The removal of an encampment outside of the Calgary Drop-In Centre has sparked a larger conversation inside city hall and disappointment from Mayor Jyoti Gondek.
Calgary bylaw officers along with police began removing the tents from the area along Dermot Baldwin Way and Riverfront Avenue S.E. on Tuesday, with efforts continuing into Wednesday outside the Drop-In Centre.
“It’s something that has been deemed a cleanup, which is not acceptable,” Gondek told reporters Wednesday. “That is not how we characterize looking after people in positions of vulnerability, when we take down the only home they have.”
Homeless care advocates said the camp has grown significantly in recent weeks with incoming colder weather.
According to Calgary Bylaw, there has been a “shelter-in-place” strategy for homeless encampments in the city since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, meaning those tents wouldn’t be removed if there was no risk to public safety or the vulnerable people inside.
However, Calgary chief bylaw officer Ryan Pleckaitis said the encampment around the Drop-In Centre had “significant safety risks” to those inside the tents and the public, which prompted complaints from the surrounding business community.
“There’s so many encampments that sometimes they encroach and block access into the Drop-In Centre, which creates significant challenges for EMS, for fire and for Calgary Police Service personnel,” Pleckaitis said.
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“There’s the use of propane heaters, candles (and) other sources of open flame, which obviously create risks not only to the individuals who are using those sources of heat, but to all the other individuals in that area.”
Pleckaitis said the first priority for bylaw officers is to try to bring those sleeping rough into shelters or into “more suitable living arrangements,” before removing the tents and any debris, waste or garbage in the area.
“A cleanup is fine if you’re removing debris. It is not fine if you’re removing people,” Gondek said. “It is not something we will stand for in our city. We must be better than this.”
Chaz Smith is with Be The Change YYC, a homeless care advocacy group that provides emergency essentials to the city’s homeless community.
According to Smith, the group provides tents and sleeping bags, many of which were being used in the encampment outside the shelter.
He told Global News that members of his team were on hand on Tuesday evening when the encampment was being torn down by officers.
“What we saw further into the East Village was many medical calls that we made to ambulances, where then people were exposed to the elements too long and exacerbate any conditions that they had,” Smith said.
In response to the removal of the tents, Gondek called a meeting between city staff, bylaw, fire and police, as well as social agencies, including the Drop-In Centre and Alpha House.
According to a spokesperson for the mayor’s office, the goal of the meeting was to “pull key stakeholders together to drive towards greater collaboration and co-ordination to better serve those sleeping rough and all Calgarians.”
“The conversation involved tackling greater access to shelters, public washrooms, supervised consumption sites, needle disposal and access to more permanent wrap-around supports (housing, mental health and addictions),” said the statement from the mayor’s office.
Sandra Clarkson, the executive director of the Calgary Drop-In Centre, participated in the meeting and described the conversation as productive.
According to Clarkson, outreach teams with the Drop-In Centre have been tasked with determining who the people sleeping outside of the building are, what circumstances they are under and why they haven’t accessed services inside the shelter.
The Drop-In Centre is described as a low-barrier shelter without sobriety requirements, but Clarkson said there is zero tolerance for violence towards clients and staff or predatory solicitation of drugs.
Clarkson told Global News the Drop-In Centre will undertake a review of its policies to determine if there are any barriers that have developed for people to access the shelter.
“As a result of COVID, have we inadvertently put up barriers without realizing it,” Clarkson said. “So we’re exploring our internal operations to see if there are barriers that we can remove to increase access to shelter.”
Pleckaitis confirmed Calgary Bylaw would also be reviewing its internal practices to ensure the response is effective and compassionate towards the city’s more vulnerable populations.
Ultimately, homeless care advocates agree that the issue is complex, and believe access to housing is a major factor in the situation.
“They all want housing, and while we’re all continuing to scramble to get people experiencing homelessness into housing, we simply just do not have enough housing for this population,” Smith said. “With a 30 per cent vacancy rate in the downtown core, we could all agree that’s fairly unacceptable that anyone that wants housing should have to sleep outside.”
The mayor’s office said Gondek hopes the meeting is a first step at “better aligning services and response.”