Homeless encampments continue to grow and spread across the city, and Edmonton’s mayor is once again calling out for more support for affordable housing to help the ever-expanding crisis.
Amarjeet Sohi co-wrote a letter with Calgary’s mayor and the province’s minister of seniors community and social services Tuesday calling on the federal government to reconsider funding more rapid housing initiatives in Edmonton and Calgary.
There are more than 3,100 unhoused people in Edmonton — almost 65 per cent of whom identify as Indigenous, he said.
“Our city is experiencing an affordable housing crisis. And we have an urgent need for permanent supportive housing and wrap-around services that support healing and recovery.”
The city requested $67 million in financial support for the Rapid Housing Initiative Phase 3, which would include seven projects — 288 housing units. The City of Edmonton and the province would commit $43.5 million to these projects, Sohi said.
The first two phases of the RHI created 483 housing units in Edmonton, but more needs to be done, Sohi said.
He said he is “deeply disappointed” that only one of 11 units was funded under Phase 3 — only four per cent of the city’s total ask from the federal government.
“I’m concerned that Alberta’s only receiving three per cent of the $1.5 billion allocated for the Phase 3 of the RHI city and projects streams,” Sohi said, adding that it seems to him like funds are not being distributed equally or equitably to cities across the country.
He said the feds selected just six of 39 Alberta applications for funding and that this money is essential to helping the increasing number of Edmontonians sleeping rough.
The mayor is worried that if the city doesn’t get federal support for more housing, the provincial government will pull funding, leaving the city without enough resources to support those living on the streets.
In response to the letter, the federal minister’s office said that the funding Alberta receives through the three phases of the RHI “will help establish 1,776 units of the 15,539 expected across Canada. This represents 11.4 per cent of the total units, a roughly per capita allocation of funding to Alberta.”
In addition, the statement said, through the city stream — one of two funding streams in the RHI — funding was allocated to all cities’ top prioritized projects. For the projects stream, project priority were ranked based on criteria met, including “cost-sharing, expediency, subsidy duration, need, land, affordability, people & populations, new applicants, energy efficiency and accessibility.”
Getting a roof over people’s heads isn’t the only concern.
Police Chief Dale McFee said Monday the crime rates in encampments are a big concern. Sohi echoed this statement.
“Unhoused Edmontonians are the most vulnerable. They have a hard life. They are forced to live on the street without shelter, without proper support and they end up living in encampments,” Sohi said.
“There, they are preyed upon by criminals and by gang members and that further risks their lives and that is something I am deeply concerned about.”
He said the city monitors encampments to ensure they are safe and once they are deemed unsafe, they are dismantled after people are given the chance to vacate.
“We have a very compassionate approach because we understand that people are forced to live in tents and encampments — it’s not a choice…
“We lack shelter capacity, we lack affordable housing, we lack supportive housing and people are forced to live rough.”
Yet the city is not able to keep up with the number of encampments as they continue to grow and expand beyond downtown, Sohi said.
Shawn Sanderson lives in an encampment downtown and he says he feels like it’s a pretty safe area, especially with the gangs around to protect. He hasn’t, however, noticed city workers around in his five or six months he’s lived at that encampment.
One thing he likes about living there is the sense of family it fosters, unlike other spots he’s lived.
Kianna Marion lives nearby and says she doesn’t feel totally safe in the encampments.
“It’s safe to a certain extent. I’ve been bear-maced before,” she said. She’s also been “rinsed” — when you have all of your belongings taken from you.
“It’s hard right, because you don’t have much being homeless, you don’t have a place to sleep. But I learned to bounce back when I get rinsed … basically accumulating more possessions, starting from scratch.”
She’s been living downtown for about a year, never with her own tent, but has “managed to survive.”
“I think it’s kind of messed up how the police make you move.… It’s like, where are we supposed to put up our tents?” she said.
“I understand when the area gets messy they come and get the cleanup crew but we try to keep it pretty clean.”
And it’s not the gangs as a whole that are causing problems, Marion said, rather certain gang members that don’t follow “the codes.”
If anything, she said, she wants the city to create a safe inhalation site where people can smoke drugs like meth in a safe place.
“I’ve lost a lot of people to overdoses,” Marion said.
“But it all could have been avoided if there had been a safe (inhalation) site open 24 hours.”
For now, the city awaits a response from Ottawa on how to move forward.
— with files from Morgan Black, Global News