Edmonton MLA decries ‘futile’ encampment closures in frigid conditions

‘She moved her stuff two blocks over,’ says Edmonton MLA highlighting the ineffective measures to clean up encampments

edmonton encampment sweeps

Police tape left behind after encampment closures in Edmonton. Photo: Danielle Paradis/APTN.

After a series of contentious encampment closures in Edmonton, an MLA who attended many of the closures spoke out about the lack of a plan to deal with supportive permanent housing despite the province sitting on a $5 billion budget surplus.

“It is literally frigid walking from my car to here,” said Janis Irwin, an Edmonton MLA. All eight of the encampments cleared by police are in Irwin’s district.

“I have wanted to be there, I’m their MLA even if they don’t have a roof over their heads, you know, their voices still matter,” Irwin said.

Her comments come after a highly-criticized encampment closure earlier this week. Irwin described the closures as “futile” as they are ultimately ineffective at stopping encampments from popping up. Irwin said she is seeing the same people at multiple camp closures who move to a new space.

“I was helping a young Indigenous woman who had just been swept from Bissell [a non-profit that works with the homeless] so she moved her stuff two blocks over,” said Irwin.

Photos and video circulated on social media Thursday of police and encampment resident interactions which led to arrests at a camp where APTN previously spoke to residents.

“I am also there as a housing critic for the province calling on the [United Conservative Party] to have a plan. Winter comes every year. It is often cold even if it is not -40 like it is right now,” said Irwin.

Alberta MLA
Alberta New Democratic Party MLA Janis Irwin has attended most of the encampment sweeps in her jurisdiction to provide support for the homeless population being displaced. Photo: Danielle Paradis/APTN

‘Housing and houselessness’ emergency

Edmonton’s Mayor Amarjeet Sohi has called a special city council meeting to declare a “housing and houselesssness emergency” in the city of Edmonton.

“Over the past three years, we have been building from an urgent issue to an emergency. The system is at a breaking point,” said Sohi in an emailed statement to media. “This past week temperatures in Edmonton have plummeted to below minus 30. On Thursday, the Edmonton Police Service worked to clear another encampment that they deemed “high risk.”

The statement from the mayor’s office said that without help from other levels of government to provide affordable housing and related services, the city “will continue seeing encampments and residents without housing.”

Edmonton police deputy chief Warren Driechel told reporters that officers had taken down 120 structures affecting at least 100 people and removed about 2,000 needles, dozens of weapons and 50,000 kg of waste.

Several encampments remain in the city, including one within eyesight of the Edmonton police headquarters.

“About two years ago [at a city council meeting] I asked at what point do we call this a humanitarian crisis. I was told it didn’t fit the parameters,” city councillor Aaron Paquette said to APTN. “Even though it is true, people are tired of hearing people like me, people at the city, saying shelters, housing, mental health, and addictions are provincial responsibilities.

“We cannot do their job and your income tax is already for them to do their job.”

A generator runs in a snow-covered encampment that has not yet been affected by the Edmonton Police Service encampment sweeps. Photo: Danielle Paradis/APTN

Alberta government response

The Alberta government, which is the level of government responsible for funding housing and many social development programs, has projected a more than $5 billion surplus in the budget.

APTN reached out for comment from Jason Nixon, minister for Seniors, Community and Social Services about the homeless encampment situation in the city.

In an emailed response, Minister Nixon said, “Alberta’s government recognizes that housing linked with supports is an integral part of the overall response to homelessness and we are actively taking steps to ensure help is there for those who need it.

“That is why Budget 2023 provides $75 million for homeless initiatives in Edmonton including $35 million for shelters and $41 million to Homeward Trust Edmonton for programs aimed at moving people out of homelessness and into housing with supports.”

The government didn’t answer a question regarding funding permanent supportive housing.

Alberta’s deputy premier and minister of public safety and emergency services, Mike Ellis, said in a statement that the government had already formed an emergency public safety committee last November and is working on an action plan along with Alberta Health Services, Edmonton police and the Confederacy of Treaty Six First Nations among other organizations.

“Our government will continue to respond to these issues following the expected court decision on Jan. 16, no matter the outcome,” Ellis said in the statement. “We will have a more detailed statement regarding this response once the court decision is made.”

Detritus that was left behind after an encampment sweep. Photo: Danielle Paradis/APTN

Encampment lawsuit

The Coalition for Justice and Human Rights has filed a lawsuit seeking a declaration from the court that the city’s encampment eviction policy breaches Charter rights.
In the meantime, the group wants an injunction putting restrictions on the city and police response to encampments when temperatures are extreme, when there is no adequate shelter space and around giving written eviction notice to occupants.

The court is dealing with several preliminary applications the city has made that attempt to limit or stop the coalition’s efforts.

With files from the Canadian Press

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