Homeless campers cleared out of Dawson Park following series of fires
10 people moved to transitional housing as city is praised for balanced approach
Cory Colin Tremblay and his friends packed up their belongings into four shopping carts on Thursday after city workers explained why their encampment was being dismantled.
"They asked everybody nicely to leave," said Tremblay. "They let us know so it's a good thing, they let us know in a good way. We understood."
Tremblay is among dozens of homeless people who cleared out of Edmonton's Dawson Park, east of downtown, this week. The city asked them to leave after Riverdale residents raised safety concerns following a series of fires.
Last week outreach workers began informing the 50 or so campers and connecting them to housing options.
On Tuesday, park rangers with the city, gave campers 48 hours notice before the cleanup began to give them time to gather their valuables.
"I really appreciate in this process they didn't forget the vulnerable folks," said Jared Tkachuk, manager of Boyle Street's outreach team, which was handing out bagged lunches and bottles of water Thursday. "They found extra resources to pay the outreach team overtime so that we could connect with people on the weekend. And then most crucially they found extra resources for us to provide immediate transitional housing to people.
"So yes, people's camps were being removed but we were also able to say to them 'we do have a place you could move into right now'."
City officials said they are committed to doing the work in a thoughtful manner.
"Our focus is on caring for our city's most vulnerable, protecting public lands and acknowledging the concerns of local residents," a statement said.
In mid May, Edmonton Fire Rescue Services responded to nine reports of smoke and fire around Dawson Park where needles and litter are also a concern.
City councillor Scott McKeen assured Riverdale residents their concerns would be addressed.
"First of all, thanks for letting us know about the critical situation in Dawson Park. I don't use that word, critical, lightly," McKeen wrote in an email to residents.
"My office and I have talked to numerous folks in administration this week. We are assured that a significant response is being put together."
McKeen has been at the forefront of a push to improve the shelter system to help reduce the number of people sleeping rough. About 500 people are sleeping outside in Edmonton on any given night.
Tkachuk said it is unusual to see such a high number of fires in such a short period of time in an encampment. He said the residents' safety concerns were legitimate but campers also felt unsafe.
"We had one poor guy, his campsite was burned down not once but twice in one week," said Tkachuk. "And so we were able to get him a transitional spot housing. And when he moved in he was so happy he started crying. We had another woman who was inside her tent when it lit up on fire and thank God she was able to escape without injury or worse."
Ten people housed
Ten people were moved into motels while the rest are likely couch surfing, staying with family friends, or sleeping rough elsewhere.
Tkachuk said being able to offer an immediate solution, rather than a process that takes weeks or months, pays off.
"The fact that we were able to house nine people in under a week — those are very like impressive rates for this population," he said.
Tremblay, who has been living on the streets for the past 15 years, said he prefers the wilderness to a shelter where there can be a lot of negativity. He planned to stay outdoors again Thursday night.
"I'm just going to stay out all night, on my feet, do my stretches," he said.
Cleanup crews are focused on the area between the Latta Bridge and the staircase at Alex Taylor Road and will eventually move east into Kinnaird Ravine. Before getting started, they received training from outreach workers to better understand the issues campers faced.
Work will soon begin to restore the area to its naturalized state, a city spokesperson wrote. Park rangers will ramp up patrols throughout the summer to discourage the establishment of new encampments.
With files from Anna McMillan and Natasha Riebe