City and police begin dismantling central Edmonton homeless encampment

Click to play video: 'After delay, closure of high-risk Edmonton homeless camps begins'
After delay, closure of high-risk Edmonton homeless camps begins
After a delayed start, the city and Edmonton police started to cleanup homeless encampments they deemed high-risk on Friday morning. People who were living in the first camp to be cleared have to find a new place to sleep. Sarah Komadina reports. – Dec 29, 2023

While a polarizing debate continues to rage on about what to do about homeless encampments in Edmonton, work began Friday morning to dismantle one of those sites in the city’s core.

Police officers could be seen speaking with people living in the encampment at 95th Street and 105th Avenue and beginning to remove items just before 9 a.m. The site is located just west of Quasar Bottle Depot.

EMS was also at the scene, as was a waste removal vehicle and City of Edmonton workers.

Early Friday morning, some people who live in the encampment could be seen collecting their items and preparing to leave.

One man who had been living in the encampment said he’d been working through the night to pack up his belongings.

“I’ve still got my tent back there,” said Frank, who declined to provide his last name. “I’ve got a lot of stuff. I’ve been collecting stuff for quite a few years and they keep taking it from me.”

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He said he’s been forced out of other sites before.

Frank said he’ll likely try to set his tent up in another location with his partner and their pet.

“Hopefully they don’t come kick us out. This was nice because it was private property and they couldn’t get us out of here as fast,” he said.

“I’d rather be able to stay with my other half and my cat … than go to a shelter.”

Edmonton police and city crews began dismantling a homeless encampment in the city’s core on Friday, Dec. 29, 2023. Global News

Jordan Reiniger, the executive director of Boyle Street Community Services, said the situation is better than it was right before Christmas.

“The mayor, through his leadership, called an emergency meeting. That has allowed more communication (and) collaboration with the City of Edmonton on the encampment closures. It’s not a perfect process but at least there’s a commitment that we’re working together.”

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Mayor Amarjeet Sohi called an emergency meeting on Dec. 20 with representatives from the Edmonton Police Service, Edmonton Police Commission, City of Edmonton and community social service providers to discuss encampment response. He said they discussed better communication and agreed to meet again in the new year.

Reiniger said all parties agree that “nobody wants anybody to be living in encampments, so the question is what’s the process to be able to do that in a good way? That’s the journey we’re on now.

“Lots of people, for a variety of reasons, don’t feel comfortable going to a shelter. So what are the other options we can offer folks? We’ve had teams out in the encampments this last week really working with people to see what their housing status is, are they working with people, are they not working with folks …  Trying to figure out what’s going to work for them.

“The city has made a commitment to work with us on some approaches there,” Reiniger said.

“Without providing alternatives, people are likely just going to go set up another encampment. So I think the challenge is: how do we do it in a way that’s actually effective and not just wasting resources pushing people around?

“It’s never going to be perfect,” Reiniger added, “but we can do better.”

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Click to play video: 'Cleanup to begin on several Edmonton encampments deemed high risk'
Cleanup to begin on several Edmonton encampments deemed high risk

The 95th Street site is one of four encampments that are among the eight high-risk locations identified for removal last week by police. However, an emergency court injunction sought by the Coalition for Justice and Human Rights on Dec. 18 was granted by a judge and briefly postponed the plan.

The injunction was extended until that application for a lawsuit against the city’s encampment response is heard on Jan. 11, 2024. But police are still allowed to remove the eight high-risk encampments as long as officers follow provisions that the Edmonton Police Service, The City of Edmonton and the CJHR agreed on in court.

One of those conditions for removing a camp is that officers need to ensure there is enough shelter space available to accommodate those being forced to leave an encampment. They also need to notify the encampment residents, as well as social agencies, in advance.

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In a news release Friday, the city explained an encampment may be deemed high risk when there’s a “serious risk of injury or death due to fire, carbon monoxide poisoning, drug use, gang violence, physical violence including weapons, public health and/or sanitation risks, environmental degradation and/or criminal activity. It is also assessed based on its proximity to local amenities including schools and playgrounds, the number of people and structures in the encampment, if the location has previously been an encampment site and how long it has been in place.”

Click to play video: 'Emergency injunction granted to stop large encampment eviction in Edmonton'
Emergency injunction granted to stop large encampment eviction in Edmonton

The Edmonton Coalition on Housing and Homelessness (ECOHH) said its members would not interfere with Friday’s actions by police, but that they would be there to watch and encouraged other Edmontonians to do so as well.

“The tearing down of these places where people are trying to live has been going on for months — for years, really — in this city and it’s time for Edmontonians to realize how cruel, how invasive, how dangerous the process is,” said Jim Gurnett, an ECOHH spokesperson.

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“For the city to claim that having an unverifiable number of mats on floors in emergency shelters is an adequate alternative is entirely unacceptable,” he added. “You have got to make sure that if you’re going to tear down where people are trying to make lives now, that you provide them with the housing they need to replace that.”

When larger, centrally located camps are dismantled, the people who were living there will relocate — sometimes to smaller camps further away from resources and services, which is even more dangerous, Gurnett said.

“It’s unhealthy and unsafe to be living like this, absolutely. And that’s why there’s an obligation on our governments to be providing what people really need for safe, decent housing.”

A garbage truck is seen at a central Edmonton homeless encampment on Dec. 29, 2023. Global News

Edmonton police chief Dale McFee has spoken publicly about some of the camps posing dangers to those who live in them and those who live near them because they present a fire hazard and are hot spots for drug use and crime.

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There have been several assaults, including a stabbing, at encampments this year.

In early November, two people were found dead after fires were put out at homeless encampments in central Edmonton.

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

In a statement Friday, Mayor Sohi said the city’s top priority is the safety of unhoused people and the surrounding community.

“We know that encampments are not a safe situation for vulnerable people, and long-term solutions like permanent supportive housing and more affordable housing are necessary to tackle houselessness.”

The mayor said the city manager has been asked to evaluate ways Edmonton can update its encampment response process, “including enhanced engagement with the social sector partners and Indigenous organizations.”

“Our partners shared that they were seeking more transparency and participation in the planning process especially for high-risk encampments, a co-ordinated communication response and better data co-ordination.”

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When responding to the eight high-risk camps, Sohi said the city will “ensure full compliance” to the interim order and agreements between police, the Coalition for Justice and Human Rights and the city.

“City administration has committed that on the day of the planned closure and cleaning, administration will confirm that shelter spaces are available. In the event there is not enough spaces on the day of a planned closure, administration would pause, reschedule and update council accordingly,” the mayor’s statement concluded.

Click to play video: 'Residents caught off guard by homeless housing trailers in central Edmonton neighbourhood'
Residents caught off guard by homeless housing trailers in central Edmonton neighbourhood

According to Homeward Trust Edmonton, there were 3,043 people experiencing homelessness as of Dec. 16. Of those, 670 are unsheltered, 1,743 are provisionally accommodated and 534 are staying in overnight shelters.

Another member of the ECOHH told Global News on Thursday that Edmonton only has about 1,126 shelter spaces available.

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A statement from the province on Dec. 15 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 and to 1,700 spaces “early in the new year.”

Gurnett says, in the meantime, Edmonton could consider other alternatives, like adding security, safe heating and bathroom facilities to some encampment sites. He also suggested trailer-type units that can be leased or purchased to be used instead of tents.

“It’s not rocket science,” he said. “It’s not expensive.”

–with files from Global News’ Sarah Komadina and Phil Heidenreich

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