Edmonton

Edmonton to revamp encampment strategy amid criticism of current approach

The City of Edmonton is reevaluating its approach to homeless camps as the public continues to criticize the current strategy it says has resulted in camps going up as soon as they come down.

Current approach to dismantling camps distressing: chair of Edmonton housing coalition

Edmonton police order campers to leave a property on 106th Avenue and 96th Street in mid-Sept. Several tents were set up less than a day later. (Craig Ryan/CBC)

The City of Edmonton is reevaluating its approach to homeless camps as the public continues to criticize the current strategy it says has resulted in camps going up as soon as they come down.

The city's community services branch is working on ideas to change the process, based in part on work and consultation they have done over the past few months — including with 86 people living outside for the past year. 

Managers presented the information to city councillors at a community and public services meeting Tuesday. The report includes quotes and perspectives from encampment residents. 

In the consultation, three in four participants identified as Indigenous. Of the women who were sleeping outside, 87 per cent were Indigenous. 

"We are recyclable people," a participant told city staff. 

The majority of participants reported that they do not prefer to stay outside.

Many of the people experiencing homelessness voiced weariness with waiting in vain to get a place to live, or not having the support to maintain housing.

"Being moved means no one knows where we are and we have to wait for services because we cannot be found," another said. 

As of mid-September this year, the city's 311 line received 6,868 complaints about encampments, up from 6,204 in all of 2021, and is up from 2,171 in 2018, the report shows. 

Ingrid Hoogenboom, a manager with the strategy department, outlined some of the challenges. 

"When we move quickly to clean up camps, encampment residents are displaced and the time to connect them with services or housing is extended even longer," Hoogenboom said. 

On average, it can take 59 days to move someone from staying outside into permanent housing and much longer for people with more complex needs.

"There's not enough resources currently in the system to provide appropriate housing for everyone currently living in encampments," she said.

Nowhere to go

Several people joined the meeting to tell councillors what they've observed this year. 

Nadine Chalifoux, chair of the Edmonton Coalition on Housing and Homelessness, encouraged councillors to go watch a camp being dismantled, arguing that the current approach is distressing for people living there. 

"The city and police personnel arrive with vehicles and equipment and tell them they have just a few minutes to grab everything they can and get out," Chalifoux said.

They then move down the road and set up camp somewhere else, she said. 

Kristine Kowalchuk, chair of the Edmonton River Valley Conservation Coalition (ERVCC) and a resident of Riverdale near Dawson Park, watched over the summer as crews took down camps.

"People are sometimes moved without being given options of where to move to," she said. "This was confirmed just last week when I spoke with two women sitting at the edge of Dawson Park as city and police trucks dismantled the camp, the women told me they simply had nowhere else to go."

The number of people identifying as homeless doubled from the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020. 

Christel Kjenner, the city's director of affordable housing and homelessness, said temporary emergency shelter spaces offered in the first two years of the pandemic shut down — leaving about 620 spaces compared to the previous 1,120. 

That could be contributing to the increase in encampments, she told councillors. 

Early next year, they plan to test what they call prototypes, on what might work best, which could include Indigenous-run camps and shelters.

Affordable housing strategy

The update on the encampment strategy and homelessness issues followed a morning of discourse on creating more affordable housing in Edmonton. 

About 49,000 households in Edmonton are considered to be in core housing need. That means they spend more than 30 per cent of their before-tax income on housing. 

Edmonton is expected to have 59,400 households in core housing need by 2026 across all income thresholds, according to Statistics Canada. 

Mayor Amarjeet Sohi suggested the city rethink its approach to affordable housing. 

"We never stop building roads, we never stop building LRT, we never stop building fire halls, and recreation centres but we tend to stop building affordable housing," he said. 

Kjenner noted that in the past four years, the city has built about 2,800 new units, so there's a large deficit. 

"We know that there's a long way to go to close the gap," she said. "The most important thing [toward] closing that gap is consistency because I think what hasn't worked in the past is when we stop and start and we do a little bit here and a little bit there," she said. 

Administration plans to finish its affordable housing strategy by the middle of next year. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Natasha Riebe

Journalist

Natasha Riebe landed at CBC News in Edmonton after radio, TV and print journalism gigs in Halifax, Seoul, Yellowknife and on Vancouver Island. Please send tips in confidence to natasha.riebe@cbc.ca.

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