Increase in people experiencing homelessness in Edmonton: ‘No one should die alone in a cold dark ravine’

Click to play video: 'Homeless encampments on the rise in Edmonton'
Homeless encampments on the rise in Edmonton
WATCH ABOVE: After a steady decrease in the number of people experiencing homelessness in Edmonton, the COVID-19 pandemic has taken its toll. As Sarah Komadina explains, more people are living rough and many are turning to building encampments in the river valley – Oct 29, 2021

Bill McGowan has lived near the Kinnaird Ravine for forty years. He enjoys walking through paths and taking in the scenery.

A couple of days ago, he was startled to find a woman hunched over a fallen tree.

He went to see if she was okay, but soon realized she had passed away. Police arrived and believe her death isn’t suspicious.

On either side of the path are two homeless encampments.

There are now red ribbons tied around a tree, marking the place where the woman was discovered.

“I can’t say we have become complacent. We have just become so frustrated, nothing seems to get done. There’s more homeless now than there was before,” McGowan said.

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He loves the neighbourhood and wants people who are struggling to get help. McGowan often calls 311 and last year started keeping a record.

“I went through my log last year, and I had 70 encampments I reported to 311 and that included to Dawson Park. This year I just reported 102 and 76 of those are in Kinnaird Ravine alone.”

His neighbour Kevin Cantelon started a Facebook group called Friends of the Kinnaird Ravine where they explore ways to help vulnerable people respectfully.

“This summer everything seems kind of backlogged and far more people coming in and remain the camps aren’t getting cleaned up … and it’s actually becoming a hazard,” Cantelon said.

“No one should die alone in a cold dark ravine in the middle of the city… There’s really no words.”

Red ribbons and flowers placed at a site where a woman was found dead in Kinnaird Ravine. Sarah Komadina/ Global News

It can also be dangerous when the sites are abandoned. McGowan’s granddaughter was pricked by a needle when she was tobogganing in the winter.

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“Underneath the snow, my granddaughter felt like a prick. It turned out it was a needle and she had to go through the whole step of what happens when you get pricked by needles and she is seven years old.”

City of Edmonton officials have visited 2972 encampments on public lands this year, 22 per cent more than last year.

The number of people experiencing homelessness in Edmonton has more than doubled since the beginning of the pandemic.

Bear Clan Patrol leader Judith Gale goes out to the streets and helps vulnerable people. She said many tell her they don’t like to stay in the shelters because it’s uncomfortable and feels unsafe. Gale worries because encampments can also be unsafe.

“It’s so dangerous. You’re far away from telephones, from light. It’s very dark in that area so a lot pf people actually go there to kind of hide,” Gale said.

“The bad elements go there as well. I hear a lot of people getting raped down there, getting their belongings stolen, their money robbed and their shoes robbed.”

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“They don’t have any alternative right now, there’s not enough beds in the city,” Gale said.

At the Bissell Centre, spokesperson Scarlet Bjornson said they have seen a 15 per cent increase in needs for their services.

“Over the last 10 years we were seeing drops in that number of people experiencing homelessness, and I think over the last year it’s jumped by 800 people if you look at the numbers by Homeward Trust,” Bjornson said.

Bjornson said people have really struggled during COVID-19, with some not being able to work, CERB ending and E.I. also drying up for people. Agencies are also struggling to make space for vulnerable people as COVID restrictions are giving them limited capacity.

“We just need to get as many people housed as possible and we need to get through COVID so our capacity for day time spaces can rise, so more people can get a break from the cold weather as our teams work to get as many people housed as possible,” Bjornson said.

Sandra Crawford has been homeless off and on for a number of years. She has been staying at Hope Mission since September after having issues at her apartment building. She hasn’t stayed in an encampment, but does worry.

“We are scared, we hear from a lot people in camps, how are we going to make it through winter,” Crawford said.

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Crawford will spend her days wandering, taking a break from the cold at the library, and other public buildings. She has hope circumstances will change, especially with a new council voted in.

“We have a new mayor, we have a new city council, we are starting to feeling optimistic to help with fixing some of the problems.”

As of October, city council has approved funding for 400 units of supportive housing.  210 units are currently under construction, with a targeted occupancy by early spring.

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