Task force launched to address Edmonton’s social issues, addictions, homelessness

Click to play video: 'Province announces plan to tackle social disorder in Edmonton, mayor not involved'
Province announces plan to tackle social disorder in Edmonton, mayor not involved
There's optimism Edmonton's social challenges will finally be addressed following the creation of a new task force. But as Dan Grummett reports, what's touted as a 'collaborative' approach, didn't involve the City of Edmonton itself – Dec 13, 2022

A task force has been formed to try and deal with the complex and often-intertwined issues of addiction, homelessness and crime in Edmonton.

The Edmonton Public Safety and Community Response Task Force met for the first time Tuesday.

Chaired by former Calgary police officer and current Public Safety and Emergency Services Minister Mike Ellis, the task force is comprised of 12 people, and two more are pending.

The goal is to address social issues through a coordinated response between the province, city and local partners such as Homeward Trust, which provides broad supports for Edmonton’s homeless community.

“We can’t have multiple different ministries, multiple different agencies doing wonderful things — but maybe not all rowing in the same direction,” Ellis said.

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Addiction is one of the most urgent but also complex social issues facing the province, Mental Health and Addiction Minister Nicholas Milliken said, adding if left untreated it leads to homelessness, and long-term physical and mental health concerns.

“The consequences of untreated addiction are all around us, whether it be open-air drug use that is happening downtown, or the safety issues that are happening in transit stations,” he said.

Crystal methamphetamine use is driving crime in the city, said Edmonton Police Service chief Dale McFee: “I don’t think you have to walk more than a block to see somebody using meth in an open air space.”

It’s not the first time he has spoken about the connection between crystal meth and crime and on Tuesday, he said it causes normal people to do “not normal” things.

“It’s disproportionately driving our violence. It’s our car chases, it’s everything associated. And at the root of meth, the solution is in housing.”

Click to play video: 'Edmonton police chief sets up new unit to free up officers to fight serious crime'
Edmonton police chief sets up new unit to free up officers to fight serious crime

McFee said there’s a significant number of criminals preying on vulnerable and homeless people struggling with addictions. But sending those victims straight into the criminal justice system isn’t necessarily the answer — a more nuanced, multi-discipline approach is needed.

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“This is the first time that I’ve seen the right ministers take the right approach, in my opinion, and actually drive change,” McFee said.

Ellis cited high-profile transit attacks and the deaths of two men in Chinatown this year as tragedies the task force wants to make sure never happen again.

“These incidents show that we cannot work in independent silos,” Ellis said.

“The victims of these crimes are hardworking Albertans who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Ellis said residents deserve safety and those struggling with addiction need a helping hand.

Click to play video: 'Alberta to provide more funding to addictions, homelessness to Calgary, Edmonton'
Alberta to provide more funding to addictions, homelessness to Calgary, Edmonton

The provinces said the task force will be responsible for implementing several initiatives as part of a $187-million commitment announced in October to address addiction and homelessness in Alberta’s urban centres.

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Before entering politics, Seniors, Community and Social Services Minister Jeremy Nixon said he spent most of his career working in the non-profit sector at shelters such as The Mustard Seed in Calgary and has witnessed these complex issues firsthand.

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“There was nothing more devastating than when somebody made the decision of recovery and reached out to ask for help and they didn’t receive it,” Nixon said.

In Edmonton, the province said $63 million of the funding will go to increasing access and capacity to addiction services and supports over the next two years, and $19 million has been allocated to combat homelessness.

Click to play video: 'Reaction to new funding for addictions, homelessness supports in Edmonton'
Reaction to new funding for addictions, homelessness supports in Edmonton

Milliken said the funding includes increasing capacity with a new recovery community in Edmonton and operationalizing 100 treatment beds at the former McCullough Centre in Gunn.

It closed in two years ago, before the province announced in March the 2022 budget will allow the facility to be renovated and reopened in 2023 as a long-term intensive addiction treatment program.

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Some of the other specific task force initiatives outlined on Tuesday were:

  • Providing addiction and mental health treatment programs in correctional centres
  • Creating a hybrid health and police hub
  • Expanding medical detox services
  • Building harm-reduction and recovery outreach teams
  • Expanding access to emergency shelter space

“This is the fair and compassionate approach to social issues that is required to treat addiction as a health-care issue and keep our communities safe,” Milliken said.

Drug poisonings have been on the rise for years in Alberta and advocate groups like Moms Stop the Harm have stressed the need for supervised consumption services (SCS) — also sometimes called harm reduction or colloquially known as safe injection sites — as part the approach to saving lives.

