More than 800 Edmontonians experienced homelessness in November, according to Bradley Lafortune, executive director of Public Interest Alberta.
“It’s a pretty astounding number and very heartbreaking,” said Lafortune, of the count done by Homeward Trust.
On Nov. 3, one person died in a tent fire and in the first two weeks of November, Edmonton Fire Rescue responded to seven encampment fires.
“People who are trying to stay warm are starting fires and then dying,” said Lafortune.
“I fear that there will be more deaths,” said Laurence Braun-Woodbury, an advocacy director at the Bissell Centre.
He said the Bissell Centre is working on a fire prevention education campaign among the houseless population.
Boyle Street and the Bissell Centre have day spaces activated for people to stay warm. Braun-Woodbury said Hope Mission and Mustard Seed have received funding to expand their overnight shelters.
Lafortune said on the coldest nights when temperatures dip to the negative 30s and 40s, warm spaces should be opened up, like LRT stations and other public spaces.
Last February during a cold snap when the city saw temperatures around minus 33, Edmonton police officers kicked homeless people and advocates out of Central LRT station while they were eating. Lafortune said this kind of response has been disappointing.
“If people are outside and it’s minus 30, and (they’re) freezing to death, it doesn’t make sense to me and other advocates in the community that we don’t open up doors to warm spaces, and at least keep people off the streets,” said Lafortune.
Edmonton activates an extreme weather response when temperatures are forecast around minus 40 with windchill. The response plan sees two ETS bus loops operating overnight, travelling between emergency shelters, transit centres and other key locations.
The solution that the two advocates would really like to see, however, is getting people out of tents.
“The best solution is finding these folks appropriate housing so they’re not desperately trying to keep warm in one of the coldest cities in the country,” said Braun-Woodbury.
“What we really need to see is an urgent and a massive reinvestment in affordable housing solutions. That means building, that means acquiring land, that means operating and that means support from the province, the federal government and the city,” said Lafortune.