Organizers to leave Pekiwewin encampment as temporary shelter opens

·4 min read

Camp Pekiwewin organizers say they will leave the homeless encampment next Friday as the city opens a temporary 24/7 shelter for the winter.

Organizers, security and overnight medics will be off site starting Nov. 6, according to a statement posted to the camp's Instagram account Thursday.

The statement comes as the city opens a temporary shelter at the Edmonton Convention Centre operated by a group of community agencies. Shelter operations are expected to scale up over the coming days and hit its capacity of 300 people by late next week, the city said in a news release Thursday.

At the same time, Pekiwewin organizers say they'll be scaling down efforts at the Indigenous-led homeless encampment across from Re/Max Field.

Organizers issued a set of conditions as part of its transition plan Thursday, including a demand Nov. 6 not be treated as a hard, enforceable move-out date for remaining Pekiwewin residents.

"A 24/7 shelter is not an adequate solution to ending houselessness, and it will not be enough. However, as temperatures become colder we cannot ensure community safety this winter," the statement read.

"While the physical organization of Pekiwewin will change, everyone is committed to a continuity of care for the community."

The camp is calling on the city to charter buses between Pekiwewin and the temporary shelter over the next week, staffed by outreach workers and barring police and bylaw officers. The city should also distribute printed, accessible documents at all camp residents outlining the services at the temporary shelter, organizers say.

Jordan Omstead/CBC
Jordan Omstead/CBC

Organizers are asking the city to provide people at Pekiwewin and Lighthorse Park, an encampment in Old Strathcona, with priority access to the convention centre, along with onsite COVID-19 testing.

"This will not be a discrete exit, nor will it end the advocacy. Pekiwewin Elders, community members, organizers and supporters expect the city to meet our transition conditions and ensure appropriate supports are maintained at the shelter," the statement read.

Three months of Pekiwewin

The volunteer-run and community-funded homeless camp first set up tents in late July after the city closed down a day shelter at the Expo Centre without a clear plan. Over the past three months, organizers say they've handed out thousands of daily meals, reversed dozens of overdoses and provided relief to hundreds of people sleeping rough. At its peak, Pekiwewin hosted around 300 people on any given night.

An explicitly anti-police camp, organizers have long called for an end to the displacement of encampments at the hands of law enforcement and for the city to make transit free. That advocacy, organizers say, will continue past the camp's end.

The statement criticized the city for failing to consult the organizers on the temporary shelter's supports, security and services ahead of its opening. It went on to accuse city officials of "perpetuating harmful and racist stereotypes" about people sleeping rough by referring to Pekiwewin at times as an "illegal encampment" and a site of "social disorder."

Met with threats of removal by law enforcement at its outset, the camp pressed local government to reckon with the issue of homelessness through direct action, eventually partnering with community agencies to provide housing and outreach services at the camp.

"They raised the issue like we've not been able to do and I appreciate it," said area city councillor Scott McKeen. "Governments need watchdogs and they need people to keep pushing us and those folks played a really important role."

McKeen says while Pekiwewin has polarized Rossdale residents outside the camp, he hopes the camp will peacefully come to a close "with a commitment from city council that we're not done."

Travis McEwan/CBC
Travis McEwan/CBC

He pointed to the continued need for supportive housing, but also a rethinking of bylaw, policing and social services in the city.

"I've come to believe that because we have not appropriately looked after homeless people and because we've traditionally asked police to deal with those issues, we've created this kind of conflict in our community," McKeen said. "And the sooner we can have police dealing with other matters and have the community looking after people who really have social services, healthcare and housing needs, the better off we'll all be."

The city contracted out Boyle Street Community Services to operate the shelter along with the Mustard Seed, Bissell Centre and the Bent Arrow Traditional Healing Society. Most of the $8 million cost will come from federal and provincial funding with the city expected to contribute about $500,000.

Services include an onsite safe injection site, COVID-19 screening, and access to mental health and housing supports.

Pekiwewin organizers plan to hold a rally, prayer and round dance on Nov. 7, but the statement did not note a location.