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Nixon questions push to declare Edmonton homeless emergency, says Sohi not aware of work being done

Seniors, Community and Social Services Minister Jason Nixon said Friday that his provincial government has been working for weeks behind the scenes to do more to address Edmonton’s homelessness crisis and suggested Mayor Amarjeet Sohi’s desire to declare a citywide homelessness emergency will have “no force and no effect.”

At a news conference in Calgary to speak about support for housing providers on Friday, Nixon spoke about the homeless encampment debate going on in Edmonton after the dismantling of a number of such sites and as temperatures in Alberta’s capital have already plummeted to below -30 C.

Nixon suggested he believes the mayor is not aware of work the provincial government is doing with the head of the Edmonton Police Service and City of Edmonton administrative staff because he has been on vacation.

“City staff have been involved though throughout the process,” Nixon told reporters. “We expect that council will be fully briefed on that joint strategy before they make any further political declarations that have no force and no effect.

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“We are doing actual hard work to get people the services they need and I want to thank all the city and provincial staff for their hard work on this.”

Click to play video: 'Questions over safety and access to emergency shelters in Edmonton'

Questions over safety and access to emergency shelters in Edmonton

At a news conference held in Edmonton on Friday afternoon, Sohi rejected Nixon’s claim he is not aware of work the province is doing and said that he was even briefed on the latest developments while he was on his vacation this week.

“City management briefed me a number of times (on work done by the province’s emergency cabinet committee on crime within encampments in Edmonton) over the last few weeks,” he said. “My staff has been briefed by city administration on that.”

In a news release issued Thursday, Sohi said he plans to call a special meeting of city council on Monday, Jan. 15 where he will put forth a motion to declare a housing and homelessness emergency in Edmonton.

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“Edmonton, we are at a breaking point,” Sohi wrote in a blog post that accompanied the news release.

“I hear your calls to change how we are handling encampments, caring for our unhoused neighbours and improving the safety of communities impacted by encampments.”

Over the past two weeks, the EPS and city crews have worked to dismantle eight homeless camps police deemed to be “high-risk,” either because of concerns about gang activity, drug use, fire risk or other factors.

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Some homeless Edmontonians and their advocates have said some people live in encampments and not shelters because of concerns about safety at shelters, or issues like not being able to bring their pets with them.

Click to play video: 'Why do so many homeless resist going to shelters in Edmonton?'

Why do so many homeless resist going to shelters in Edmonton?

The province, the city and the EPS have all said shelters have capacity to take in the residents of encampments that have been dismantled if those forced to leave want to stay in a shelter. Shelter capacity for those displaced by the camps’ removals was one of the conditions that had to be met to allow for the recent dismantling of camps.

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Late last year, police identified eight “high-risk encampments” for removal, but an emergency court injunction sought by the Coalition for Justice and Human Rights on Dec. 18, 2023, was granted by a judge and briefly postponed the plan.

While the injunction was extended until the application for a lawsuit against the city’s encampment response was heard, a judge ruled that the city and police are still allowed to remove high-risk encampments as long as several conditions are met, including that officials ensure there is enough shelter space available to accommodate those being forced to leave.

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“We have more than enough emergency shelter space in the city of Edmonton as well as in the city of Calgary,” Nixon said Friday. “Nobody will ever be turned away from our emergency shelter programs. We’ve invested more money in emergency shelters than any government in the history of the province. We will continue to do that.

“Further to that, we’ve also invested in new ways of doing shelter, including opening up … new Indigenous-run shelters to be able to help specifically with Indigenous communities that are facing homelessness, as well as women-only spaces and other ways to continue to be able to increase capacity in our emergency shelter system.”

“So to be very clear, and I think this is very important when you see weather like today, that we do not want to in any way send a message out to anybody that there’s not a warm place for them to stay. There is more than enough warm places to stay right now.”

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Sohi said that capacity itself is not the only concern, but also addressing the concerns homeless people have about issues like the safety of existing shelters and ensuring shelters are able to meet their individual needs.

The mayor also noted he is “very grateful for the new shelters that are coming on board now” under Nixon’s leadership under his leadership which “have better standards in place than the existing shelters.”

“We have made progress, but the number of Edmontonians falling into houselessness is still exceeding our system’s capacity to care for them,” Sohi said. “There has been too much focus on symptoms and not the systemic issues that result in crisis situations like we’re facing right now with encampments. That must change.

“Lives are at stake.”

Sohi said he believes it’s “clear we need to reimagine a systemwide solution” and that he believes there is evidence to support the idea of creating adequate supportive housing with wraparound supports in order to tackle the issue.

Sohi said he would like to have a meeting with Nixon, federal Housing Minister Sean Fraser and Cody Thomas, the grand chief of the Confederacy of Treaty Six First Nations, on the matter.

“I hope that these important partners can see this action in the spirit of co-operation in which it is being taken,” he said, referring to his plan to call for a homelessness emergency to be declared on Monday. “I know that with their help we can bring solutions to the table.”

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Sohi said he and Nixon have shared goals even if differences sometimes emerge.

“Maybe where we differ is how we can accelerate, how quickly we can accelerate,” he said. “I think that’s where we’ll continue to explore different options.

“We have a shared goal. I have a tremendous amount of respect for the provincial leadership on this file.”

In 2023, the city said Edmonton Fire Rescue Services responded to 135 fires in encampments resulting in 22 injuries and three deaths.

Earlier this month, the city said that over the past five years, EFRS has reported at least seven deaths and 26 injuries from 276 fires that could be attributed to tents or encampments.

Between Jan. 1, 2023 and Oct. 22, 2023, the city said there were 13,683 complaints about encampments from concerned Edmontonians.

Sohi said Friday that he shares concerns about the hazards encampments pose for people living in them and near them, but added “we also need to be very careful that we do not criminalize houseless people.”

“There’s a criminal element that needs to be dealt with,” he acknowledged. “But we need to treat houseless people with care and compassion.

“The past two weeks have been incredibly difficult and emotional for our city. What we have seen is the result of a social system that has been underfunded for decades.”

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Sohi added that if his motion to declare an emergency about the crisis passes on Monday, he knows that “calling an emergency must be followed up with action.”

A statement issued by the provincial government on Dec. 15 said it has provided funding for 1,700 shelter spaces and that it anticipates Edmonton’s emergency shelter capacity would grow from 1,388 to 1,510 by the end of 2023 and to 1,700 spaces “early in the new year.”

According to the social services organization Homeward Trust Edmonton, there were 3,043 people experiencing homelessness as of Dec. 16, 2023.

Of those, 670 were homeless with nowhere to go, 1,743 were provisionally accommodated and 534 were staying in overnight shelters.

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