Residents, businesses take aim at Edmonton's approach to homeless camps

·5 min read
Police order campers to leave a property on 106th Avenue and 96th Street Thursday afternoon.  (Craig Ryan/CBC - image credit)
Police order campers to leave a property on 106th Avenue and 96th Street Thursday afternoon. (Craig Ryan/CBC - image credit)

The City of Edmonton's approach to dealing with homeless encampments this year is pushing social disorder to new neighbourhoods and new levels, business leaders and residents say.

The city's encampment response teams have taken down more than 1,370 homeless camps so far this season, a spokesperson told CBC News last week.

In 2021, the city dismantled 1,780 for the entire year.

The city said public complaints about encampments have gone up 25 per cent. In 2021, the city had 6,693 complaints and it's received 5,693 complaints so far this year.

Michael Shandro, general manager of the Best Western Plus City Centre Inn on 113th Avenue and 109th Street, said every day, his employees have issues with people who aren't guests.

"Daily, I'm getting reports of them being either verbally or physically assaulted," he said of his staff. "People refusing to leave."

Shandro said his staff have discovered people who aren't guests of the hotel drinking in the hallway, and others setting up camps along the side of the inn.

"It used to be like every week or two we'd have an incident, we'd talk about it, we'd deal with it and that was it," he said. "My staff are getting jaded."

Kingsway Business Improvement Area
Kingsway Business Improvement Area

Ellie Sasseville, executive director of the Kingsway District Association, said they've noticed more camps in the area, one recently behind the building on 118th Avenue.

She said they paid $700 to have cleaners haul away trash and debris left by campers last week and businesses shouldn't have to do that.

Refocusing patrols

In May, police and city peace officers started refocusing patrols in Chinatown, downtown and on Edmonton transit, after two men were killed in Chinatown.

Since then, smaller camps have appeared beyond the inner core in places like Kingsway, along 107th Avenue and Whyte Avenue.

Mayor Amarjeet Sohi said he's hearing concerns from business leaders and residents.

"Problems are spilling over into neighbouring communities," Sohi told CBC News.

Sohi said he hopes a fully staffed Healthy Streets Operations Centre, set up in Chinatown, will allow hot-spot policing and enforcement.

"That will help neighbouring communities as well, so I hope that will work," he said. "But we know that enforcement is a Band-Aid solution."

Tim Pasma, manager of homeless programs with Hope Mission, also said clamping down on camps in the inner city means pushing people out.

However, he thinks the increased police presence in Chinatown, where there's typically a lot of social disorder, has helped make the neighbourhood safer.

"There's been a lot of crime, there's been a lot of pain suffered by the community, you know, from a lot of the encampments," Pasma said in an interview last week.

"We do feel like it's safer," he said. "There's still a lot of issues that need to be addressed. So it's really, it's a Band-Aid solution. I think everybody knows that, but it's at least one step in the right direction."

Taking down tents 

The number of people identifying as homeless doubled from the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

More than 2,750 people have no permanent home and almost 1,300 people are sleeping outside or in shelters on any given night, the city and housing agency Homeward Trust report.

The city developed a new encampment strategy last year, with response teams made up of social agency workers, police and city peace officers clean-up crews.

Last Thursday, the city's encampment response teams dismantled a camp of at least 20 tents at 96th Street and 106th Avenue.

Barb Laidlow, a resident living across the street for 15 years, said she complained about the social disorder more than two weeks earlier.

"This is the worst year it's been for the camps," Laidlow said. "It's very exhausting. We're always filing 311 complaints about drug use and litter and stolen property."

A day later, tents appeared again on the same site, CBC News found.

The city's new approach to dealing with camps stems from preventing a huge encampment like Camp Pekiwewin in the Rossdale neighbourhood and the Peace Camp in Old Strathcona in summer and fall 2020.

Pasma said large encampments are a safety risk to the general public, first responders and people living in the tent city, where there's exploitation, drug use and crime.

"A lot of the effort has been placed on making sure that these encampments don't grow exponentially to a point where we can't control it anymore," Pasma said.

Winter plan

City, social, agencies and the province are still working on a plan to create more winter shelter spaces but they don't know where that will be.

Last winter, the Spectrum building at the Northlands property on 118th Avenue and Commonwealth Stadium were used as temporary emergency shelters, but the city said neither site is likely to be used this year.

In 2020, the Edmonton Convention Centre was the designated 24/7 shelter during the first winter of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"I think there is an urgency to it," Pasma said. "I think everybody that works in the sector and from a funding level is aware of the urgency."

It's a challenge to find temporary spaces, staff, and the logistics of setting up and operating an emergency shelter, Pasma noted.

"As soon as we can have something in place, the better."

Sohi said he's hopeful the province will come through with funding for winter shelter spaces and then longer-term housing solutions for more of Edmonton's homeless population.