The UCP government has focused more on services that get people off drugs completely.

“This is a recovery oriented system of care, of which harm reduction services obviously do play a role. But they aren’t a silver bullet,” Milliken said, adding the budget for SCS has increased.

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“We truly do believe that it is part of the holistic continuum of care and we will continue to make sure that people who need and want treatment have that available to them.”

Friends of Medicare slammed the task force, saying it is made up of people cherry-picked to support the UCP government’s agenda and excludes front-line community voices for harm reduction.

“Another task force will not save lives,” executive director Chris Gallaway said in a statement.

“Hollow talk of abstinence-only ‘recovery,’ does not and will not save lives. There can be no recovery if you are dead.”

More space to get people off the streets is something the city has stressed is needed for months now.

Two weeks ago, the councillors took it upon themselves to approve $7.5M for emergency winter shelter space in west Edmonton, even though funding such facilities is the province’s responsibility.

The task force members are:

  • Public Safety and Emergency Services Minister Mike Ellis
  • Mental Health and Addiction Minister Nicholas Milliken
  • Seniors, Community and Social Services Minister Jeremy Nixon
  • Municipal Affairs Minister Rebecca Schulz
  • Enoch Cree Nation Chief Billy Morin
  • Woodland Cree First Nation Chief Isaac A. Laboucan-Avirom
  • Edmonton city councillor Tim Cartmell
  • Edmonton city councillor Sarah Hamilton
  • Edmonton Police Service chief Dale McFee
  • Alberta Health Services , Provincial Addiction and Mental Health senior program officer Kerry Bales
  • AHS Edmonton Zone EMS Operations associate executive director Graeme McAliste
  • Homeward Trust CEO Susan McGee

Also invited to the task force, pending City of Edmonton approval, is city manager Andre Corbould and Edmonton Fire Rescue Services chief Joe Zatylny.

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While two members of city council — who represent wards in the city’s southwest — were named to the task force, Mayor Amarjeet Sohi said he was not made aware of that before Tuesday and added they don’t have authority to speak for council.

“We were not, in any way, included in the creation of the task force. It is a decision that the province has made,” he said.

“They were hand-picked by the UCP government. They are not there to represent city council, because it was not approved by city council.”

Sohi said he will continue to communicate with ministers, adding he is glad the province is doing more to address homelessness.

“It’s a provincial responsibility and they’re stepping up — and they need to step up more.”

Sohi said council will decide whether or not to approve letting Corbould join the task force.

Nixon pointed out a large percentage of people experiencing homelessness and addictions are Indigenous, which is why having leaders from First Nations on the task force was critical.

Neither Morin or Laboucan-Avirom were at Tuesday’s news conference, but in a statement the latter said First Nations are also facing a crisis.

“Our people face obstacles of intergenerational trauma and as a result, mental health and addiction issues are deeply impacting our families and communities,” Laboucan-Avirom said.

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“This task force is a step in the right direction and the positive impacts can be multi-generational.”

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A community group that formed six months ago to address issues in downtown Edmonton approves of the task force.

“Provincial collaboration is key in solving the problems our community organizations, businesses and residents are facing throughout our downtown core,” said Downtown Recovery Coalition (DRC) chair Alexandra Hryciw, who is also the director strategy and external relations for the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce.

Edmonton’s homeless population doubled over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many social services are concentrated just north of the city’s downtown core and the DRC said the entire area has struggled with safety, cleanliness and overall recovery from the pandemic.

In September, DRC called on addressing social issues in central Edmonton to be a priority for all levels of government.

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“We appreciate the action of the provincial government in hearing our concerns and responding to our advocacy,” Hryciw said in a news release Tuesday.

The province said it spends more than $1 billion overall annually on addiction and mental health care and supports.

The province said there are more than 28,000 visits to emergency rooms per year by people with no fixed address and the vast majority get discharged back into homelessness with little or no supports.

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Each patient that experiences homelessness costs the health-care system around $115,000 — 43 per cent more than the average patient — the province added.

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Nixon said he has seen mentally ill people who were a risk to themselves and who needed long-term treatment be discharged back into shelters.

“We need to make sure that we end that,” Nixon said.

“That we’re giving them the help and the supports so they can move beyond the street and live a normal life.”

Resources for those struggling with addictions in Alberta

Albertans with addiction or mental health challenges can contact 211 for info on services in their community.

Those struggling with opioid addiction can contact the Virtual Opioid Dependency Program (VODP) by calling 1-844-383-7688 from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily.

VODP provides same-day access to addiction medicine specialists. The province said there is no waitlist.

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