'Whatever it takes:' Edmonton mayor pledges to end homelessness this fall

Mayor Don Iveson says all homeless Edmontonians will have access to a warm, safe dignified shelter by the end of the month.

Agencies have assessed 200 camp residents for housing since Aug. 1

An encampment of tents set up on a green lawn amid trees in Strathcona County.
City officials expected an encampment in Old Strathcona to shut down this week but instead it relocated. (Travis McEwan/CBC)

Edmonton mayor Don Iveson says all homeless Edmontonians will have access to a warm, safe dignified shelter by the end of the month.

His comments come as two encampments set up this summer continue to host hundreds of people daily.

"I'm committed to delivering dignified shelter for people that is better than tents and safer than a camp by the end of the month — whatever it takes," Iveson, who began pushing for a 10-week plan to end homelessness in August, told reporters Thursday.

"While not giving everyone permanent accommodations in November, we should be able to provide everyone with a warm, safe and dignified place to be with embedded supports for their complex health challenges."

Already, he said, the plan has garnered unprecedented support from business communities concerned with growing social disorder as well as a new influx of cash now flowing from the federal government.

Iveson commended the city and agencies for their hard work and leadership and said more details would be shared next week after council met privately Thursday afternoon.

"I think we're going to be able to do something significant here in October and it won't be fast enough for everyone, but it's going to be a heck of a lot faster than what was possible six months ago," Iveson said.

Protest camp moves


Earlier this week residents of a homeless camp in Old Strathcona relocated from Dr. Wilbur McIntyre Park to Light Horse Park after defying a city order to shut down. 

The camp is calling for a new overnight shelter friendly to LGBTQ and Indigenous people that isn't run by a religious group, as well as food and first aid supplies, among other demands. 

Dakota Flower, 24, who has been volunteering and living at the protest camp, said he appreciates the camp's communal approach.

"Everyone actually helps out, everyone picks up their responsibilities," Flower said. "We don't have too many issues. It would be an obvious lie to say we don't have any issues. But the issues that we do have are dealt with quietly, respectfully, cleanly and professionally as well."

As the city attempted to disband the camp, it provided a list of existing shelters but Flower said he'd prefer to sleep under a tree.

"I don't have to worry about being attacked and I can actually get rest and sleep in peace," Flower said. 

"I don't like being woken up at six o'clock in the morning with bible verses because I'm not a religious person."
Dakota Flower says he'd prefer to sleep under a tree rather than stay in the city's existing shelters. (Travis McEwan/CBC)

The encampment in Old Strathcona cropped up just over a month ago following the set up of Camp Pekiwewin in the Rossdale neighbourhood in July.

Camp Pekiwewin organizers called for on-site COVID-19 testing this week after six clients at Edmonton's largest shelter, Hope Mission, were linked to the first outbreak in the city's homeless community. 

'People feel like they're a part of something'


Jared Tkachuk, director of programs at Boyle Street Community Services, said the full-time work of eight employees from Boyle and the Bissell Centre since Aug. 1 has led to an assessment of housing needs for roughly 200 Pekiwewin residents.

Forty of those clients are now actively working with teams to secure housing. 

"I think a lot of people at Pekiwewin would probably move into a residence right away — it's just, having that resource available for them," Tkachuk said.

Tkachuk said it would be helpful to have more bridge housing, such as the temporary residence at the Coliseum Inn, which offers a sense of community, privacy and storage.

"It's so uplifting for people just to have those basic things in place," Tkachuk said. "And it makes that transition towards housing just so much easier." 

He said the encampments have exposed the scale of need in the city and also offer important lessons for shelters going forward by promoting Indigenous culture, putting harm reduction at the forefront and building a sense of community.

"People feel like they're a part of something," Tkachuk said. "People have some privacy. You know, they have their own campsite and some place to store their belongings. We take for granted basic necessities like that. But it is so massively important to the folks who are sleeping rough."

No religious participation is required to access shelter services at Hope Mission, with spaces specifically set aside for people who are intoxicated or on drugs, the agency said.

Hope Mission is one of two shelters providing 24/7 access during the pandemic after receiving additional provincial funding in August. Neither shelter is operating at capacity.

"We welcome everyone who needs a place to stay," said Joel Nikkel, Hope Mission's director of development.

The other round-the-clock shelter, the Mustard Seed, did not provide comment.  

In a statement, city officials said encampments lack the infrastructure to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and while they empathize with campers, they won't provide supplies at unsanctioned encampments.

They said organizers in Old Strathcona broke an agreement to close down voluntarily and access available services at local shelters.

'While city administration works on council's priority to get everyone inside from the cold and find them permanent homes, we must temporarily rely on bridge housing and shelters to provide safe support for individuals on their path to permanent housing," the city wrote in a statement.

The city said a recent funding announcement by Ottawa will help address Edmonton's need for permanent supportive housing and bridge housing.

The city is currently looking at whether vacant buildings could be used immediately or retrofitted in the mid-term, as well as exploring innovative rapid construction methods for new builds, the statement said.

In an email, the Alberta government said it has provided more than $40 million for emergency shelters in Edmonton and housing supports to move people out of homelessness. 

'The government of Alberta is working with the City of Edmonton, Homeward Trust Edmonton, Alberta Health Services, the Edmonton Police Service and other key stakeholders to develop a coordinated response to encampments and connect people with appropriate housing solutions," said Jerry Bellikka, press secretary to the minister of community and social services.

With files from Travis McEwan and Natasha Riebe