Edmontonians living rough brace for winter as city shelters struggle to meet pandemic demand

·6 min read
Lester Oxebin and his wife sleep rough inside a tarp-covered tent in north Edmonton. Oxevin says he worries about the winter ahead as they await a permanent housing placement.   (Travis McEwan/CBC - image credit)
Lester Oxebin and his wife sleep rough inside a tarp-covered tent in north Edmonton. Oxevin says he worries about the winter ahead as they await a permanent housing placement. (Travis McEwan/CBC - image credit)

Lester Oxebin and his wife sleep in shifts inside a tarp-covered tent in a vacant dirt lot in north Edmonton.

"When she sleeps, I'm awake," he says. "That's security."

Oxebin and his wife have been homeless for three years. They've lived in shelters and hotel rooms but have been living in this encampment for weeks, as they await a housing placement.

He dreads the thought of winter in a shelter.

He says he can't stand sleeping with the stench of so many bodies but he will move inside, in order to protect his wife.

"I don't care if I freeze, it's her I need to keep warm."

Pandemic pressures

A report being presented to city councillors at Tuesday's executive committee meeting details the strain COVID-19 has placed on the shelter system and the city's plans to address capacity shortages predicted for the winter ahead.

The city estimates that more than 2,800 people in Edmonton are experiencing homelessness, a number that has more than doubled since the pandemic began.

As many as 1,200 people are expected to require shelter this winter, but there is concern that there will not be enough spaces to accommodate them.

Public health measures have forced facilities to limit capacity, resulting in fewer places to sleep and stay warm.

"As a result of these changes and with impending winter weather, people experiencing homelessness once again have fewer overnight and day shelter options and limited access to existing public spaces," the report says.

"Increased demand for service and the inability to fully address it is leading to increased encampments and social disorder across Edmonton, particularly in the central areas."

Travis McEwan/CBC
Travis McEwan/CBC

In December 2020, more than 900 day-shelter spaces were available in Edmonton. Now there are about 300. If the response plan goes ahead, that number will rise to 400.

Last winter, 950 overnight beds were available. Under the plan, there will be 853 this winter.

The plan aims to ease capacity issues by keeping temporary shelters open through the season.

The city is entering into new subsidy agreements with the Bissell Centre, the Boyle Street Service Society and The Mustard Seed Society to support day shelters at several locations until Dec. 31.

The city has set aside $1.9 million for its winter response plan but cautions that amount won't last the season.

The plan hinges, in part, on additional funding from the province, and four shelter spaces operated by the Mustard Seed and the Hope Mission that have asked the Alberta government for additional funding to keep operating.

During a news conference Friday, Edmonton mayor Amarjeet Sohi said he had met with Premier Jason Kenney to discuss the urgent need for housing supports this winter.

"As it stands, I am concerned that we won't have enough shelter space to provide a warm space for people during the cold winter months," Sohi said.

"If these requests are met by the province, there will be about 950 beds this winter which is still 250 beds short of where we need to be."

Sohi said the city has asked the province to provide additional funding and to operate Commonwealth Stadium as a 24/7 shelter this winter.

He said he will be meeting with Alberta's housing minister on Monday to discuss how to address the crisis.

"If that funding is not available, I don't know what the solutions will be," Sohi said.

"The city finances are very limited."

Travis McEwan/CBC
Travis McEwan/CBC

The lack of shelter space has made life on the streets more dangerous, said Judith Gale, founder of Edmonton's Bear Clan Patrol.

Gale and her volunteers spend hours each week delivering food and supplies to people living rough.

She said the city needs to invest more in long-term housing, mental health and addictions services.

An increase in violent crime and a spike in overdose deaths has devastated the community, she said.

Increased enforcement on encampments has made the situation worse with eviction orders that force many to retreat into remote areas of the river valley, she said.

"That's what we hear from our brothers and sisters on the streets all the time. They feel like recycled garbage."

That's what we hear from our brothers and sisters on the streets all the time. They feel like recycled garbage. - Judith Gale

Melvin Osiowy says enforcement officers have visited his tent in Mary Burlie Park on 97th Street but have not forced him to leave.

A year ago, Osiowy was living in an apartment but says his disability cheques were cut and he could no longer afford rent. He feels unsafe in shelters and intends to sleep outside until his housing placement comes through.

He says not enough is being done to help the growing number of people like him.

"You see new people every day," he said. "They get turfed from their apartments because they have no money for rent. I have never seen so many tents."

Travis McEwan/CBC
Travis McEwan/CBC

Jared Tkachuk, senior manager of programs for Boyle Street Community Services, works directly with the outreach teams tasked with finding housing for people being evicted from encampments.

He said the speed of the evictions is concerning given the lack of available beds.

"Folks in encampments right now, when they're asking us, 'Where can I go?' We don't necessarily have an answer for them," he said.

"That's very concerning for us, going into the winter."

Under a new enforcement strategy adopted by the city in April, camps that are deemed a risk to public safety are dismantled by peace officers and police within one to three days of a site inspection.

If the risk is considered low, outreach workers are called in to connect residents with housing and services. The residents are given up to three weeks to move on.

According to numbers provided by Homeward Trust, between May and November, 22 people evicted from encampments were placed in housing.

The city said it is undertaking a "comprehensive evaluation" of the strategy. Meanwhile, more people are filing complaints about encampments.

To date in 2021, the city has received 6,100 complaints compared to 4,418 complaints in 2020.

During his news conference on Friday, Sohi said addressing Edmonton's housing crisis is a top priority for the new city council.

"These are immediate interventions, but we still need to work toward long-term solutions," he said.

"It is so unfortunate and heartbreaking that our homeless population has doubled over the last two years. And these are our people. These are Edmontonians that need our support and compassion."

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