Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the number of people experiencing homelessness in Edmonton has skyrocketed.
“We were at about 1,900 folks who were experiencing homelessness, and now we are at more than 3,000,” said Bissell Centre communications specialist Scarlet Bjornson.
To help, city council decided to give the Bissell Centre $1.8 million to expand its hours for six months.
“Because of the increased need, we’re finding that some of the agencies that are geared towards providing for the needs for people experiencing homelessness are having trouble meeting the increase demand,” said Christel Kjenner, the director of affordable housing and homelessness with the City of Edmonton.
While this financial boost is only temporary, Coun. Anne Stevenson said more needs to be done.
“I am really worried that this summer and season is going to be the worst that we’ve seen,” said the councillor for Ward O-day’min.
Stevenson said more permanent housing is the answer, but that’s not coming immediately. Because of that, she said it is time to think about homeless camps like the one that popped up in Rossdale in 2020. Stevenson is proposing to have the city operate and manage a camp.
City administration is now looking into the idea.
“We know that managed or legal encampments have been used as a tool in other jurisdictions to help address the large number of people who are unsheltered, and so we are open to exploring that as a potential solution,” Kjenner said.
Kjenner noted that while the idea of a legal camp is in its preliminary stages, current bylaws don’t allow for overnight camping in public places.
“But we are considering that as one of the tools in the overall toolbox,” Kjenner said.
City administration will make a presentation to council in the coming weeks.
Stevenson said, overall, a legal camp is not the ideal long-term solution — housing is. She is calling on the provincial government to help pay for that housing.
In a statement, Community and Social Services Minister Jason Luan said the provincial government’s latest budget “maintains existing funding for homeless shelters at $49 million” and highlighted steps his government is taking to address the issue.
“Alberta’s government also provides $29 million a year for Homeward Trust Edmonton to provide a variety of programming, including supportive housing and outreach supports,” the statement reads. “Homeward Trust works closely with local community organizations, including Bissell Centre, to ensure government funding is directed to priority projects.
“In 2021-2022, Homeward Trust provided $1.86 million to Bissell to operate outreach services, supportive housing and intensive case management. We have recently established a provincial homelessness task force — CEO of Homeward Trust Susan McGee and Edmonton city manager, Andre Corbould both sit on the task force. This taskforce is bringing together experts and community leaders from civil society, law enforcement, academia and the private sector to find innovative ways of working towards a common goal to reduce recurring homelessness. We believe that the best solution rests within the group.”
Seniors and Housing Minister Josephine Pon issued a statement about the issue as well.
“Our government released ‘Stronger Foundations: Alberta’s 10-year affordable housing strategy’ last November. ‘Stronger Foundations’ maps out the bold and thoughtful changes needed to provide safe, stable, affordable housing for an additional 25,000 households over the next 10 years – an increase of more than 40 per cent,” the statement reads. “A key component of the strategy is how we will be working with municipal governments.
“Throughout this spring and summer, we will be doing a community needs assessment with municipalities to work together in building new affordable housing projects that are community-driven and focused for better community results.”