Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson said the city is calling on the federal government for support to “quickly acquire” existing locations like hotels and motels in order to address homelessness in cities across Canada before winter arrives.
Iveson said Thursday that his message to find temporary housing “right away” for those experiencing homelessness has been amplified by big city mayors across Canada who are calling for the same thing.
“Municipalities are already under immense financial pressure, but sending people back out onto the streets is simply not a solution. People need stable housing to weather the circumstances that put them into that vulnerability,” Iveson said.
On Thursday, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) proposed a federal initiative and partnership to “rapidly repurpose on-sale private buildings as permanent, non-profit housing for vulnerable Canadians.”
“We’ve seen vulnerable people leaving crowded shelters to stay physically distant on the streets or in tent encampments,” FCM president Bill Karsten said in a media release.
“To keep more people safer, municipalities have responded by leasing motels and repurposing arenas as costly safe shelters. But we urgently need more sustainable housing solutions for vulnerable Canadians — and we’re ready to work with the federal government to do what it takes to get them housed as fast we can.”
The federation said acquiring and retrofitting existing buildings is much faster and cheaper than building new affordable housing.
Iveson echoed those sentiments in a news conference Thursday afternoon, saying a motion passed by Edmonton city council last week “seeks to address homelessness by focusing on quickly acquiring existing locations like hotels and apartments that may have become recently available in these market conditions so that they can be used as temporary housing right away.”
Iveson said the proposed partnership with the feds would help community housing providers acquire, repair and retrofit available buildings “rapidly” for essential non-profit housing.
“Most urgently, cities across Canada are suggesting that we convert buildings like motels and hotels into permanent supportive housing so that we can better support Canadians experiencing homelessness, including those living with mental illness and substance use disorders,” Iveson said.
“This is a more cost-effective measure than any short-term or temporary shelters, and supports key federal objectives to reach or exceed the national housing strategy’s aim to cut chronic homelessness in half.”
Iveson said the plan would also support Canada’s overall economic recovery, because of the work needed to repair and retrofit these buildings.
“We urgently need permanent, sustainable, supportive housing solutions for vulnerable Canadians now more than ever.”
Iveson is asking the federal government, as part of its next response to the COVID-19 crisis, for “significant resources for the rapid acquisition of housing that can help us reduce homelessness and, I believe, end it in a short fashion.”
Iveson said for a city like Edmonton, the funding would be in the area of tens of millions or low hundreds of millions. However, he said it sounds like there is a will from the federal government to hear a serious proposal on the issue.
“You can easily extrapolate from that to a nation scale that it is significant. But in the grande scheme of a multi-hundred billion dollar response to this — and instead of spending money on shelters and money on short-term accommodations and renting spaces — if we buy them it will be a lot cheaper for the taxpayer over the medium term,” he explained.
“And if we’re all going to be paying this back over the next generation anyway, let’s get best bang for our buck and help some hoteliers who are really struggling exit their property at the same time.”
Conversations ongoing between Edmonton and Camp Pekiwewin
The issue of homelessness in Edmonton has been particularly top of mind this summer, after a homeless encampment popped up near RE/MAX Field. Camp Pekiwewin has been stationed in the Rossdale neighbourhood since early August.
The City of Edmonton released a statement on Saturday saying it is “concerned about illegal encampments” and wants to work towards closing down the large camp.
Shima Robinson, the media liaison for Camp Pekiwewin, said she was a little bit dissatisfied with Iveson’s announcement Thursday, as she believes it still sounds like a long-term goal.
“I think it’s great that there are more cities, more officials involved in the call for the support and services delivery to folks who live rough, folks with complex needs, addiction, mental health needs, etc.,” she said.
“What we need is for the City of Edmonton, so ideally coming from the mayor and councillors, to pay close attention to what’s happening on the camp and find solutions within our grasp in the next few weeks here.”
Iveson said Thursday that city officials were in talks with Camp Pekiwewin and there should be an update “soon.”
“Discussions continue about how to best handle the sanitation needs and public health supports that are necessary. The city is trying to be as supportive as possible without enabling it to becoming a permanent encampment because we believe there is a better solution, which we’re working towards, which is transitional housing and permanent housing for all people experiencing homelessness,” he said.
“There has to be a better solution. So the city is in conversations with the camp today.”
Robinson said she understands cities are facing financial strains, but added action needs to be taken.
“Putting an end date on the camp without creating the necessary social infrastructure, the necessary supports and services delivery would mean that we’re back at square one. We’re back before square one. We’re back at people out there in the winter.”
Over the weekend, a small encampment of tents also popped up in Old Strathcona, at Dr. Wilbert Mcintyre Park off 83 Avenue and 104 Street.
Judith Gale, one of the outreach workers who helped organize the Old Strathcona camp, told Global News over the weekend that those involved wanted to “give notice to Edmonton that the problem is not going to go away.”
“We have peace officers going down into the River Valley slicing up tents of human beings that have nowhere else to go,” Gale said last Sunday. “Where are they going to go?”
A statement from the city issued over the weekend said it “refute(s) the claim that the city slashes tents or destroys property thoughtlessly.”
The city estimates about 1,900 people are homeless and 500 to 600 of them choose not to use shelter facilities and camp outdoors every night.
With files from Allison Bench, Global News.