More homeless people camping in Edmonton river valley, officials say

The challenging economy is leading to more people living in makeshift camps in Edmonton's river valley, a city official says. "As everyone is aware, we've had a significant downturn in the economy and there are a lot of people struggling."

Homeless population includes some Fort McMurray evacuees

This year is seeing a further increase in people living in makeshift camps in Edmonton's river valley. (CBC)

Edmonton's struggling economy is leading more homeless people to set up camp in the North Saskatchewan River valley, a city official says.

"As everyone is aware, we've had a significant downturn in the economy and there are a lot of people struggling," Jenny Kain, director of family and community supports with the City of Edmonton, told CBC News.

"There isn't sufficient ... supportive affordable housing available, and so when people don't have housing options, they will look to where they can sleep for the night, sadly."

More camps being dismantled this year

City figures show that to date in 2016, 853 river-valley homeless camps have been cleaned up, compared to 714 in all of 2015, and 653 in 2014.

One reason more camps are being cleaned up this year is a greater effort by city police, Boyle Street Community Services and the City of Edmonton to address the problem, Kain said.

"We have increased the number of staff that are focusing on this, and so that I think attributes for part of the increase."

Aidan Inglis, manager of 24/7 outreach and support services with Boyle Street Community Services, said the mild winter and the housing shortage have both contributed to more people living in makeshift camps in the river valley this year.

Outreach worker Aidan Inglis. (CBC)

Between Jan. 1 and April 30, Boyle Street outreach workers had 998 distinct contacts with homeless individuals citywide. That's an increase of roughly 180 contacts over the same period in 2015.

"I think that there were more people who stayed out over the winter," Inglis told CBC's Edmonton AM radio program on Friday. 

Milder conditions allowed more people to camp out during the winter months, while the early spring also helped crews tasked with cleaning up abandoned camps, Inglis said.

Not enough suitable housing

"Unfortunately, it seems like as much as we work to get people into housing and stuff like that, we find new people," Inglis said. "Our team has been working with people who are evacuees from Fort McMurray. There just isn't the proper amount of supported housing that folks need, and so it's really tough.

"We've seen a lot of folks over and over again."

Earlier this month, Ward 6 Coun. Scott McKeen asked city administration to calculate how much money the city spends on cleaning and policing river valley homeless camps.

Edmonton needs to build more supportive housing "and we need to build a just and fair city for these people," he said.

"We have a significant problem of homelessness in the river valley which is taxing civil resources and revealing the underlying issue of a housing crisis in this city," he said.

McKeen said he's "ticked off" with the slow pace of efforts by the provincial and federal governments in dealing with homelessness in the city.

Help starts with face-to-face contact

When active camps are reported, outreach workers visit them to find out what help and resources are needed for people to move somewhere else.

"It's not like (city cleanup crews) just go in and rip someone's camp down," Inglis said.

A "delicate relationship" exists between outreach workers and the individuals they help, he added.

"It is tough to go in there and tell them, 'There's cleanup crews going to be coming through here, but we really want to work with you and connect with you and see how we can help you guys out.'

"A lot of our folks are used to getting moved from one spot to another. It's quite stressful and can be wearing … but I think that our team does a really good job of building relationships with people, being understanding and trying to get on the same level with them."

Camps range from bare-bones to "inventive," Inglis said, with some people even tunnelling into hillsides.

"People are very, very good at surviving. Sometimes we've seen people with a couch in their tent, because this is their home, this is where they're staying and this is where they're surviving. So they try to make it as safe and comfortable as they can."

A homeless camp in Edmonton's river valley. (Gareth Hampshire/CBC News)

With files from Ariel Fournier