Edmonton

New encampment in Old Strathcona aims to support housing for homeless

Organizers of the small camp set up on the weekend say they hope its high visibility compels the city to take action on housing and support for people who use drugs. 

The organizer of the homeless camp is calling for housing and harm reduction supplies

A new encampment in Old Strathcona is intended to draw attention to calls for housing for the homeless and harm reduction supplies. (Scott Neufeld/CBC)

Organizers of a small homeless camp in Old Strathcona say they hope its high visibility compels the city to take action on housing and support for people who use drugs. 

About 10 tents went up at Dr. Wilbert McIntyre Park just north of Whyte Avenue on Saturday. Volunteers handed out about 45 warm meals through the night.

The encampment was still in the park around noon Monday.

The main organizer behind the camp is Cameron Noyes, an advocate who does regular rounds around Old Strathcona, distributing snacks and harm reduction supplies to people sleeping rough. 

The idea for the camp came around 10 days ago, Noyes said, when a young couple sleeping in Mill Creek Ravine told him their tents had been cleared and slashed by police.

He said some people are reticent about sleeping close to such a high-traffic area, compared to the river valley or a ravine.

While there's no long-term plan for the camp, Noyes said the intent is to provide some people with support against any harassment they might otherwise experience sleeping in the river valley.

"We collectively agree that they're illegal here, they're illegal there, it makes no difference. If the police want to come and slash tents, come and do it in public," he said.

Although the camp is intended for young people, he said nobody is being turned away.

There is no public list of demands but Noyes said he wants the camp to push city and provincial governments to provide more immediate housing support and a safe supply of drugs to prevent overdoses, while drawing attention to the links between youth homelessness and the child welfare system. 

"We want to give notice to Edmonton that the problem is not going to go away," said Judith Gale, who is helping organize the camp. She does outreach work with the John Humphrey Centre for Peace and Human Rights. 

"We're just trying to give a space so they can come together and support one another … we're trying to give the youth hope and let them know that, you know what, we're here, we're going to ... hopefully get some help," Gale said.

Noyes said he isn't sure what to expect in the coming days. At first he was unsure if the camp would last more than a night. 

"We kind of winged it," he said. "It looks like we're settling in for a few days. I don't want to make this a long and bothersome thing. It's actually to make a statement. I don't want anyone to get hurt or anything else like that." 

Noyes said he connected with some nearby businesses to let them know about the camp and provide a point of contact if they had any concerns. 

Joe Scott, who has been staying at shelters and sleeping rough since late March, joined a group of about a dozen people gathered around a firepit in the park Sunday morning. He said he would consider staying at the camp but doesn't have a tent or sleeping bag. He said he believes the camp is a good idea. 

"The more people out there we can make aware of what's going on with the homelessness situation in the city, maybe, maybe the powers at city hall will actually try and be a little more aggressive and do something about it," he said. 

The City of Edmonton issued a statement Saturday on behalf of interim city manager Adam Laughlin.

The city is concerned about encampments as they are not "the right long-term solution for homelessness," Laughlin said in the statement.

He said the city removes abandoned tents and insists that those camping illegally stop doing it. But the city refutes the claim that it slashes tents "or destroys property thoughtlessly," he said.

"We address encampments on public land by identifying and prioritizing high-risk encampments for closure, working with partners to engage individuals with support and connections to housing, and conducting coordinated closures and clean-ups."

The organizers of the Old Strathcona camp are not connected to Camp Pekiwewin, a homeless encampment set up by frontline workers and Indigenous-led community organizers on July 24 across from Re/Max Field in Rossdale.

Laughlin said the city is working with Camp Pekiwewin organizers but the city "cannot allow illegal camps to drive policymaking.

 "To that end, we will be working towards a peaceful wind-down of the [Pekiwewin] camp and ongoing discussions about social reform."

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