On a remote, snow-covered embankment in southeast Calgary, three members of the Alpha House Encampment Team dodge deadfall and tree branches as they head towards their first stop of the day.
The encampment team reaches out to people living in camps around the city and also collaborates with police and bylaw services. Team members are currently tracking more than 20 camps and more than 40 people who are living in them; they suspect there's many more.
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The first camp they visit is a one-person camp that's well hidden, even though it sits just metres away from a busy industrial park. It is tidy and includes backwoods creature comforts like a tent, a table with chairs and a stone-lined firepit.
"It's pretty impressive compared to a lot of camps that we see," says Adam Elkestawi.
The group was hoping to talk with the homeless man who built it but he's away — likely working, they say. They leave a calling card and move on.
Camps range from clean to chaotic
Staff say they see everything from the clean to the chaotic. Further down the embankment, the team checks another site that was recently dismantled. The forest floor is now strewn with debris including blankets, bicycles and broken electronics.
Team members say they have noticed more people sleeping rough this summer and fall. This comes after the city said it has received more than 800 public complaints about homeless encampments this year, up from 500 in 2014.
City officials say they have also received complaints about homeless camps connected with crime, and last month some Inglewood residents entered one with bolt cutters to remove property they say was stolen from nearby homes.
'It could be anybody that's camping out'
For those who patrol the city's forests, riverbanks and hidden trails to find and help the city's homeless, it's a complex problem they say isn't going away anytime soon.
"It could be anybody that's camping out, camping out just because they're down on their luck," says Elkestawi.
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Adam Melnyk, the encampment team supervisor, says they continue to map new camps and reach out to others they've already found.
"Social agencies and supports like ourselves are getting connected with these individuals to provide options," he says.
"Not everyone wants those supports at the moment, but by being able to connect with them when they change their mind, then we can be that option."
Food, blankets and basic necessities
They say many in the camps have addiction problems and mental health issues, but they also see others who simply don't want to stay in city shelters.
Jocelyn Court says they offer help and a way off the street for those who want it.
"We are a door to housing, basically. We make sure that they're okay — that they have food, blankets and the basic necessities," she says.
And as the mercury continues to drop, team members say some of their clients will move into shelters, and others will simply burrow deeper under blankets. Either way, they expect to be busy this winter.