Let me be clear off the top: in a city as prosperous as Edmonton, in a province as wealthy as Alberta, no one should think it's acceptable to have people living in squalid tent encampments.
Yet, of course, we do have such makeshift camps in our city, and not just in the city’s core. They have been in the headlines recently as City of Edmonton workers and police officers began dismantling eight of those deemed the most “high risk.”
They are more than just eyesores. Officials with the Edmonton Police Service (EPS) say the rudimentary camps are public safety hazards with serious risk of injury or death to those living there due to fire, drug use, gang violence, biohazards, and organized crime. The EPS gave journalists an eye-opening technical briefing on Tuesday that included a photo of two table tops laden with the contents of a weapons cache discovered in one encampment that included 10 samurai swords, 11 machetes, 34 other knives including illegal butterfly knives, brass knuckles, and imitation guns.
The briefing also included a horrific video of one man caught in a tent fire who later died from his injuries. People living in the encampments use propane tanks to keep warm, often simply setting fire to the escaping gas at the valve.
The encampments are a stark reminder of the growing homelessness problem and how our various levels of government have not been up to the challenge.
This is an important issue for the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce. And even though the focus has been on encampments around the downtown core, this is a problem for the entire city.
One EPS official told me there are as many as 800 encampments (each with eight or more tents/structures) scattered across Edmonton. Many are abandoned but they leave behind tonnes of debris.
According to the EPS, Edmontonians have filed more than 16,000 complaints about encampments in the past year. After following media reports closely and speaking with key players, I have a better sense of just how complicated and controversial this issue is – but also how governments could better help.
It won’t be easy. It’s an issue with battle lines already drawn. Advocates for the homeless accuse City of Edmonton officials of heavy-handed tactics against the vulnerable while EPS points out the encampments are public safety hazards.
Officials with the City and EPS insist they act compassionately while dismantling the camps and say there are enough beds in emergency shelter locations to house the homeless. However, advocates for the displaced are skeptical of those claims and want the courts to stop any more camps from being dismantled.
The issue is not unique to Edmonton, of course. Major cities around the world are struggling with a dramatic increase in the number of unregulated tent “communities” as a growing number of people deal with issues such as mental health, unemployment, and drug use. It’s just that Edmonton is in a sense catching up to larger urban centres like Vancouver and Toronto.
Halifax has looked at setting aside designated park space for temporary encampments as well as erecting 100 temporary “pop-up” shelters this summer.
Some international cities have found various levels of success using a “Housing First” approach where the government offers unconditional housing for all. Housing is indeed crucial.
But is there something we could do immediately that doesn’t involve getting the City of Edmonton, the Alberta government and the federal government to spend months or years hashing out a long-term solution?
Is there something we could do now to help convince homeless people evicted from an encampment one day to not simply erect another somewhere else tomorrow? They are among our most vulnerable residents and police say many of them are victimized by organized crime gangs. How can we as a society help them?
How about the City and Alberta government set up a centre where the homeless could go for help? Call it, for lack of a better term, one-stop shopping where social workers, healthcare professionals and others would help the homeless find a shelter space, negotiate the welfare system, or perhaps even something as simple as assisting someone who has had their identification lost or stolen to get new credentials. You need ID to even begin the process of getting government help.
This is not a job for the police. This is a job for professionals such as social workers. In fact, it is unfortunate the police have to be involved at all but EPS say encampments have become so problematic that they are a hazard to public safety.
It’s not simply a case of shuttling people from encampments to an emergency shelter. Some simply won’t go, saying the shelters are unsafe, prone to theft, with no privacy and no storage for their possessions, while couples are forced to live separately. The shelters need to find ways to persuade the homeless to stay. Or perhaps there are compromise solutions.
Deputy Police Chief Warren Driechel has some ideas that sound simple and effective. He told journalists that because emergency overnight shelters close during the day, something as simple as setting up drop-in centres for the homeless during daylight hours would make a big difference.
“The expectation is that if folks choose to live in the encampment in the night or during the night, then by daytime, they’ve packed up their stuff and they’re going into the drop-in centre during the day,” he told Global News. “That would be a huge shift in how we do things here …Especially with our climate, that would be a huge help.”
This week, the Alberta government announced it would pay for 150 new emergency shelter spaces in northeast Edmonton, increasing the number of shelter spots in the city to almost 1,500 spaces. It’s a positive step. But solving the homeless problem, or at least mitigating it, will be a marathon.
The Edmonton Chamber has 1,900 members. We have a voice. Consider this a call to action.
I would ask our members to consider contacting Edmonton’s City Hall and/or their city councillor directly via email or phone to let city council know we need to do something about the encampments.
The business community supports public safety. It also supports a humane solution to this problem. The biggest risk is for city council to let this problem fester. Inaction will only see things get worse. This in turn would further impact public safety, endanger citizens, hurt businesses and damage Edmonton’s brand and reputation. That would be detrimental to our economy and our potential for growth.
President and CEO,
Edmonton Chamber of Commerce