Edmonton adopts strategy to manage homeless camps

The City of Edmonton has a new plan to manage and dismantle homeless camps expected to surface in local parks again this season. 

'First and foremost this is a housing-focused response,' police director says

Camp Pekiwewin started in the summer of 2020, before the city shut it down in the fall and moved people to the Edmonton Convention Centre. (Travis McEwan/CBC)

The City of Edmonton has a new plan to manage and dismantle homeless camps expected to surface in local parks again this year.

The encampment strategy includes three levels of response: a housing-focused approach for low-risk camps, and accelerated and large scale responses for higher risk camps. 

City managers presented the strategy to council's community and public services committee on Wednesday. 

Rob Smyth, deputy manager of citizen services, said the strategy is more proactive than last year, when the city got 4,000 complaints related to encampments.

"I think there were lessons last year, where we were slow to respond," Smyth said. 

In 2020, hundreds of people moved into Camp Pekiwewin in Rossdale and dozens more set up at another camp in Light Horse Park in Old Strathcona. 

It took several weeks to dismantle and clean up the camps, as people transitioned to indoor shelters. 

This year, teams of peace officers, police and housing and social agency workers will aim to close camps within a week or two if they're deemed high risk.

Smyth said high risk level would include areas near playgrounds and schools, near buildings or in areas where there's a significant risk of fire. 

"High-risk encampments can threaten the safety of individuals and the surrounding community and can in some situations include criminal activity and violence," Smyth said. 

Camps deemed to be low risk to occupants, the public and the surrounding environment, would get a housing focused response, with outreach workers trying to help people find places to stay.

Peace officers will share information on shelters, services and transportation options before they act to close a camp, he added.

A compassionate response

Coun. Scott McKeen said he wanted to make sure the city can show compassion when responding to the camps. 

"I'm really happy to see this co-ordinated response," McKeen said. "As long as we can deal with these folks in a respectful way and look after their needs as best we can, that will also help the business community and my constituents, who have been freaked out at times by this."

McKeen said the city and police can't ignore potential crime and exploitation in the camps that will need to be addressed. 

"The honest truth is that the City of Edmonton will face criticism and the police will face criticism, again, because of the conflict created by homelessness."

Enyinnah Okere, a director with the Edmonton police, said community engagement teams will work with social agencies to assess what is needed.

"First and foremost this is a housing-focused response," Okere told councillors. "We are prepared to be addressing some of the victimization that happens to the vulnerable people within these encampments as well, but it has to be done in a humane way." 

Since last year, in partnership with Homeward Trust and social agencies, the city has opened new bridge housing and hotel rooms to help transition people to longer-term housing. 

The city said 116 people were helped to find bridge and permanent housing. 

This year the city's communications team will hold virtual sessions where residents can ask questions and get updates.

The plan will not address deep-rooted issues, Smyth said. 

"There's still going to be homeless people in our city who will not go to shelters," he said.