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Court injunction delays Edmonton police plan to dismantle homeless encampments

Edmonton police plan to clear dozens of structures at homeless encampments in the city leading up to Christmas, according to a human rights advocacy group. As Laura Krause reports, another group is fighting it in court.

A court granted an interim injunction Friday preventing the Edmonton Police Service and City of Edmonton from clearing at least eight homeless encampments in the city.

Lawyers with the human rights advocacy group Coalition for Justice and Human Rights say the injunction was granted until Monday at noon.

The group says application for the injunction was only supposed to be heard Jan. 11, but it was moved up to Friday because of the impending evictions. In October, the coalition took legal action against the city, arguing evictions of people in encampments are harmful.

The parties are expected back in court Monday.

BACKGROUND: Edmonton human rights group upset encampment hearing won’t be heard until January

“The court was concerned about the reason why the City of Edmonton and Edmonton Police Service had waited so long to move to clear these encampments,” said lawyer Avnish Nanda. “In the evidence presented by the city and the police, they have known about the alleged issues that have given rise to this drastic response in November 2023, but they waited the week before Christmas to do something about it.

“So he (Justice Kent Davidson) wants to know why some of these sites are being cleared when there’s no evidence of any issue.

“We’re hopeful on the evidence, on the facts, that the court will agree with us that this is unnecessary, that this could have waited, that it’s not in the spirit of humanity to evict people from their only homes, the only protection they have from the elements, so close to Christmas.”

A dismantling of 135 structures at those eight sites was scheduled to begin Monday and last five days.

Edmonton police told CityNews it could not respond as they “await the outcome of court proceedings.”

Last month Edmonton police said more than 14,000 complaints against encampments were made to the city between January and the end of November, with 4,500 camps being investigated and responded to.

Nanda acknowledged there were fires and deaths in encampments last month and an incident of sexual abuse.

“But aside from that, there’s no other explanation for wanting to clear 135 encampment structures across eight sites, only in the inner city,” he told reporters.

Mayor concerned by ‘scale and timing’ of police plan

Edmonton Mayor Amarjeet Sohi confirmed he learned Thursday night that EPS intended to remove the encampments, adding the planned operation was being led by EPS and that city officials were only providing “cleaning services.”

In a social media post late Friday night, Sohi said he was concerned by the “scale and timing” of the police’s plan.

“When I found out last night, I had immediate questions around how vulnerable Edmontonians will be supported.

“My office is in ongoing conversations with service providers and I met with the City Manager and we agreed that a review of the decision making model and communications surrounding encampment response is required.

“I understand and support the concerns of EPS about the criminal element preying on our vulnerable population. However, I worry that the unintended consequences may be the displacement of innocent houseless people.”

Among those “unintended consequences,” Sohi pointed to people being dispersed to other areas.

“Given the number of people potentially impacted in this case, I am worried about how displaced people may take shelter in other spaces that are not safe or appropriate,” he said.

“I worry about our LRT system, I worry about the impact on other business districts this will have.”

In a statement Friday, the Alberta NDP called on the UCP Solicitor General to “immediately put a stop to the plans to evict unhoused Edmontonians from their encampments.”

‘Not enough shelter spaces

Public Interest Alberta (PIA) is calling the plan to dismantle encampments an infringement of the Charter rights of Edmonton’s homeless population.

“This plan, which appears to have been made unilaterally by EPS, cannot move ahead,” Bradley Lafortune, the executive director of PIA, said in a news release. “There are not enough shelter spaces in our city, and those we do have are not adequate to support people who need safe and secure spaces to survive.

“Quite frankly, this will put lives at risk at a time when we need a radical and coordinated response that honours human rights. We are demanding EPS stand down from its plan and to stop criminalizing homelessness on our streets.”

The group is alleging city officials were “caught off guard” by the police’s plan, which reportedly did not follow proper protocol under the City of Edmonton’s encampment response strategy.

The city, local homeless outreach organizations, and police have formed an encampment response team to deal with complaints. It handles “low-risk” encampments by co-ordinating closure and cleanup, with a goal to support safety and the well-being of occupants while trying to find them housing. Police and peace officers are responsible for “high-risk” encampments that are deemed to need a quicker takedown.

The Edmonton Coalition of Housing and Homelessness told CityNews it is concerned by the large-scale encampment removal plan, pointing to the lack of shelter spaces available for everyone. According to Homeward Trust Edmonton, an organization working to end homelessness, 200 of the city’s 1,100 emergency shelter beds were open as of Dec. 7.

More than 3,000 people in Edmonton are experiencing homelessness.

The province has committed to increasing bed capacity to 1,700 in the new year, though advocates fear the beds won’t come soon enough.

Sohi says the lack of “permanent solutions” – like investments in affordable housing and better social infrastructure through mental health and addictions support – is to blame.

“The impact on people is real, and I want to make sure that we will continue to call up to the federal government and the provincial government to build social infrastructure so people are not forced to live in encampments,” the mayor said.

“I have been very clear over the last two years that encampments are not a choice. Encampments are not a safe place for people to live in, and they are living there because they have no other choices to go to.

“We lack adequate, dignified shelter spaces, we lack housing, we lack support systems for mental health, addictions and intergenerational trauma that people are facing. We need to see real tangible solutions to end this crisis in our city.”

–With files from The Canadian Press

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