Edmonton’s mayor will be asking for a formal inquiry into an incident this weekend, after video captured homeless people being kicked out of an LRT station.
“In light of the extreme cold we’ve been experiencing of late, it’s heartbreaking and it’s frustrating to watch,” Don Iveson said Tuesday.
“It’s not the way the city strives to serve Edmontonians experiencing homelessness.
“I would have liked to have seen the officers in this case take the time to connect these Edmontonians to the City of Edmonton services and partner agencies that have been working overtime and working tirelessly during the activation of our extreme weather response to keep vulnerable residents safe and warm rather than just direct them outside.”
“I’ll be making a formal inquiry tomorrow at the community and public services committee, asking city administration to bring back a report on our extreme weather protocols clarifying what our city employees, including police, are expected to do with citizens experiencing homelessness and other situations that put them at risk so that council can determine what changes or clarifications may be required to improve the implementation of our extreme weather protocols and learn from this event,” the mayor said.
The video was shared by Judith Gale, who works with The Bear Clan Patrol Edmonton Beaver Hills House. It was taken at Central Station on Sunday, she said.
In the video, a police officer tells some of the homeless people that they can’t take their face coverings off inside even if they’re eating and adds that they are loitering and need to find somewhere else to eat.
Gale is heard telling the officers that the homeless people they were feeding will face “extreme weather” outside and a police officer is heard telling her “there’s lots of shelters though.”
The mayor said if people are going to be forced out of those spaces, he expects they would be referred to other accommodations and supports.
The inquiry, he said, will look at who was called to respond in this case and if it should have been a multi-agency response or if the call should have been made to an agency other than police.
“We’ve been encouraging Edmontonians and business owners and concerned citizens who see a situation of someone in distress to contact 211 in order to get referral of the right agencies and providers to help assist someone through the 24-7 crisis diversion response,” Iveson said.
“Whether that should have been the call rather than police in this case is a question we’ve been looking at very closely.”
Iveson wants to make sure people get what they need “in a compassion and dignified way.”
Iveson said Tuesday that there has been space available across the shelter network during the bitter cold snap. Part of that was because of the city’s commitment to Tipinawâw, he said, referencing the 24-7 pandemic accommodation at the Edmonton Convention Centre, which expanded capacity from 300 to 350 during the extreme cold weather.
“My understanding is that some shelters are full but on every night during the extreme cold weather there was capacity in the system overall.”
A few years ago, the city did open up LRT stations temporarily for those trying to escape brutal cold.
“We didn’t have better solutions in place,” Iveson said. “And frankly, it was not a very hospitable or functional environment for people.
The stations are warmer than outside but very often still below freezing. So they’re really not suitable for human habitation.
“The washroom facilities are inadequate and it’s very difficult, from a public safety and liability perspective, for the city to guarantee the safety for folks depending on that space or for other patrons.”
The mayor stressed that the bigger issue is having supportive housing in place.
“I would rather keep the emphasis on that than trying to figure out what is the least desirable place for people to shelter during cold weather in our city.
“That’s what’s broken here. It’s not that there should be a different place for people who are homeless to shelter; it’s that there should be housing for people.”
Iveson said the city is doing all it can — even outside its jurisdiction — but it needs support from other levels of government. The mayor said the federal government’s rapid housing plan is a good start, but the city is waiting on the province.
Ward 4 Coun. Aaron Paquette said the LRT video shows there’s still work to be done.
“An extreme lack of funding,” he said. “These sorts of situations shouldn’t even be happening.”
“When it comes to homelessness, we can solve it. We already know how. The real problem is we don’t have the funding. We don’t have provincial participation.”
Paquette referenced the $14 million from the federal government to start building housing but said there’s been nothing yet from the UCP.
“The City of Edmonton, we don’t have the money to do it ourselves, otherwise we would.”
Iveson wants to see the province step up with supportive housing, wrap-around supports and health services for people to remain housed.
“If the public response to this incident is any indication, it is clear that Edmontonians also care about justice and dignity for our most vulnerable neighbours.
“I sincerely hope this upcoming provincial budget includes much-needed funding for supportive housing operations, which will open the door to further rapid housing initiatives from the federal government,” the mayor said.
“It costs less to fix these issues than we are spending by not fixing them,” Paquette stressed.
“Anyone that’s got an ounce of fiscal responsibility would be looking to fix these issues — to eradicate homelessness, to eradicate poverty — so we can actually save money in our budgets.”