Danger increases for homeless Edmontonians since Expo Centre closure, advocates say

Edmontonians living on the streets are more vulnerable following the closure of an emergency shelter providing critical services during COVID-19, some frontline workers say.

Fewer services have created more need for Edmontonians living on the streets, some frontline workers say

Advocate Cameron Noyes say he's seen a rise in violence toward street people in Old Strathcona. (Andrea Huncar/CBC News)

Every morning, Cameron Noyes does his usual rounds making sure everyone in Old Strathcona's street community has survived another night.

On Tuesday, he kept watch as an intoxicated woman zigzagged across the street while a young woman snoozed on a patch of grass in the shade of a shopping cart stuffed with her belongings.

"After the weekend, there's always a lot of issues," Noyes said. "We take account at the end of the weekend — who's got the bruises, where did they get them, who's got the black eyes."

Accompanied by his border collie Boudica, Noyes checked in at the public washroom where a pair of friendly outreach workers from Boyle Street Community Services greeted people stopping for food, water, masks or a chat.

Noyes, who lives in the neighbourhood, has spent the past few years helping the community he calls family.

When COVID-19 forced agencies to reduce services, Noyes ramped up his one-man volunteer operation with daily supplies of food, water, sanitizer and clothing.

But last month's closure of a massive emergency shelter has increased the need and risk, said Noyes and other frontline workers.

"Since they closed the Expo Centre, we've been flooded," Noyes said. "We're seeing lots and lots of faces we don't recognize. So even in the light of day recently we've seen three robberies around here and an attempted sexual assault on people we know.

"We've run out of food but a lot of community groups are stepping up."
Advocates say street people in Old Strathcona are now more vulnerable to violence from outsiders. (Andrea Huncar/CBC News)

In mid-June, the province decided to close the temporary shelter operating during the pandemic. 

As it shut down on July 31 the province, City of Edmonton and agencies scrambled to fill the gap for 400 to 600 people who accessed Expo's drop-in services daily.

24/7 access for 170 people

On Wednesday, the province said two downtown agencies now offer round-the-clock services for 170 people with another 50 spots to come.

The government provided $60 million to social service agencies in March and more recently, another $48 million for organizations including two in Edmonton.

"Additional shelter facilities at the Mustard Seed and Hope Mission have transitioned to 24/7 access to ensure people have a place to sleep during the day, can access food, showers, laundry and connection to housing supports," wrote Michael Forian, press secretary to Community and Social Services Minister Rajan Sawhney, in an email.

Despite those supports, dozens of tents have sprung up at a makeshift camp in the heart of Rossdale offering food, health services and security to roughly 400 people each day.

Indigenous-led organizers of Camp Pekiwewin say the initiative is largely a response to abuse by law enforcement. 

They're demanding an end to anti-camping bylaws and the reallocation of $39 million for policing into housing, transit and social services.

"Police in the city remain one of the biggest health threats to houseless people in the city," organizers tweeted on Aug. 10. 

Noyes echoed those sentiments while expressing appreciation for the weekday, daytime beat officers in Old Strathcona.

But he's one of two advocates who told CBC they've witnessed some law enforcement officers harassing street people and received reports of authorities slashing and trashing tents.

"Yes, it's not legal to camp in Mill Creek Ravine but they have no home," said Noyes, who called for a compassionate, informed response to people with mental health challenges and addictions.

Noyes said he has lodged multiple complaints with police and reported the conduct of peace officers to 211, 311 and 911.

'I'm living under a tree'

Rob Durocher questioned whether provincial funding benefits all homeless Albertans.

"I'm living under a tree and this money is supposed to come to all of us, but it's not. So where is it going?," he asked. "We have to beg for blankets. We've got to beg for everything —socks, underwear —I don't even have socks."

Staying at Hope Mission is not an option.

"You have to have I.D.," he said. "They give you conditions when you're homeless. You're supposed to have nothing but they give you conditions. And if you don't have those, you can't utilize anything."

Rob Durocher questioned whether provincial funding is benefiting homeless Edmontonians. (David Bajer/CBC)

City spokesperson Geoff Grimble said the city is not aware of any incidents involving peace officers but said complaints could be submitted online or through 311. 

"The closure and clean-up of encampments is prioritized based on the level of risk posed to individuals in the encampment and the surrounding community," Grimble wrote in an email.

City and police officials noted emergency shelters throughout the city are not operating at capacity.

Police said they have no record of Noyes' calls, except for a complaint resolved in April. Noyes said the complaint was not resolved. Police called him this week after CBC's inquiry.

A spokesperson said EPS officers speak to people camping in the river valley to see if services can be offered before notifying peace officers.

"The EPS does not take down tents or encampments," spokesperson Patrycja Mokrzan said in an email. "Our officers do explain the process to the residents however."

Questions about Hope Mission

Coun. Scott McKeen said Pekiwewin shows that the way forward requires a collective effort offering security, proper health care and community.

But he expressed doubt that could be found at Hope Mission.

Already, said McKeen, the facility is underused because people don't feel safe, sleep poorly on mats, and can't store valuables or stay overnight with a partner or pet.

He also raised concern about "conservative Christian organizations dealing with a population that is largely Indigenous," given the trauma of residential schools.

"It's going to be a real struggle if Hope Mission is the answer we offer them," McKeen said at a council meeting Thursday.

"We're going to have to ... put pressure on Hope to change the way they treat this vulnerable population."

McKeen said the current system creates conflict with business owners and community residents "who then ask the police to come in, which creates further conflict."

"If we just gave these people a decent place to live with proper supports and meaning in their lives ... we would just be so much further ahead," McKeen said.

He said the city has moved ahead on five supportive housing projects and the province needs to step up. The plan calls for 600 units of supportive housing by 2022 and a further 300 units by 2024.

"So far as investing funds in supportive housing — the most effective and financially efficient response to homelessness — the silence from the Kenney government is deafening," McKeen said. "Seemingly, the provincial government would rather fuel this dysfunctional cycle of shelters, outreach, soup kitchens and continuing social disorder, petty crime and calls for service to first responders." 

A spokesperson for Hope Mission said it offers a welcoming place for anyone who needs it.

"Hope Mission is open to everyone for shelter, food, laundry services, showers and medical support. Any vulnerable at-risk homeless person is welcome into Hope Mission," said Joel Nikkel, Hope Mission's director of development.

Funds for permanent housing, rapid rehousing

Forian said his government is focused on supporting people and organizations that help move people off the street and into more permanent housing.

"In Edmonton alone, $28.7 million was provided to Homeward Trust Edmonton to fund organizations who lead this important work," Forian said. 

"These funds focus on a variety of supports including permanent housing, intensive case management and rapid rehousing."

Despite Friday's scheduled closure of the isolation unit at the Expo Centre an alternative site has not been found, according to Sawnhey's Facebook page.


Andrea Huncar


Andrea Huncar reports on human rights and justice. Contact her in confidence at andrea.huncar@cbc.ca