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Calls for more Edmonton social housing instead of $2M homeless camp removal

WATCH ABOVE: Homeless camps in Edmonton’s river valley aren’t new. But new numbers are painting a clearer picture of the situation. Julia Wong reports on calls from two orders of government to step in and help.

A new report on homeless camps headed to an Edmonton city committee Monday is evidence immediate work on social housing is needed, according to advocates for the homeless.

READ MORE: 180K pounds of garbage removed from 950 Edmonton homeless camps this year

In the first seven months of 2016, 951 homeless camps have been dismantled in Edmonton, according to the report. In 2015, 714 camps were removed, up from 653 in 2014.

Councillor Scott McKeen said the increase in dismantled camps may be a result of efforts by the city to clean up.

However, he said it is probably “fairly accurate” in describing how the issue has grown.

The report found that between January and July of this year, 180,000 pounds of garbage was collected from city homeless camps, including 4,811 needles, 137 weapons and 93 propane tanks. Material found at the camps ranged from litter and residential garbage to larger items such as couches and mattresses. Bio-hazardous materials were also disposed of, including used needles and human waste.

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More than $2 million has been spent on responding to and cleaning up homeless camps in the past two years.

READ MORE: ‘It looks like a dump’: Members of Edmonton Legion frustrated by nearby homeless camps

McKeen said the report now paints a clearer picture of the costs involved in dealing with the side effects of homelessness.

“It’s costing us way more money than building the appropriate housing, supportive housing for people who are homeless,” McKeen said.

“If we instead housed them, a lot of those side effects would start to go away – we would see tremendous reduced calls for service to police, paramedics; we would see a drop in people going to emergency; we would see a drop in the social disorder.”

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McKeen, who is frustrated by the situation, said emphasis is being placed on outreach, which he calls critical, but he suggests there needs to be a bigger push for affordable housing.

“It drives me crazy. It does not make sense the way we’re dealing with this. We’re wasting a lot of money and we are leaving a lot of Edmontonians in desperate, desperate straits,” he said.

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The councillor is calling on other levels of government to chip in and help.

READ MORE: Looking at different ways to help the most vulnerable in Edmonton

“I just want to see some tangible results. I want to see them come to the city and say, ‘here’s the money. Here’s the program and the money that would go with it.’ Now the city’s difficult responsibility in this would be providing land and working through the public engagement required,” he said.

Dean Kurpjuwait, managing director for The Mustard Seed, said there were no surprises in the report. The Mustard Seed works with the inner city’s less fortunate and seeks to help them integrate into the broader community.

RELATED: Edmonton counts homeless population 2 years after price of oil crashes

“Our numbers are up 30 to 40 per cent across the board. The numbers in that report are consistent with that – that there’s just that many more people than last year who are in need and are living roughly or in poverty,” he said.

“There’s a backlog of people who just need housing. Right now the demand is higher than the supply and that’s something we need to correct.”

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Kurpjuwait said the move towards more social housing needs to go faster.

“You really have to think long game with this and you have to look at the numbers long term. You have to a) clean up the camps but b) invest in housing. Eventually you don’t have to do the first thing because you’ve done the second thing and that’s tough.”

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He said the money currently being spent on cleaning up the homeless camps could be better invested.

“We could be using that money to house people and then there are no camps to clean up.”

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Giri Puligandla, the director of planning and research for Homeward Trust, said there can be multiple barriers for homeless people when it comes to housing, such as affordability of housing, a competitive rental market, discrimination and issues with mental health, addictions and trauma.

Homeward Trust is involved with funding projects addressing local homelessness. Puligandla echoes McKeen’s calls for more supportive housing, saying this is an issue that affects all Edmontonians.

“I can’t help but think, what if that was to happen to me? What would I do? What kind of help would I want?” he said.

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“They look at the river valley system and they see shelter and housing because they have no other access to it. Other people who want to jog or bike or whatever it might be to enjoy this beautiful parkland we have – it does impact their ability to enjoy it.”

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