Calgary Police Service members returned to a southeast encampment this week as workers removed the tents, tarps and personal effects of those who have made the spot their temporary home.
An unconfirmed number of people have been living in a treed area stretching from 46th Avenue to Glenmore Trail, along the west side of Deerfoot Trail, but police say they know the campers and frequently check in on them.
“It’s Donnie over here, it’s Serge over in the corner, it’s Barry … it’s Kim over in the front,” said acting Sgt. Robert Gray. “We’re all on a first-name basis. We’ve been here for an entire year just meeting with them, speaking with them, offering all of the resources we have to try and help them get into housing, help them locate jobs — if they’re able to work, if they’re willing to work. Find out what they (have) for skills, what they do for trades.”
A resident of the encampment, who identified himself to Global News as Joe Able, says he’s lived there off-and-on for nearly five years and agreed that the time was right for the removal of the camp given the questionable actions of some of his fellow campers.
“I see it happening now and I just shake my head,” said Able. “Wow, man, these guys get away with a lot of stuff.
“I feel bad, that’s why I don’t want to say anything. I don’t want to yell at them because they agree. You can’t have this, this is bad.”
Alpha House representatives, medical staff with the police and crisis team (PACT), conservation officers, bylaw officers and disposal services staff have all been on hand since the dismantling, deemed Operation Encampment, began Monday.
“Where possible, Alpha House’s Outreach teams work to reduce displacement for individuals who rough sleep as we know this is the best way to ensure we can maintain connection with these clients and continue to provide support towards housing and stability,” explained Alpha House officials in a statement to Global News. “However, we do recognize that large encampments, often referred to as tent-cities, can be unsafe for both the individuals in the camps and for the community as a whole and sometimes cleanups are needed. Ultimately, a spectrum of supportive and affordable housing options is required for long-term solutions to encampments in the city.”
CPS Chief Mark Neufeld took to social media to voice his concerns with the camps and explain the rationale for their removal.
“We can’t allow encampments to become entrenched in Calgary,” Neufeld said in a post to X, formerly known as Twitter. “Health and safety concerns, refuse, violence, criminality, as well as stolen property, are issues that quickly arise when you don’t address them early.
“Often those sleeping rough are in desperate need of support and intervention.”
This is not the first time police have cracked down on the camps on the provincially owned stretch of land.
In the spring, CPS, bylaw and social service agencies dismantled an encampment at the same location over several days. Officers seized stolen goods and weapons. At the time, several of the displaced told Global News that they had been staying in the camp for roughly a year. One man indicated his plans to return to the spot as soon as police left.
According to the City of Calgary, there have been 4,193 calls to 311 to report encampments in the city so far this year.
The exact number of camps isn’t known, as the city noted camps can move frequently and there are instances of multiple calls in relation to a single location or calls for “material related to an abandoned encampment or active encampments.”
“It is a bit of a revolving door,” Sue Wall, an inspector with the city’s community standards department, said. “We do find that sometimes when we move them on from a particularly ideal location for them, we’ll move them on and a few days later that encampment will come back.”
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Wall said different individuals will typically be behind an encampment returning to a particular location.
According to Wall, the city has a dedicated team to investigate reports of encampments, which typically brings outreach workers from social services like the Alpha House in an effort to connect people with resources and space at shelters in the city.
“Getting them more information for mental health supports or any supports for addiction, which can be typically what we find when we’re out with people who are homeless,” she said. “We like to direct them into the Drop-In Centre or the Alpha House where they can find more of those supports.”
However, housing experts suggest a common thread to improving the situation is more affordable housing, including housing options that include wrap-around services to ensure people are in a safe space to get the help they need.
“At the end of the day, people get connected to services but if there’s no housing supply, we’re still going to have the same issues,” HomeSpace CEO Bernadette Majdell told Global News.
HomeSpace is a non-profit affordable housing provider in Calgary that also partners with social agencies to include wraparound supports to its clients at various housing complexes.
According to Majdell, the issue is complex as the services required may differ depending on the person and their situation.
“What brings people into homelessness is different for everyone, and what brings them out is similar when it comes to housing,” she said. “But the wraparound supports will be different for everyone and success looks different for everyone.”
The challenge, Majdell said, is a long-term and stable investment that surpasses election cycles, which requires a coordinated approach from all three levels of government.
Meanwhile, the city’s updated affordable housing strategy will be in front of city councillors on Sept. 14, in the hopes of finding a path forward to address issues of both housing affordability and homelessness.