The Coalition for Justice and Human Rights (CJHR) is suing the City of Edmonton, claiming the “eviction and displacement of individuals residing in encampments” violates those people’s rights and freedoms.
A statement of claim filed Aug. 28 says the city is shutting down encampments on city-owned land and forcing people to leave even though there are not enough housing and shelter options for them.
This puts vulnerable people in dangerous situations, the lawsuit alleges.
The CJHR cites Homeward Trust Edmonton’s data showing that, as of August 2023, there are 3,137 unhoused individuals in the city, 1,380 of whom “lack provisional accommodations each night and who stay in emergency shelters or outside.”
According to Homeward Trust, Edmonton’s unhoused population increased 71 per cent between 2021 and 2023, from 1,820 to 3,112.
This number is likely higher, CJHR says, and there are currently only 843 shelter beds in Edmonton. Most shelter facilities don’t allow pets, accommodate families, offer storage for personal property or permit people to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol, CJHR said, adding some people don’t feel safe in shelters.
“There is no consideration under the policy if there is adequate shelter space to transition encampment residents into after a displacement,” the statement of claim reads.
“In recent years, displacements have occurred without the availability of adequate alternative shelter or housing options for encampment residents. City of Edmonton encampment displacements routinely force residents to brave extreme elements without adequate shelter or other necessary protections, and as a result, many have been seriously injured or died.”
In a news release, CJHR cited numbers from the Edmonton Coalition for Housing and Homelessness, stating 156 unhoused individuals died in 2022 and 222 died in 2021.
“The City of Edmonton’s encampment displacement policy causes irreparable harm to displaced people including decreasing their abilities to provide for their basic needs; loss of contact with essential supports, like family, friends, harm reduction outreach workers, housing-first workers, social workers, health care providers, or mutual aid/community outreach volunteers; loss of property; sleep deprivation, increased exposure to extreme weather; mental anguish, stress, anxiety, and trauma; worsening physical and mental health and an increased risk of death,” the statement of claim reads.
“The City of Edmonton’s encampment displacement policy is also an ineffective and irrational means to accomplish any legitimate policy purpose, and causes unjustifiable and disproportionate harm to displaced peoples’ well-being and liberty.”
The legal documents also allege the city’s encampment response “breaches unhoused peoples’ right to freely assemble and associate; right to life, liberty and security of their persons; right against unreasonable seizure; right against cruel and unusual treatment; and right to equality, which are protected by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”
The City of Edmonton confirmed legal action has been taken against its bylaws and practices related to encampments.
“The city is carefully reviewing the documents provided, and is preparing to discuss its bylaws, practices, and commitments in court,” Chief People Officer and City Solicitor Michelle Plouffe said in a statement provided to Global News.
“While we will not debate the legal elements of the case outside the courtroom, we will simply say that we are preparing to vigorously defend the city’s balanced approach to keeping people safe while working with our partners to seek long-term solutions to ending houselessness in Edmonton.”
In a statement Thursday, Mayor Amarjeet Sohi said he cannot comment on the details of the case since it’s before the courts.
“I continue to be concerned about the well being of Edmontonians who are experiencing houselessness and staying in encampments. The city takes this issue very seriously.
“As we all know, Edmonton is experiencing an unprecedented level of houselessness that is beyond the capacity of the city to solve alone, and I have been calling for help from the day I took office. I and my council colleagues will continue to work with all orders of government to address the housing crisis that many Edmontonians are facing.
“Houselessness is a symptom of underinvestments in the social sector for far too long.
“I understand that encampments can impose safety hazards for those living in them and the communities that are impacted by encampments. When an encampment is removed, efforts are made to connect people to appropriate supports available in the community. The safety and wellbeing of all Edmontonians, including our city’s most vulnerable who seek shelter in encampments, remains a top priority for me.”
Edmonton’s encampment response starts with peace officers assessing the risk level of a reported encampment (inactive, low or high risk). Crews are sent to inactive sites to clean them up.
For low-risk encampments, social agencies and police are notified and a clean-up plan is set within a few weeks of investigation. Social agencies work with people living in the encampment to connect them with essential services, resources and housing, where possible. Later, peace officers and city staff close the encampment and clean up.
For high-risk encampments, closure and cleanup are led by peace and police officers and are accelerated based on the “level of risk posed to the health and wellbeing of people in the encampment and the surrounding community,” the city states in its response plan shared online.
The encampment response team is comprised of staff with the city, Homeward Trust, Boyle Street Community Services, Bissell Centre and Edmonton police.
CJHR will be represented by lawyers Chris Wiebe from Engel Law Office and Avnish Nanda of Nanda & Company.
“Due to the city’s policy of displacing encampments, unhoused individuals have endured severe hardships,” Wiebe said.
“These include the loss of essential personal belongings like tents, propane tanks and propane-powered stoves, ID, and bikes; disruptions in crucial relationships and support systems that enable unhoused people to protect and care for themselves and each other; and an elevated risk of injury, and even death from exposure to extreme weather.
“Unhoused people have the same rights as anyone, which include rights to personal property and rights protected by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”
Wiebe said the coalition is basing its legal argument on precedent set in B.C. and Ontario that found displacing people from encampments violates their Section 7 Charter Rights to life, liberty and security of persons.
The City of Edmonton has until end of day Monday, Sept. 18, 2023, to file its statement of defence.
The claims have not been proven in court.
Despite the province being responsible for funding shelter spaces in Alberta, it is not named in the lawsuit.
“Responsibility for funding shelters is not an issue in this litigation,” Wiebe said. “This litigation is focused on the city’s encampment displacement policy. We haven’t presented any legal arguments, and we don’t have any plans to, against the province.”
Data from the city reveals a sharp rise in complaints from Edmontonians about encampments.
The problem has been exacerbated by the pandemic, with calls to 311 about encampments increasing by over 1,000 per cent from 2016.
Encampments exist because there is a lack of adequate housing and capacity in emergency shelters and the addiction and mental health treatment systems, the city said.
Residents living nearby encampments report violence, sexual assault, crime, drug use and drug sales.
“Encampment displacement improves none of those problems and only makes them worse,” Wiebe said Thursday.
“Encampment displacement, if the problem is the condition in those encampments, only relocates those same problems.”
In terms of damages, the plaintiff is requesting declarations from the court that the city’s encampment practices violate Charter and Constitutional rights of the residents.
“Our statement of claim, our lawsuit, seeks declaratory relief and injunctions ending the policy only,” Wiebe said. “The result of that would be declaring the practice unconstitutional, illegal, and putting an end to it.”
The CJHR is also seeking an injunction to stop the city from forcing people out of encampments when the number of unhoused people exceeds the number of adequate and accessible shelter beds; or, as an alternative, to:
- Stop the city from shutting down encampments on city-owned land when they’re in an area that’s large enough to safely accommodate encampments;
- Stop the city from shutting down encampments when it’s forecast to be -10 C or colder for three or more consecutive days;
- Stop the city from shutting down encampments when it’s forecast to be -20 C or colder for three or more consecutive days;
- Stop the city from taking unsheltered peoples’ personal property without their express consent; or without both lawful authority and paying compensation.