By Jeremy Appel, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
(ANNews) – The City of Edmonton and Edmonton Police Service (EPS) dismantled four homeless encampments in the first week of 2024. By the end of the week, two of these encampments had returned.
These closures represent half of the eight “high-risk” encampments the city and EPS sought to dismantle in December, a process which was delayed by a legal challenge in the Court of King’s Bench from the Coalition for Justice and Human Rights, a local advocacy group that sought an injunction against the closures.
Justice Kent Davidson issued an interim order, which didn’t prevent the closures but placed restrictions on how they can be carried out, including requirements for providing 48-hour notice to encampment residents, ensuring that there’s sufficient shelter space for them, and that extreme cold temperatures are considered as a factor.
Rachelle Gladue, the co-founder of Tawâw Outreach Collective, an Indigenous-led street outreach group, told APTN News that these conditions are insufficient.
“They’ve given days’ notice…[how] do they know a couple of days ago that there is enough shelter space today? It can change in an instant,” she said.
While Justice Davidson’s conditions apply only to the eight encampments in question, the city quietly updated its policy on dismantling high-risk encampments after the court ruling to require 48-hour notification and sufficient shelter space, in addition to mandating that council be notified and that closures be approved by the deputy city manager of community services.
Acknowledging that encampments aren’t a long-term solution to homelessness, Gladue told the Edmonton Journal that displacement isn’t a solution.
“I think ultimately criminalization of survival is not the way to help vulnerable people in their situations,” she said. “These are human beings.”
Sherry Jerome was forced to place all her belongings in a shopping cart as she was evicted from an encampment outside the Bissell Centre social agency on Jan. 3, after police warned residents that any belongings that weren’t immediately gathered would be disposed of.
“They’re throwing away my jacket,” she told the Journal as city workers in hazmat suits loaded tents and left-behind belongings into a truck. “I can’t watch this. I’m gonna go. I can’t handle this.”
According to the City of Edmonton, there were 200 shelter spaces available on Jan. 3.
For Jerome, staying in a shelter isn’t an option, she told the Journal, because she gets “assaulted there all the time.”
Advocates for the unhoused showed up to the encampments that were torn down on Jan. 2 and 3 to provide support to the newly displaced residents.
Jordan Morgan of Water Warriors, a charity that provides food, water, warm clothing and bedding to the unhoused, witnessed city workers and police dismantle an encampment overlooking the river valley near Dawson Park, where residents were found dead on Dec. 24 and Dec. 29.
“All these people together make a family,” Morgan told CBC News. “To actually come and watch people packing up what little they have to try and find somewhere else to go, it’s heartbreaking.”
He added that evicting people from these encampments, which is being done in the name of public safety, in fact puts their impoverished residents in further danger.
“Imagine being out here, exposed to the elements and be expected to move what little you have and find somewhere else,” Morgan said.
“People need to have a lot more compassion for what’s going on and not treating these individuals in these encampments like they’re criminals.”
Jim Gurnett of the Edmonton Coalition on Housing and Homelessness, described the encampment closures as “really inhumane and cruel,” as well as counterproductive.
“We’ve traumatized the lives of the people involved and we’re not one centimetre closer to a solution to homelessness in Edmonton,” Gurnett told the CBC.
In an interview with the Journal, Gurnett noted how encampment clearings force residents into a vicious cycle of “continually just trying to do basic survival.”
“You can never organize your life to go and look for a job or to deal with personal matters because you’re just trying to recover from having one shelter torn down and starting over again,” he said.
NDP MLA Janis Irwin, whose Edmonton-Northwoods-Highland riding includes the Bissell Centre, was also present as city workers and cops tore down the encampment outside.
“I’m here because even though these folks may not have roofs over their heads, they’re my constituents and they matter,” she told the Journal.
Irwin said the UCP government is fixated on the quantity of shelter spaces in the province at the expense of quality, which would explain why so many unhoused people feel safer living in tents, with all the risks encampments pose.
“We’ve heard nothing from the UCP on shelter standards, on trying to address some of the issues that folks face, the barriers people face when accessing a shelter and the solution is housing,” she said.
Irwin was one of 80 signatories of a Jan. 3 petition calling on city councillors to return from vacation early to hold an emergency meeting to order a moratorium on the encampment sweeps, which it characterized as a “crisis.”
The petition, circulated by the advocacy group Public Interest Alberta, was also signed by Edmonton Griesbach MP Blake Desjarlais, who is Indigenous, multiple members of Tawâw Outreach Collective and kihcihkaw askî program manager Lewis Cardinal.
Federal housing advocate Marie-Josée Houle, who has a Jan. 15 meeting scheduled with Mayor Amarjeet Sohi, shared the letter on social media, calling the encampment closures a “violation of human rights,” as well as inherent Treaty rights, as stipulated by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
While eight per cent of Edmonton’s population is Indigenous, 58 per cent of its homeless population is Indigenous, according to the city.