spaces to accommodate all those being displaced, many people do not feel safe in those shelters,” the Opposition NDP said in a statement. “And yet we’ve heard nothing from the UCP on minimum shelter standards.”

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A joint statement from leader Rachel Notley and housing critic Janis Irwin said taking down encampments and forcing people out puts them at greater risk of overdose and weather-related health problems like frostbite and hypothermia.

“The UCP must immediately invest in more housing, including permanent supportive housing and bridge housing, and in safe, accessible shelter spaces. And finally, we must stop criminalizing poverty as a province and a community. We can’t enforce our way out of the housing crisis.”

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Edmonton family seeks answers in homeless camp death of Ross Gladue

The mayor said he doesn’t have details about the EPS-led operation.

“I just learned late last night that EPS is going to be conducting the removal of some of the encampments in the inner city,” Amarjeet Sohi said.

“I have been very clear over the last two years that encampments are not a choice. Encampments are not a safe place for people to live in, and people are living there because they have no other place to go to.

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“We lack adequate, dignified shelter spaces. We lack housing. We lack support systems for mental health and addictions, intergenerational trauma that people are facing.

He added that those areas are not the city’s responsibility and he’ll continue to push the province and federal government for housing and social supports.

“I firmly believe that not having adequate housing, not having dignified, safe, accessible shelters in the city, not having access to detox facilities, not having access to harm reduction, not having access to the support system that people need to heal and get better — those are the reasons that people are forced to live in encampments. That’s where we need to focus. That’s where I’ll continue to focus, making sure the province and the federal government is stepping up.”

Click to play video: 'City seeks federal support to address Edmonton’s growing homelessness crisis'
City seeks federal support to address Edmonton’s growing homelessness crisis

Global News has also reached out to the province for comment.

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The mayor said the city has been asked to provide some cleanup support once the sites are cleared. Sohi said he worries about the impact of forcing people to move.

“My worry is that whenever you force people from one area, they disperse into other areas. I worry about the impact on our LRT system, the impact on other business districts.”

Sohi said he’s also asked administration for more information on its encampment response process.

Click to play video: 'City of Edmonton being sued for homeless encampment policy'
City of Edmonton being sued for homeless encampment policy
In August, the CJHR sued the City of Edmonton, claiming the “eviction and displacement of individuals residing in encampments” violates those people’s rights and freedoms.

A statement of claim filed Aug. 28 says the city is shutting down encampments on city-owned land and forcing people to leave even though there are not enough housing and shelter options for them.

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This puts vulnerable people in dangerous situations, the lawsuit alleges. These claims have yet to be tested in court.

A homeless encampment in central Edmonton on Friday, December 15, 2023. Global News

According to Homeward Trust data, there are at least 3,100 people experiencing homelessness in Edmonton and only 1,126 shelter spaces available.

Homeward Trust said Edmonton’s unhoused population increased 71 per cent between 2021 and 2023, from 1,820 to 3,112.

Most shelter facilities don’t allow pets, accommodate families, offer storage for personal property or permit people to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol, the CJHR said, adding some people don’t feel safe in shelters.

Click to play video: 'City of Edmonton to launch its enhanced encampment response plan in the summer'
City of Edmonton to launch its enhanced encampment response plan in the summer

Wiebe said the emergency injunction granted Friday would be a stopgap until the previous application is heard on Jan. 11.

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That injunction would stop or modify the city’s current encampment response until a court could consider its constitutionality.

In August, the city confirmed legal action had been taken against its bylaws and practices related to encampments.

“The city is carefully reviewing the documents provided, and is preparing to discuss its bylaws, practices and commitments in court,” said Michelle Plouffe, the city’s chief people officer and city solicitor, in a statement provided to Global News on Aug. 31.

“While we will not debate the legal elements of the case outside the courtroom, we will simply say that we are preparing to vigorously defend the city’s balanced approach to keeping people safe while working with our partners to seek long-term solutions to ending houselessness in Edmonton.”

Click to play video: 'Edmonton sees increase in homeless encampment complaints compared to same time last year'
Edmonton sees increase in homeless encampment complaints compared to same time last year

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