A member of a task force created in response to concerns about policing in Edmonton is raising concerns about a report commissioned by the mayor after police kicked homeless people out of an LRT station during a bitterly cold stretch of weather this winter while they were trying to eat.
“I’m going to be frank, I’m appalled by the content of the report,” Rob Houle, a member of the city’s community safety and well-being task force, said Wednesday.
“I am appalled by the approach of administration to this issue and the conversation that’s happened to date.”
When making the comments at a city committee meeting, Houle noted he was speaking on his own behalf, not in his capacity as a task force member. In his comments, he suggested the scope of the report did not allow for the problematic incident to be addressed.
“I think it missed the point by a great deal that we’re trying to water down and look at the broader overview of what happened… without actually addressing the issues of why it happened, the ramifications of why it happened,” he said.
Just over a month ago, the incident at the LRT network’s Central Station prompted Mayor Don Iveson to ask the city’s administration to put together a report summarizing Edmonton’s extreme weather protocols, how those protocols were or weren’t followed during a cold snap that month and how the city works with police and shelters to communicate the policy.
On Wednesday afternoon, the report was presented to the city’s community and public services committee. The report says the last time the city’s extreme weather protocol was implemented several weeks ago, additional shelter spaces were made available for homeless Edmontonians and city buses were used to transport people in need to shelters.
“Two events during the activation of the extreme weather response generated public interest,” the report noted. “One involved the removal of vulnerable individuals from an LRT station and another involved the removal of an encampment on public land near Hope Mission.
“The Edmonton Police Service is currently investigating the event at the LRT station. Administration and (the) Edmonton Police Service have aligned processes for how and when the cleanup of encampments will occur.”
The report notes that in the winter, the city’s extreme weather response’s main purpose “is to ensure that vulnerable individuals have a place to be warm and secure from the cold.”
“This is achieved through transfers of guests between responding entities and service providers,” the report says. “During the winter of 2020-2021, the impact of COVID-19 on existing shelter services and locations where individuals would typically have sought respite through the day, such as libraries or malls, resulted in significant operational changes to emergency overnight and day shelter services.
“In response, additional daytime support has been required, (and) the city and its partners increased the number of shelter spaces available and most shelters shifted to a 24/7 model to address the loss of daytime space in the community.”
Houle said he was concerned by what he called the “overall lack of compassion and empathy… (from) people who responded to some of these calls,” and how that issue was not addressed in the report.
“We all know that the circumstances around (February) the 13th and the 14th had no undercurrents of disturbance or threats of violence… especially the one in the LRT (station).
“They were not being violent or belligerent. They were being served by a community-based organization that has sprung up due to the lack of… provincial and federal intervention into the housing crisis.
“They were just trying to eat their food.”
The people who were kicked out of the LRT station that February night were in the process of being fed by the Bear Clan Patrol Edmonton Beaver Hills House when police told them they had to leave.
In video of the incident that surfaced on social media, a police officer can be heard telling some of the homeless people that they couldn’t take their face coverings off inside even if they were eating, and that they were loitering and needed to find somewhere else to eat.
Houle said he had a personal connection to what happened as his children helped prepare the food that was being served by the Bear Clan Patrol. He noted that during the pandemic, Edmontonians have been allowed to remove their mask when eating or if they have a medical reason for which they can’t wear one.
“We’re getting… the runaround in terms of why people were intervening (in this instance), getting the runaround in terms of what happens to the people — the victims… The reports read very much like the victims of these actions are the perpetrators and that they’re part of a larger issue at hand around social disorder,” he said.
“We’re missing the humanity of the people who were directly affected by this.”
Houle added that he sees nothing in the report that stated such an event would never occur again.
“I see a lot of victim-blaming,” he said.
Judith Gale, the leader of the Bear Clan Patrol who was there that night told Global News that the police officer made no effort to help arrange transportation to somewhere warm despite the freezing cold temperatures, or to advise the people how they could arrange their own transportation.
On Wednesday, Gale told Global News that she would like more compassion to be shown for Edmontonians who are struggling and that she would also like to see tangible improvements in how such situations are handled.
“I believe that we need to have more communications between city facets such as agencies and police and peace officers,” she said. “They all need to be on the same page.”
Gale added she believes the city could have taken more time and been more thorough in assessing what happened. She noted neither she or any other Bear Clan Patrol member was asked for their account of what happened.
She said she would like the mayor or city councillors to come on patrol with her so they can “see firsthand how our brothers and sisters live.”
Gale added that there have been some positives that emerged in the wake of the encounter with police.
“I’m glad that we got the conversation started because it definitely needed to happen,” she said. “And I’m grateful that our mayor is using such as compassion and respect… when it comes to our unhoused demographic.”
Houle said he believes the city is trying to improve on how it deals with vulnerable Edmontonians and how it deals with systemic racism, but noted he believes “people, especially Indigenous people, continue to be victimized” and that the issues aren’t being dealt with head-on.
While speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Iveson said that he believes the city’s extreme weather response plan has come a long way over the years and noted that the introduction of buses to transport homeless Edmontonians — which have peace officers and social workers on them — has been a positive step.
The mayor said overall he is satisfied with the protocols in place and noted the report was aimed at determining “what didn’t work” in February and “why weren’t different resources deployed” in some situations.
“Really what we need to get right is the deployment of the right support and care workers to respond in situations like we saw both on the 13th and 14th (of February), where perhaps the wrong service was deployed,” he said.
Iveson noted that he believes the city will continue to delve into these issues in the near future.
“I don’t think we’re done with this discussion,” he said.
When asked if he will press the Edmonton Police Service to conclude their investigation of the report in a timely manner and then release its findings publicly, Iveson said he was not sure if he had the power to do that under the Police Act but he hopes the police commissioner will follow up on the report.
“I think our public’s been pretty clear in how they felt about (what happened),” he said. “The police did apologize when I raised this matter previously.
“The real question will be the follow-through on this and do we see a change in approach and a change in behaviour… and that would include the fallout and findings of the (police) investigation.”
In a statement issued the day after the February LRT incident, police said they “should have better communicated our role in helping connect citizens to the City of Edmonton’s services and partner agencies whose goals are to keep vulnerable citizens safe and warm.”
The prevalence of homelessness in Edmonton has grown considerably since the COVID-19 pandemic hit the city last year, according to entities that work with poverty-stricken Edmontonians.
The rise in the number of homeless Edmontonians has prompted a wider discussion at city hall and among those who advocate for homeless people about the way the issue is dealt with and how to create more opportunities for people to find a place to sleep besides shelters or the street.
–With files from Global News’ Chris Chacon
Watch below: Some Global News videos about an incident in February during which vulnerable Edmontonians were kicked out of an LRT station during extremely cold conditions.