Camp Pekiwewin issues new demands, collaborates with service agencies

The new demands and official collaboration with innercity agencies mark the beginnings of a broad shift at Pekiwewin, as organizers look to leverage the emergency relief encampment into a critical link between campers and housing options before the winter hits.

New demands narrow scope, actionable for government before winter hits, organizers say

Camp Pekiwewin, set up by Indigenous-led community groups including Beaver Hills Warriors and Treaty 6 Outreach, issued a new list of demands last week. (Jordan Omstead/CBC)

Camp Pekiwewin has issued a new set of demands as organizers partner with inner-city agencies while continuing to pressure governments into lasting changes for Edmonton's homeless community. 

Last week, three high-profile agencies sent staff to the volunteer-run homeless encampment in Rossdale, marking the first formal collaboration between the camp and outside agencies. 

Up to eight staff from Homeward Trust, Bissell Centre and Boyle Street will work with the camp to provide housing outreach support. In a statement Friday, Homeward Trust said that so long as people need housing and the camp is operating, staff will work with Pekiwewin. 

The new demands and agency collaboration mark the beginnings of a broad shift at the camp, as organizers look to leverage the sprawling emergency relief encampment into a link between campers and housing options before the winter hits. 

"The new demands are more narrow scoped, are about more immediate responses that our municipality can act on, as well as being in general actionable in the ten weeks we have or so until deep winter hits," said organizer Shima Robinson, the camp's media liaison. 

Some demands remain largely unchanged, such as a call for free transit and an end to the destruction of homeless encampments at the hands of law enforcement. Others have been retooled. A call to abolish anti-camping bylaws has been replaced by a demand for the city to undertake a review of those bylaws. 

The last, and the only entirely new demand, calls for the camp in Rossdale — considered an important Indigenous gathering place for thousands of years and now regularly used as an overflow parking lot for the neighbouring Re/Max Field — to be reclaimed as a ceremonial site and gathering place. 

"Right now the transition has been from this assumption of an oppositional standpoint to a recognition of our willingness and our intention to collaborate in the best interest of the houseless community in Edmonton," Robinson said. 

Since the first tents went up over a month ago, the camp has turned a small greenspace into one of the largest hubs for Edmonton's homeless community. It hosts daily meal servings, medical services and a donation tent. At the centre of Pekiwewin, the Cree word for coming home, is a teepee where a fire has burned and elders have led prayer since that first day. 

With roughly 250 people sleeping onsite, according to organizers' count, the camp regularly accommodates a similar number of people as Edmonton's largest shelter. 

Organizers initially said they would stay until the city met its first list of demands, including calls to defund law enforcement by $39 million and redistribute the money to frontline services. 

But with dangerously cold weather approaching, camp organizers are training their focus on immediate housing needs, with the original set of demands now acting as points of advocacy. 

"Bottom line is we're not trying to long haul it," Robinson said. "We're trying to get immediate care for the folks living on site." 

Agency collaboration

Discussions between organizers and city agencies began in earnest in mid-August. The first agency outreach workers arrived last week and, as of Friday afternoon, had started the housing process for six people and connected with more than 20 other campers, said Homeward Trust, a government-funded agency charged with carrying out the city's plan to end homelessness. 

Camp Pekiwewin, a response to what organizers call law enforcement's persistent abuse of homeless communities, was set up after the city closed a day shelter at Expo Centre without a backup plan. At Expo, housing workers had a central site to connect with people experiencing homelessness on a regular basis during the pandemic, helping nearly 700 people get housed between March and the end of July. 

Now those same housing workers are turning to the camp, where many people who previously frequented Expo have sought shelter.

"We know that individuals at the camp have already been connected to our services and we need to reconnect them. Some may be new to homelessness and haven't been connected to the housing first team," said Homeward Trust CEO Susan McGee in an interview earlier this month. 

Boyle Street outreach teams had previously been prioritizing other encampments in the city given the level of support provided by volunteers at Pekiwewin, said Jared Tkachuk, acting director of programs. 

"But we did recognize that there's a real need to connect people to those external resources as well, so that's what we'll start engaging in now," Tkachuk said. 

Homeward Trust says the staff are not dedicated to Pekiwewin, but reflect an increase in the agencies' outreach capacity as it continues to provide services to encampments across Edmonton. If conditions change, the agency says it will reconsider how those resources are distributed.

Alberta Health Services confirmed an inspector does weekly site visits to ensure any public health issues are identified and addressed. During the latest visit on Friday, an AHS spokesperson said the inspector found no significant issues. 

Organizers say community paramedics and mental health teams also regularly come by to fill prescriptions and provide other medical support.

'We're not interested in maintaining the camp as is'

Agencies across the city are concerned that the economic upheaval brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic will create a spike in homelessness this fall. Housing supports, already taxed by the extra pressures and imposed capacity limits, would be further strained.

It comes at a time when rates of newly homeless people outpace efforts to get people housed. In the first three weeks of August, 100 people were newly homeless while 30 people had been housed, according to data compiled by Homeward Trust.

"I think there's a very real possibility where we see an influx of people who have never experienced homelessness before now facing that reality," said Gary St. Amand, CEO of Bissell Centre. "We share the concern that with the onset of the cold weather, we certainly need to be looking at some options and solutions moving forward." 

A volunteer serves a morning coffee from inside the camp kitchen. (Jordan Omstead/CBC)

Against the background of those concerns and increasing public profile of Camp Pekiwewin, Mayor Don Iveson has redoubled his calls for the province to fund permanent supportive housing. 

"We're not interested in maintaining the camp as is," Iveson said of Camp Pekiwewin on Thursday. "We want to provide those living in the camp with supportive housing and we want to see that happen in the short term. We want a 10-week plan to end homelessness." 

Since the provincial budget was released in February, Edmonton city councillors have expressed frustration with the absence of any dedicated funding for permanent supportive housing. 

In a statement, Community and Social Services Minister Rajan Sawhney says the budget sets aside $92 million for agencies helping to get people housed, including Homeward Trust. 

"We recognize shelters are temporary, yet necessary solutions for people experiencing homelessness. The ultimate goal is to get people into homes of their own," she said. 

As Pekiwewin looks to build connections with local agencies, organizers say there is no plan to dismantle camp. For the moment, so long as there remains a need, volunteers will continue to serve meals, reverse overdoses and hand out clothing. A makeshift library was recently set up onsite with donated books, along with a Wi-Fi hotspot. Hairdressers have also come by in recent weeks to offer free cuts. 

"We're certainly not going to up and leave when there are still people living on site who are in need," said Robinson.