By Jeremy Appel, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
(ANNews) – In the wake of the city’s new year homeless encampment sweep, Edmonton city council held a special meeting on Jan. 15 and 16, which culminated in declaring homelessness and a lack of affordable housing a city-wide emergency.
The emergency motion, proposed by Mayor Amarjeet Sohi, calls for a meeting between the city, province, federal government and Confederacy of Treaty 6 First Nations to discuss housing solutions. It also sets aside $3.5 million for the city to establish a task force.
“If we don’t take this seriously, if we don’t treat this as a long-term emergency, more and more Edmontonians will fall through the cracks and become homeless,” said Sohi.
The motion was passed 9-4, with councillors Tim Cartmell, Karen Principe, Sarah Hamilton and Aaron Paquette opposed.
Paquette, who represents Ward Dene and is Métis, said he was opposed because the motion gives the public false hope that the city can take any meaningful action to address housing and homelessness.
“We don’t have the power, we don’t have the authority, we don’t have the budget. And that’s the frustrating position we are in,” Paquette said.
Since the 1990s, the city and province have repeatedly struck task forces and appointed officials to examine the issue of homelessness.
“If we’re going to call an emergency but yet we’re not really going to have immediate movement or action on things, we’re actually deflating the whole point,” said Renee Vaugeois from the Coalition for Justice and Human Rights told CTV News.
“A lot of effort can get put into task forces and I’m concerned that that’s not really going to get us anywhere.”
The same day as council’s vote, a challenge to the city’s encampment removal policy was quashed in the Court of King’s Bench after Justice Jonathan Martin found that the Coalition for Justice and Human Rights isn’t the appropriate group to have brought the case forward.
The Edmonton Coalition on Housing and Homelessness supported the city’s emergency declaration, which chair Nadine Chalifoux characterized as long overdue.
“It is tragic that it has taken the violence of the series of destructions of informal settlements on Edmonton streets and parkland over the past three weeks to reach this point, but determined action now offers an opportunity for a stronger plan to make progress on Edmonton’s grave housing problems,” said Chalifoux in a Jan. 14 statement.
She criticized the federal and provincial governments for creating the conditions of emergency, referring specifically to erosion of mental health services, social housing and income support funding over the past 30 years.
“This is the direct cause of the catastrophe of homelessness in Edmonton and Canada today,” Chalifoux said.
But it also criticized the city for treating homelessness as a “technical problem, rather than a human one.”
“The reality is that thousands of people are unable to afford or cope with the housing that is available. They move in and out of a range of precarious variations of survival, without having a safe, affordable, appropriate place where they can make a home,” said Chalifoux.
She said the coalition will be keeping an eye on city council to ensure the emergency declaration is more than just “an exercise in public relations and talk.”
Despite representing only eight per cent of Edmonton’s population, Indigenous people represent 58 per cent of the city’s unhoused population, according to the city.