Edmonton fire chief calls homeless encampments ‘extremely unsafe’

Click to play video: 'Edmonton police to dismantle several high-risk homeless encampments'
Edmonton police to dismantle several high-risk homeless encampments
Edmonton police will move ahead with dismantling eight high-risk homeless encampments where officials say crime and drug use is rampant, and the risk of fatal fires will only increase as the temperature drops. Lisa MacGregor speaks with people who live near camps about the complicated situation – Dec 19, 2023

The chief of Edmonton Fire Rescue Services says there’s an unacceptable number of serious, injury-causing — even fatal — fires in the city’s homeless encampments.

In a year-end interview on Tuesday, Joe Zatylny described the camps as “extremely unsafe” for the people living there as well as for fire crews and neighbours.

“Encampments are a complex issue and there’s a lot of partners that need to be involved, whether it’s ensuring that people have somewhere to go or somewhere they can receive treatment,” he said. “But they’re unsafe, there’s no question about it.

“These last two weeks, as the weather starts to get colder, almost every second day, I’m getting the message that someone received serious burns or worse in encampments.”

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He said that’s simply unacceptable.

“The resources need to be put in place. They need to be supported. The people need the help they need. We need to take down the encampments, absolutely.”

Click to play video: 'Downtown hotel patio damaged after fire in Edmonton’s river valley'
Downtown hotel patio damaged after fire in Edmonton’s river valley

He said there are issues with crime and safety, particularly in camps in the river valley or close to buildings.

“We’re going to locations that have difficulty in egress and access, they’re in treed and wooded areas. They’re made of materials not meant to build — tents and structures. There’s all sorts of storage and materials and items that can easily explode in these structures. People are cooking in them, and they’re struggling with all sorts of issues — right from addictions to mental health.

“And it is an extremely unsafe situation and (presents) many challenges for our first responders. Our firefighters have risen to this challenge and continue to do incredible work for our most vulnerable.”

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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

Zatylny said encampments that impact egress or access to buildings become a safety hazard and a high-priority and EFRS works with the city and partner agencies to remove them.

The fire chief said EFRS has been doing outreach and education since April, trying to teach people and social agency partners about fire safety, fire risks and the “devastating consequences.”

“People are trying to stay warm, they’re cooking and they’re heating inside a tent that’s not designed for ventilation, the materials are combustible. With all the issues our vulnerable are facing, it just contributes to the continued position of how unsafe they are,” Zatylny said.

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

As of Nov. 30, the fire department has been called to 105 fires in encampments in 2023. There have been 19 injuries related to encampment fires in that time period, Zatylny said.

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There have been two deaths associated with fires in encampments. The chief is worried as the weather is bound to get colder, prompting more need for warmth.

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A 54-year-old man and a woman believed to be in her 20s died in encampment fires during the first weekend of November.

There were four encampment fire fatalities last year, Zatylny said.

“They’re all unacceptable. All these burns and injuries are unacceptable. It’s unsafe and we need to help the most vulnerable people in our community. It’s only going to get colder and my concern as fire chief is this is only going to escalate.”

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

Sally Downes has lived near Roland Road for a long time. There’s an encampment near her home now.

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“It’s discomforting. You don’t feel safe. And you don’t know what these people are going to do next. I just know that it doesn’t feel safe at night — screaming, yelling, hollering, all the time.”

She said she’d like to see people seek shelter in a place that’s more suitable — and safe.

“They need warmth. They need food. That’s the place to go: shelter. This isn’t the place for them to be.”

Downes said she feels sorry for vulnerable folks but supports efforts to clean up encampment sites.

“Gentle, very gentle…  Try to help them get to a shelter and then clean this up, clean up what’s going to be left after they leave. It’s going to be a lot of garbage. It could be a swimming pool, it could be a bicycle, it could be a BBQ, it could be anything.

“And the mess will remain after they leave and I hope they’ll do something about that as well.”

Sally Hampton lives in Riverdale and used to take her dog for a walk every night.

“I’m much more afraid,” she said. “I’ve always felt quite safe in the neighbourhood because everyone has a dog, but you think twice about it now.

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“I’m very empathetic to the people. I understand their need for a place to be. But I think it’s dangerous for the residents and it’s not terribly comfortable for these people.”

She said reports of assaults in the area also really worry her.

“It has a negative impact on the community. These people are wonderful people, I’m sure — they’re down on their luck — but there has to be a better way than living in tents.”

Hampton is also concerned about the fire risk.

“I walk down here all the time and I see fires and they’re exploding. It’s very dangerous. Obviously they must have some source of warmth in the tents so I’m sure they have some fire source and that’s very dangerous for everyone. We’re so dry right now. Fire spreads,” Hampton added.

Homeless encampment in Edmonton by Roland Road and 95 Ave on Dec. 19, 2023. Global News

A plan by the Edmonton Police Service to dismantle several encampments in the city’s core was put on hold Friday after an emergency injunction was sought by the Coalition for Justice and Human Rights (CJHR) and granted by the courts.

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Last Thursday, the EPS sent out an email to social agencies advising them that its encampment response team planned to close and clean up 134 “structures” at eight high-risk encampment sites between Dec. 18 – 22, including those near the Herb Jamieson 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.

After two court sessions and hours of discussions behind closed doors Monday, the emergency injunction was extended until the application for a lawsuit against the city’s encampment response is heard on Jan. 11, 2024.

However, a court decision determined police are allowed to remove the eight high-risk encampments before the holidays, as long as officers follow provisions all three parties — the city, police and the CJHR — agreed upon in court.

Moving forward, the city and officers must make sure there is enough shelter space to accommodate homeless people before taking an encampment down. They also need to notify the encampment residents, as well as social agencies, in advance.

Police said the these additional steps will slow the process of taking down encampments but that they understand the reaction this sparked because it’s around the holidays.

Click to play video: 'Enhanced encampment response plan presented to City of Edmonton committee'
Enhanced encampment response plan presented to City of Edmonton committee

Homeward Trust Edmonton, an organization working to end homelessness, said about 3,080 people were experiencing homelessness in the provincial capital as of early November — 521 more than the same time last year.

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The group said Edmonton only has about 1,126 shelter spaces available.

A statement from the province on Friday said the Alberta government 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,” she added.

But 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.

Last month, EPS spokesperson Scott Pattison said more than 14,000 complaints against encampments had been made to the city in 2023. As a result, 4,500 camps were investigated and responded to.

— With a file from The Canadian Press

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