City, police dismantle first ‘high risk’ downtown homeless encampment

The city and police began dismantling a downtown Edmonton homeless encampment. Laura Krause speaks to a social agency on how they feel it was handled.

The dismantling of one of eight homeless encampments deemed “high risk” to public safety in downtown Edmonton took place Friday morning.

There was a large police presence outside the camp near 95 Street and 105 Avenue.

Residents were told to pack up and move elsewhere following a 48-hour notice, as mandated by a court-ordered injunction.

BACKGROUND: 8 high-risk Edmonton homeless encampments can be cleared – under certain conditions

“Our top priority is the safety of people experiencing homelessness as well as the surrounding community,” City of Edmonton spokesperson Karen Zypchyn told CityNews via email. “We greatly value our partners in this work and are working closely with social agencies in our response to those living in encampments within our city.”

The closing and clean-up of the camp is being led by the City of Edmonton, police tell CityNews in a statement. Edmonton Police Service officers are there “to ensure the safety of all parties,” they say.

The city is planning to close four encampments between Dec. 29 and Jan. 3. The closures of the other high-risk encampments “will proceed only after evaluation and impact assessment with partners,” Zypchyn said.

The city considers an encampment “high risk” if there is a risk of injury or death due to fire, drug use, gang violence, weapons, sanitation risk or criminal activity. Officials also consider the camp’s proximity to schools and playgrounds, and how long it has been in place.

Crews work to dismantle Edmonton homeless camp at 95 Street and 105 Avenue, Dec. 29, 2023. (Laura Krause, CityNews)

Jim Garnett with the Edmonton Coalition on Housing and Homelessness called the operation “an attack on some of the poorest people in our community.”

“We have utterly failed to do the thing that we should be doing which is providing decent, adequate housing for them,” Garnett, the group’s spokesperson, said. “Nobody likes to live like this. This is an emergency measure people take because they have nothing else.

“There’s getting to be fewer and fewer places to go, because as camps have been being torn down over the last several months, in many cases the areas that had been used over time are being fenced off, and so people can’t get back into them. So really it’s a matter of moving around to find a place to go. Some of the people are starting to find locations that are further and further outside of the city.”

“Giving people 48 hours notice that you’re going to come in and tear their place down is nothing to brag about.”

—Jim Garnett, Edmonton Coalition on Housing and Homelessness

An estimated 130 structures are scheduled to come down across the eight homeless encampments.

Police say “these efforts do not represent an unprecedented operation, and are part of a larger backlog of encampments requiring assessment and cleanup.”

Edmonton’s police and fire chiefs have maintained the camps are unsafe and must come down.

“Our efforts are focused on community safety, specifically the levels of violence and crime that are often perpetuated within and on the individuals residing in encampments,” Friday’s EPS statement continued.

A large-scale encampment takedown was originally slated for earlier this month. It was put on pause during a court battle led by the Coalition for Justice and Human Rights, a group that advocates for homeless Edmontonians.

Moving forward, the city and police must make sure there is enough shelter space to accommodate everyone before taking down an encampment.

“Often the shelters are completely full,” Garnett said. “So one of the reasons people are living like this is because we have half as many shelter spaces as we have homeless people in the city. But the other thing is, shelters are often not much safer or sanitary places to live than these campsites. The shelters don’t have the flexibility to allow for people who may want to live in particular groupings together, or may have pets, or have certain disability challenges to deal with.

“So you can’t say that having a few buildings with mats on the floor that are called shelters are a replacement for housing.”

Zypchyn says if there is not enough shelter space, “officers will close only if there’s a danger to public health and safety” while taking into account how cold it is.

Crews work to dismantle Edmonton homeless camp at 95 Street and 105 Avenue, Dec. 29, 2023. (Laura Krause, CityNews)

The city and police also need to notify encampment residents, as well as social agencies, in advance when an encampment is coming down.

“Whether they moved before they were forced out, or whether they’ll move only when they’re coming or told later this morning, it doesn’t change the fact that what’s going on here is that the shelters that people have put together, and the best effort they’re making to create a place to have a home, is being ripped away from them, with them having no participation in that decision,” Garnett said.

“The current interim measures of 48 hours’ notice are of very little value. But a real injunction that said ‘the City of Edmonton, you must stop,’ that would give us some grounds to really start to work on this issue.”

EPS tells CityNews they have worked with the city to meet those conditions, but claim they “were all part of existing practice prior to the recent judicial events.”

Edmonton police say they have assisted in the cleanup of 2,329 encampment structures so far this year.

Crews work to dismantle Edmonton homeless camp at 95 Street and 105 Avenue, Dec. 29, 2023. (Laura Krause, CityNews)

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