950 camps set up by 'desperate people' dismantled this year in Edmonton
Debris included 82,000 kilograms of couches, mattresses, other materials
Coun. Scott McKeen was taken aback when he saw it — a camp in the river valley that had "almost a normal layout of a home," with a makeshift kitchen beside some chairs, and a wash basin under a tree.
In July, McKeen asked city administration to report on the number of camps found and cleaned up so far in 2016, and for information on the city's process for assisting people who are homeless and camping in the river valley.
A report going to council's community and public services committee Monday says 951 homeless camps were taken down across the city in the first seven months of 2016.
Clean-up crews collected nearly 82,000 kilograms of materials, including couches, mattresses, personal items and litter and debris from nearby dumpsters.
Among the items found were 4,800 needles, 137 weapons and 93 propane tanks. Police also recover stolen property but the report doesn't say how much.
A map of camps dismantled this year shows they are concentrated along the stretch of the North Saskatchewan River running through central Edmonton, but reach all corners of the city.
"It's not just the river valley, it's public lands all over the city where desperate people are starting to set up temporary structures to live," McKeen said.
In 2014, the city began working with social service organizations and police to remove the camps and find people other places to live. So far, the effort has cost upwards of $2.6 million.
A total of 2,318 camps have been dismantled since the start of the effort. That number includes the camps cleared out between January and July this year.
But the report found that the number of people displaced when their camps come down is disproportionate to the number of people being housed.
Homeward Trust Edmonton has been sitting on the steering committee grappling with the problem.
Giri Puligandla, the organization's research and planning director, said the fact that people trying to transition out of homelessness often need more than just shelter makes things even harder.
"We need to really focus on how we connect people to supportive housing," Puligandla said.
The 4,800 needles collected when camps were taken down over the summer could be indicative of some of the challenges facing homeless people in Edmonton.
Puligandla said the working poor have been under increased pressure in Alberta's struggling economy.
He said homelessness is a result of added stressors such as economic conditions, but also systemic barriers.
He pointed to the flux in the homeless count that Edmonton undertakes every two years. The numbers peaked in 2008, when 3,079 people were documented living on the streets. The most recent data from 2014 saw that number drop to 2,307.
This year's count took place this month, but hasn't been processed yet.
Puligandla said there are indicators that shelters aren't in as high demand as in the past, but couldn't speak to how that might correlate with the total number of people who identified as homeless.