Canada

49 homeless encampments dismantled in Edmonton since lawsuit scrapped

Two weeks since a lawsuit challenging Edmonton’s practice of dismantling homeless encampments was scrapped by a judge, nearly 50 encampments around the city have been torn down. 

A new emergency operations centre — set up by city administration one day after the suit was dismissed — is helping co-ordinate sweeps as evictions continue at an accelerated pace. 

The Emergency Operations Centre has overseen the removal of 49 encampments, the city said in a statement. About 211 structures were removed during the sweeps — and 175 people were living in the camps before tents were torn down, the city said.

Emergency operations centres are typically set up in response to disasters, serious emergencies or major public events, and staffed by city workers from other departments.

For example, last year, emergency centre operations were activated to help an influx of wildfire evacuees entering the city. The centres have also been activated for one-day responses during scheduled events, including NHL playoffs games and during New Years Eve celebrations. 

The encampment operations centre was established on Jan. 17, as Edmonton police promised to hasten tearing down encampments and the province opened a new government-run reception facility to serve those evacuees.   

The day before, a judge ruled Coalition for Justice and Human Rights, a group that challenged the city’s encampment policies, did not have legal standing in the case, putting an end to the high-profile legal challenge and, in turn, lifting restrictions on how the evictions could proceed.

“The bottom line is they’re doing this because that lawsuit longer exists,” Avnish Nanda, a lawyer for the group, said. “They feel emboldened.

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“And that means, from our perspective, they’re continuing to breach the fundamental rights of the most vulnerable and marginalized within our city.” 

After the lawsuit was filed, plans to dismantle eight inner-city encampments deemed high risk by the city prompted widespread public outcry and an injunction that placed restrictions on how the evictions could proceed. 

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Large encampment clearings have been happening in Edmonton for the past few weeks they’re expected to be more frequent. The province announced a new support centre for people to be transported out of encampment sites. Travis McEwan followed along to see how it’s playing out.

Nanda said establishing an emergency command centre is problematic. 

“There is a disconnect between what city council says its policy is and what city admin is doing. And that is very troubling.”  

City spokesperson Lisa Glover said mayor and council have been briefed on the centre. Operations will be reassessed after 30 days, she said. 

Glover said the centre is jointly operated by police and the Office of Emergency Management and is helping co-ordinate logistics for police and the province to deploy resources.

Emergency operations centres are sometimes established in response to a request for assistance from the province, but no such request was made in this case, Glover said.  

Glover would not say how many staff have been deployed to the operation. 

‘Still questions’

Aaron Paquette, councillor for Ward Dene, said the operations centre was set up to help support the work of the new navigation centre. He said the province and police are leading the eviction process. 

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“It’s a little bit frustrating from the council perspective to not have any sort of direct authority on these things,” he said.  “The most we can do is support these efforts by having our crews go in and clean up and offer things like a warm bus ride.”  

Paquette said the current encampment response is flawed, focused too much on bringing tents down instead of tackling the problem at the root.

He said more Indigenous-led, less institutional operators need to be added to the city’s shelter system. More investment is also needed in housing first and treatment programs, he said. 

“The province has decided to err on the side of intervention, but how that intervention rolls out is really critical,” he said.  

“On the surface it looks like it is working. Under the surface, there are still questions about how encampments are being dismantled … and what’s happening in the aftermath.” 

A homeless encampment in downtown Edmonton
People gather outside the Bissell Centre in Edmonton, Alta., on Thursday, January 11, 2024. In the weeks following the end of a legal challenge, the city has dismantled dozens of camps across the city. (Wallis Snowdon/CBC)

About 100 people forced from Edmonton’s encampments were taken to the new navigation centre. 

Of those, about 45 people were connected to formal housing programs and 55 people were transferred to emergency shelters.

As of Jan.17, according to the province, 1,801 shelter spaces were available in Edmonton, including 295 transitional spaces. 

Anne Stevenson, councillor for Ward O-day’min, said the number of people accessing help is encouraging and the operations centre is ensuring the response is organized. 

“There are now more resources to support people to transition out of encampments,” she said. “For me, that shifts how we can respond.” 

Michael Janz, councillor for Ward papastew, remains skeptical about the pace and focus of the city’s encampment strategy. 

He said government resources, and city money, could be better spent on addressing the systemic causes of homelessness. 

As the number of Edmontonians facing extreme poverty continues to rise, merely dismantling camps just displaces the problem, he said. 

“If people don’t want to go to the shelter, you can’t force them to go,” he said. “They’ll leave and set up camp somewhere else. 

“I’m not optimistic that a majority enforcement approach is going to address the root causes of this problem that is worsening every single day.” 

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