On an Edmonton street once crowded with tents, workers in white hazmat suits sifted through tarps, sleeping bags and blankets on Wednesday morning, slowly stuffing trash bags into the back of a garbage truck.
Tents scattered across central Edmonton are being torn down as a court battle over the city’s encampment removals policy continues.
Makeshift shelters at four camps are expected to be removed today by city workers and police.
The sites marked for removal are near social agencies, including the Bissell Centre. As of Wednesday morning, city workers were clearing one of the sites, along 105A Avenue in the heart of Chinatown.
The encampments are among eight sites that have become central to a legal challenge against the city and police for how they choose to dismantle homeless encampments.
The legal dispute escalated last month after front-line agencies learned of a plan to remove up to 135 makeshift shelters at eight sites in central Edmonton deemed high-risk by the city.
The city has said the camps are too dangerous to remain standing. Advocates for homeless people say taking them down puts encampment residents at risk.
Jim Gurnett, spokesperson for the Edmonton Coalition on Housing and Homelessness, said he watched the sweep Wednesday to offer support to camp residents and to bear witness to the eviction.
“We’re treating some of the people in our community in a really inhumane and cruel way,” he said. “Something has got to change.
“It breaks my heart every time.”
Gurnett said the city has been removing encampments for years but it doesn’t help the people living in them.
“We’ve accomplished nothing by it. We’ve wasted millions of dollars. We’ve traumatized the lives of the people involved and we’re not one centimetre closer to a solution to homelessness in Edmonton.”
Edmonton-based Homeward Trust reported last month that more than 3,000 people are experiencing homelessness in the city. Around 700 of them are unsheltered, either sleeping rough or staying in emergency shelters.
WATCH | Workers clear an encampment Wednesday in central Edmonton:
All eight camps deemed high risk were slated to be removed on Dec. 18, but the plan was paused after a wave of public backlash and a request for an emergency injunction.
The same day, a Court of King’s Bench judge issued an interim injunction which delayed the removals until certain conditions were met.
Under the injunction, the city and police must issue notice to the people living in them, and make sure alternative accommodations are available for residents.
The Coalition for Justice and Human Rights, an Edmonton-based group which advocates for people living in encampments, challenged the removals in court. The coalition says the city’s removals policies are a violation of the Charter rights of people who reside in the camps.
Justice Kent Davidson’s interim order will last until Jan. 11, when court will hear an earlier injunction application from the coalition, which has launched a lawsuit against the city over its policy of removing homeless camps.
In a statement Tuesday, the city said the remaining sites deemed high risk will be reassessed and notifications provided to occupants and social agencies in accordance with the court orders.
As of Wednesday, more than 200 spaces are currently available throughout Edmonton’s shelter providers, the city said.
The province has maintained since last month that more than 1,400 shelter spaces are available across Edmonton.
But, with an ongoing discrepancy in the numbers, it remains unclear how much shelter capacity is available. Homeward Trust is reporting there are 1,142 shelter spaces, with 986 of those spots being used.
River valley camp cleared
An encampment overlooking the ravine near Dawson Park in central Edmonton was dismantled Tuesday.
Jordan Morgan, an advocate for unhoused people with Water Warriors — an Edmonton-based charity that distributes water, food, warm clothing and bedding to people in need — was there as city workers and police officers descended on the camp near Dawson Park.
Morgan said it was painful to watch people forced from their homes as tents scattered through the trees were torn down.
“All these people together make a family,” he said. “To actually come and watch people packing up what little they have to try and find somewhere else to go, it’s heartbreaking.”
On Wednesday, police said two people died at river valley encampments over the holidays.
On the morning of Dec. 24, police were called to the sudden death of a man in the area of 92nd Street and Jasper Avenue. On Dec. 29, a woman was found dead at an encampment in the area of 102nd Avenue and Alex Taylor Road.
Both deaths are considered non-criminal, and neither is believed to be the result of a fire, police said.
The city and police have raised concerns about the presence of organized crime in some of the camps, about violent assaults, and a string of deadly encampments fires this year. Police Chief Dale McFee has said camps are inherently unsafe and should not be tolerated in the city.
Morgan said people living in extreme poverty are just trying to survive and that evicting them from camps puts them in additional danger.
He said all levels of government need to do more to provide social and affordable housing spaces to people in need.
“Imagine being out here, exposed to the elements and be expected to move what little you have and find somewhere else,” Morgan said.
“People need to have a lot more compassion for what’s going on and not treating these individuals in these encampments like they’re criminals.”
Rachelle Gladue, co-founder of the Tawâw Outreach Collective, said dismantling the camps only works to uproot vulnerable people. Without additional emergency housing options, many will just set up camps elsewhere, she said.
“There’s no solution in the end, it’s just moving from one spot to another,” Gladue said. “The biggest thing I hear from folks is that they’re not told where they can go, it just can’t be here.”
WATCH | Edmontonians living in encampents tell their stories: