Improving shelters key to curbing homeless camps in Edmonton, report shows

The City of Edmonton could coax more people out of homeless camps in the river valley and downtown pockets with improvements to the city’s shelter system, a new report shows.

City's shelters aren't 24-7 and don't allow couples to stay together

Hope Mission in downtown Edmonton has some 24-7 beds but most are night-to-night. (Natasha Riebe/CBC)

The City of Edmonton could coax more people out of homeless camps in the river valley and downtown pockets with improvements to the city's shelter system, a new report shows.

The report, prepared by OrgCode Consulting, Inc. for the city, notes that of Edmonton's 716 emergency shelter beds nearly 30 per cent are empty on any given night.

"What is unique is the volume of people sleeping outside when there is sufficient capacity within the shelter system on any given night," the report says.

Of the 1,900 Edmontonians experiencing homelessness — in and out of shelters or using other temporary housing — more than 480 identified as unsheltered or "sleeping rough."

Some cities have to turn people away from shelters but generally not in Edmonton, said Christel Kjenner, the city's director of housing and homelessness.

"It's not that people are sleeping outside because the shelters are full."

Fear of physical violence and theft are two reasons given by those avoiding the night-by-night emergency shelters, the report shows.

Researchers also noted some people avoid shelters because they don't allow couples or pets.

Coun. Scott McKeen requested the study last fall after increased complaints from the public about homeless encampments.

"They're homeless couples and in the system — as we're told — they can't stay together," McKeen said. 

When it's about comfort and security, a couple might say, "Oh, we'd rather sleep outside together than split up in a shelter," he said.

Camp cycles

It costs the city $1.7 million a year to clean up encampments.

In the past couple of years, more people have become aware of the camps and have called the city's 311 line to report or inquire about them.

In 2018, the city received 1,720 inquiries about camps, more than double from 2016.

Kjenner describes Edmonton's homelessness situation as a "difficult, chronic problem," but says there are some steps the city can take in the short term.

One is to improve how the city responds to people living in camps.

Instead of just sending in the police, Kjenner said the city has been funding outreach workers from Boyle Street and Bissell Centre to connect with people living in camps.

They then can develop relationships and provide information and support for other housing options.

Proposed actions

McKeen said the report proves the city must work with the shelters and funding providers to keep the shelters open 24-7 to eliminate nightly lineups and "mass early morning evictions."

"You get those sort of really demeaning line-ups outside to get in."

The people surveyed also found shelters too institutional, forcing them to line up to get in, go to sleep, eat meals, and then leave the shelter all at set times.

Twenty-four hour access would encourage more to use shelters, the survey found. 

The city can work toward more continuous stay beds, Kjenner said.

Other ideas include developing storage areas for people to keep their things; improving safety and crime prevention procedures; and have properly trained staff.

"The people that choose to do them are really committed to helping people experiencing homelessness," Kjenner said.

They want to make sure staff have the tools and resources to "make the shelters more of a safe and welcoming space for people."

Coun. Scott McKeen is pushing for funding from the province to improve Edmonton's shelter system. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

McKeen is hoping the new UCP government will step up and provide the required funding.

"I've heard that Jason Kenney is a pragmatic guy. Certainly he's a guy that's open to ideas that will save taxpayers dollars," he said.

McKeen plans to propose the city look at temporary options, like trailers. 

Over the next four years, the city plans to create 600 units of permanent supportive housing, similar to the ones at Ambrose Place.

In the long-term, McKeen says stable housing will save the city and the province millions in policing and health care costs.



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