‘It happens far too often’: Advocate heartbroken over sexual assaults on homeless Edmonton women

Edmonton police have laid charges after investigators found a man they believe was targeting homeless women, bringing them home and assaulting them. Josh Arason / Global News

Official word that charges have been laid in connection to the sexual assault of at least two Edmonton women experiencing homelessness has advocates raising their voices once more.

“Enough is enough,” said Judith Gale, leader of Bear Claw Beaver Hills House. “We really want to protect our women better.”

On Thursday, police said they were able to lay charges — two counts each of forcible confinement and sexual assault — against a 60-year-old man after survivors shared what happened to them to west division police officers. One of the incidents dates back to 2015, police said.

Officers were told that “a man was approaching women in and around emergency shelters, befriending them, then taking them back to his house, where he would confine them, and only let them go after the sexual assaults were committed,” said Staff Sgt. Harry Grewal, with the EPS sexual assault section.

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“It’s definitely predatory, there’s no other way of putting it,” Grewal said. “Where a person picks a vulnerable person who already is in need of help from many agencies in our city and preys on them by giving them false hope, and taking them home where he sexually assaults them? Yes, I think that’s the definition of a predator.”

A suspect was identified and police warned several local emergency shelters about him.

Investigators believe there could be other victims.

Click to play video: 'Edmonton man accused of preying on women at emergency shelters'
Edmonton man accused of preying on women at emergency shelters

“It happens far too often, far too often,” Gale said. “We’ve got to stop it. These are our women, our sisters, our mothers, our aunties, and we have to keep them safe. We don’t want to see them being hurt any longer.”

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She said Edmonton must do a better job at protecting its most vulnerable citizens.

“We need to get them off the streets,” Gale said. “We need to house them so that they’re safe.”

Nivedita Kunjur, director of communications with the Bissell Centre, agreed these incidents further highlight just how critical housing is.

“These attacks are absolutely tragic. Unfortunately, they are not surprising given the life-threatening risks the vulnerable population — especially those who live on the street — face every day.

“Incidents like this once again prove why housing and support systems are so crucial for the safety of those vulnerable populations. Imagine living in perpetual fear for your safety and for your life. It’s absolutely inhuman,” Kunjur said.

Ward O-day’min Coun. Anne Stevenson agreed.

“It’s terrible to hear about someone taking advantage of people who are already experiencing so much vulnerability. It’s a heartbreaking story,” she said.

“It’s very concerning. And we certainly know that people who are living without adequate shelter are not safe.

“The need for safe shelter for women is acute. It’s a desperate need — not only for women who are experiencing homelessness, but those who may be in domestic violence situations.

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“It’s encouraging that the province recently announced funding for new shelters space… I hope to see a lot more of that.”

Stevenson said she appreciates the investigative work done by these police officers to build trusting relationships with women who grew comfortable enough with them to disclose the abuse.

“I hope it encourages others to come forward who have experienced this to come forward with their story so that other perpetrators can be held to account.”

Gale said women living on the streets are in some of the most vulnerable and precarious situations. She said sexual assault is not uncommon.

“Our women on the streets really need our help right now, above all.

“It’s just so disheartening. I just wish that we could do better as a society and do better as police, and take care of our most vulnerable in a better way. We have so many places in the city that are high-targeted areas for human trafficking,” Gale said.

And she said most women are often afraid to go to the police.

“Women feel like they can’t talk to the police about this or, in some cases, they’re actually extorted against talking to the police.”

Everyone can do their part to help, Gale said.

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“Let’s all be vigilant out there. If we see anything that’s suspicious, say something. You just never know who’s life you’ll be able to save.”

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