During the pandemic, the number of individuals experiencing homelessness in Edmonton doubled, and currently, about 2,800 individuals are homeless in Edmonton. This has also resulted in an increase in encampments (a group of temporary shelters or tents), with approximately 800 people living in encampments in the city.
“The homeless-serving sector has faced a challenging combination of increased demand, a lack of adequate housing, and changing public health restrictions,” says Brent Wittmeier, a senior marketing strategist for the City of Edmonton. “All levels of government have stepped in to increase services, but the challenges around homelessness remain significant.”
Encampments create challenges for both houseless individuals and for community members. Individuals living in encampments face exposure to the elements, challenges accessing nutritious food, and limited access to running water or sanitation facilities.
Community members may face insecurity, feelings of unsafety, increased waste in their neighbourhoods, and the risk of fires, to name a few common concerns.
However, individuals living in encampments may be reluctant to leave encampments behind for shelters due to a number of issues. Safety can be an issue at shelters. Violence, overdoses, and other traumatic events can be a daily occurrence, and there is no guarantee that homeless individuals will be permanently housed after leaving their encampment for a shelter.
As well, leaving an encampment may also mean leaving behind a sense of community and belonging — a support network.
Due to increasing challenges houseless individuals and communities continue to face, the City has expanded their homelessness response beyond providing annual funding for organizations like Boyle Street Community Services, supporting Homeward Trust, and helping prevent drug poisonings.
“Because of the challenges this year, City Council has increased City Operations and Park Rangers’ capacity during the summer months to address the growing number of encampments. Social Development is also reallocating existing funding to add additional outreach and housing workers for the remainder of the year,” says Wittmeier.
The City contracted M.A.P.S. Alberta to engage with homeless individuals living in encampments to understand their lived experiences, says Wittmeier, and the data collected will be used to adapt the City’s encampment response and to create human-centred designs for public spaces.
The City is also engaging with community members, local businesses, and frontline staff who work in encampment response to better understand the situation. Wittmeier says he expects that the City will meet with 11 focus groups in July. “The City is always seeking to improve its response to encampments to better balance community safety and well-being needs while also connecting more people with safe, adequate, and culturally appropriate housing,” says Wittmeier.
City social planners met with Parkdale-Cromdale community members in an engagement event on June 24 to hear the concerns of residents and gather data about the impact encampments have on their communities. The event involved a round-table discussion and a walk-through of Kinnaird Ravine and surrounding parkland to illustrate the impact of encampments on the community.
“The social planners who attended the community event were receptive to the information we provided and they seemed genuinely motivated to make sure that the specific nature of the encampment-related problems are [communicated] to council,” says Anthony Oliver, civics director for the Parkdale-Cromdale league.
“My concern is that our circumstances will be conflated with the situation that’s experienced by other communities which may have certain things in common… but undoubtedly will be different given the difference in the parkland space and the proximity to homeowners, the history in the community, the capacity of the community,” says Oliver. “It’s quite a separate, unique situation, and that’s what I really want to get across to council, that a one-size-fits-all approach will not work [for encampment resolution].”
Many community members expressed concerns about their safety due to encampments in the neighbourhood. Kinnaird Ravine used to be an escape into nature for many community members, but several people explained that they did not feel comfortable running, walking, or passing through the ravine unaccompanied, even during the day.
In addition to general safety, the destruction of the ravine, especially cutting down trees for firewood, hygiene issues due to no washroom access, and fires starting were major concerns of the community. Drugs in encampments is also something that the community is unequipped to deal with.
Community members expressed concern that after the City shuts down an encampment, another encampment can be set up just 100 feet away. Several people suggested a zero tolerance or an immediate action approach to encampments, where City encampment response teams would disband encampments as soon as they became aware of them, regardless of their risk level.
Community members noted that sanitation and safety risks that can arise because of encampments are too great for a slow encampment response. Additionally, Oliver points out that encampments are in violation of the Parklands Bylaw, which says that “no person shall: (b) build a structure, whether permanent or temporary; or (c) set up any form of temporary abode except in an area designated by the City for this activity.”
One resident noted that they understand that homelessness is a complex issue, but letting people stay in encampments is a safety risk both for residents in the community and for homeless individuals.
More affordable housing is widely regarded as the best solution for houselessness and encampments; however, a lack of resources makes this difficult. While work is being done to address homelessness and encampments in the city, it is slow going. The complicated nature of the situation and varying viewpoints on encampment response make it difficult for immediate change and action.