Police and peace officers arrived at a homeless encampment in the Rossdale neighbourhood Tuesday morning with the intention of dismantling it, but some of those who remained at the site said they had no intention of leaving.
Organizers officially closed Camp Pekiwewin on Saturday. While some people moved on to shelters across the city, several people remained at the site near RE/MAX Field — as well as a number of tents and other temporary structures.
The city posted notices at the site, saying crews would move in around 9 a.m. to dismantle the camp. Police and city vehicles arrived at around 8 a.m. Tuesday, along with dump trucks. However, the vehicles later left.
Christel Kjenner, director of housing and homelessness with the City of Edmonton, said they had hoped to close the encampment Tuesday. However, when city operations crews arrived they said residents at the site expressed a need for more time to access other housing options.
“We engaged in communication with the folks there and decided that we would allow a bit more time to facilitate the voluntary move of the remaining residents up to safer and warmer options,” Kjenner said.
Kjenner would not specify a deadline for the camp to shut down, but said “it’s certainly not an open deadline.”
“Because we’re focused on their safety, we don’t want to commit to a specific deadline not knowing in advance that everyone’s needs will be met. So there are some folks that have faced some barriers in accessing those other options, whether it was transportation or access to storage, so we’re just working through that, so that we can confirm that people have access to those other options.”
The camp went up near the Edmonton ball park at the end of July and at its peak, about 200 people were staying there. On Tuesday, people at the camp said anywhere between 10 and 99 people continued to stay at the site.
Randy Desjarlais has been living at the camp for about five months and said he doesn’t plan to leave.
“I’ve been chased away from everywhere else, from all different parts of the river valley,” he said.
“I choose to live this way, in honour of my people. I’m not bothering nobody. I don’t agree with the way this place looks. I didn’t make it look that way. Yes I would like it to be cleaned up, more respectable than the way it looks.”
Christian Bruno has been living at the camp for about three months and said it gives him a sense of safety. He tried to seek shelter at the Edmonton Convention Centre — formerly known as the Shaw Conference Centre — but said it was full.
“By 6 p.m. it’s already over capacity. They won’t let us in. I went there around 11 p.m. at night and they wouldn’t even let us in to warm up,” he said.
“It was so cold that I had to keep on moving or I would have froze out here pretty bad. So I came back here and it’s been more better here than at the Shaw.”
If forced to leave the Rossdale camp, Bruno said he isn’t sure where he’ll go.
“Maybe walk around. Usually what I do is I’ll go stay by the train stations and I’ll just sit there.”
Mayor Don Iveson said Tuesday morning that the city had an understanding with camp organizers that the camp would close, and was disappointed to hear people were still at the site.
“The site does need to be cleaned up. There are legitimate safety issues and it’s simply not suitable or appropriate for people to be camping there at any time, but certainly under these freezing conditions that we’re experiencing,” he said.
“The time has come, and organizers have committed to that so I’m hopeful that they will assist in the peaceful closure of the camp at this time and its cleanup.”
The Camp Pekiwewin closure came after a number of temporary shelters opened in Edmonton over the past couple of weeks, including at the Edmonton Convention Centre, Commonwealth Stadium and a space in the Ritchie neighbourhood.
The shelter at the convention centre opened on Oct. 30 with space for 400 people during the day and 300 overnight. However, the site reached capacity over the weekend as colder weather and snow settled in.
“They were turning people away at 10 p.m.,” said Steven Wolfe, who was seeking shelter on Sunday night.
“I went back to my tent, started a fire and sat in there all night.”
The city said Monday that people were taken to other shelters once the convention centre filled up, including Commonwealth, which has 120 spaces and was not at capacity.
“No one was turned away in the sense that nobody was left out in the cold without options for alternatives,” Kjenner said Monday.
At this point, the city said there is no intention of increasing capacity at the convention centre, as there is still space at other shelters.
The city said there are currently 766 shelter spaces across Edmonton available for immediate occupancy, and an additional 140 spaces if there is an increased demand. That does not include the 300 spaces available at the temporary shelter at the convention centre.
“There are tons and tons of conversations going on everyday looking at all aspects of this situation from ensuring there’s adequate space, ensuring there’s places for people to self-isolate if necessary, ensuring that there’s transportation between facilities,” Kjenner said.
With files from Vinesh Pratap and Fletcher Kent, Global News.