As a snowstorm blows in around him, Anson Palmer makes his way through a camp set up on the side of Gateway Boulevard.
Tucked into trees and sandwiched between the busy roadway and construction fencing, a tarp hangs as a wind block for a tent. Wood scraps, bags and cardboard are also piled around the site.
Palmer is one of the many homeless people who have set up camp far from shelters and social agencies, which are largely concentrated around Edmonton’s downtown.
On this snowy Tuesday, Palmer is just visiting. His friend lives in the tent. Palmer cycled over to check that he was staying warm, and helped him set up a wood stove.
Palmer and his fiancée camp closer to Southgate Centre. Dressed in a reflective coverall suit, he explains this is his fourth winter living on Edmonton’s streets.
“We had frostbite last year, so it gets cold for some of us that have already gotten frostbite,” he said.
“It’s a hard thing to do, but some of us like to be out here better than in the shelters.”
How best to respond to the existence of homeless encampments has been the focus of intense debate, and is at the centre of an ongoing court battle between the advocates for the homeless, the City of Edmonton and the Edmonton Police Service.
In recent weeks, city crews have been focused on tearing down camps in central Edmonton that police labelled as high risk, alleging gang activity, fire risks and other safety concerns.
To find out if safety concerns are part of what keeps some of the city’s homeless population away from the core, CBC News spoke with people camping in different parts of the city, as well as to outreach workers, police, a city councillor and a researcher.
While safety is part of the motivation, avoiding crowds, chaos and unhygienic conditions in downtown shelters and camps, and a preference for simply being left alone, are also major factors in deciding to live in areas without support services.
Palmer said that while there are downsides to camping further away from downtown, it’s quieter and it’s less likely that belongings will go missing.
Gangs common in some encampments: police
Last month, an EPS-led plan to tear down several central Edmonton encampments sparked public outcry.
At a news conference Tuesday, EPS Staff Sgt. Eric Stewart said street gang members from both Redd Alert and ASAP [Always Strive and Prosper] have embedded themselves in some of the camps.
“It’s no secret – they prey on vulnerable people. They’ve been operating for a long time in our city,” he said.
Gang presence and violence downtown were common reasons cited during fall 2023 interviews with people camping in other parts of the city, says a University of Alberta researcher.
Marta-Marika Urbanik, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Alberta Centre for Criminological Research, spoke with CBC News in late 2023 about her research with Edmonton’s homeless population.
During her field research which is ongoing, Urbanik said her team visited several remote camps.
“When I asked some of these individuals who are living in these far-away camps, why they selected those spaces, given that there is no services, one person put it really succinctly, said ‘I’d rather be here and hungry but safe than well-fed downtown but be potentially attacked’,” Urbanik said.
While camps are getting easier to spot, it’s not a new phenomenon for people to avoid downtown, said Jane Anderton, Boyle Street Community Services’ outreach team lead.
Anderton says people choose remote camps for many reasons: the ability to set their own routine; to avoid having camps torn down by law enforcement; and sometimes because they’ve made connections with the neighbourhood.
The trade-off is that it is harder to get supplies and food, and when temperatures drop it can become a fight to survive.
Anderton said setting up a camp somewhere visible can be a safety measure.
“If there is a fire or if someone is coming and going through their camp or something, that is visible and maybe there’s people around to help.”
“It does, of course, also increase the chance that their camp will be reported and they’ll have enforcement come out,” she said.
Wesley Warren says he sticks to west Edmonton because it’s like “night and day” compared to downtown.
Warren, who found himself on the streets about two-and-a-half years ago, says that while gang activity downtown is an issue, his main reason for avoiding the area is that the camps and shelters are unhygienic.
“The gangs keep their stuff on the DL [down-low] where it belongs, from a pure business perspective. They don’t appear to be at war, but of course they are,” he said, during an interview at Boyle Street Community Service’s newly opened warming centre on Stony Plain Road.
“When I’m in a more populous area, what I find to be the biggest danger is just uncleanliness. The places are filthy.”
Ward Nakota Isga Coun. Andrew Knack says he’s getting an unprecedented number of messages about the increase in homeless encampments in west Edmonton.
“At this point, it feels almost daily that I’m hearing about it from people or seeing it firsthand,” Knack said in an interview on Friday, adding that the proliferation of camps — and public complaints about them — is happening all over the city.
Knack believes that city park rangers who close down camps take a nuanced approach, weighing all the risks that come along with displacing someone before they do it.
But he said everyone knows this approach won’t solve the problem, and that only permanent, supportive housing will stop the cycle.
Knack says the province ought to step up with funding for housing, and that in the interim it also needs to do more to ensure shelters are a viable option for everyone, so that people aren’t choosing between being warm or feeling safe.
“When we hit the cold, that’s what’s about to happen. People are going to die and it’s completely avoidable,” he said, adding that the city has created its own minimum shelter standards, but only the province has the power to enforce them.
Shelter standards updated
Heather Barlow, a spokesperson for Minister of Community and Social Services Jason Nixon, said Tuesday that shelter standards are reviewed and updated annually, and that last year’s update aligned the standards with ones proposed by the city.
“Updates included providing more cultural and spiritual supports, increasing the focus on connections to housing, employment and income supports, and ensuring shelters can provide a trauma-informed space for all clients,” she said in a statement
She said staff have received extra training and that over $1.4 million has been spent on security costs for Edmonton’s shelters.
After visiting his friend, Palmer planned to ride his bike to a nearby Tim Hortons to use the washroom, and then to focus on preparing for the freezing forecast, with temperatures expected to dip as low as –40 C in the coming days.
He said he and his fiancée fell on hard times during the COVID-19 pandemic, and haven’t been able to scrape enough funds together to get a place.
These days, they make a little money by shoveling snow for donations, and by collecting and returning bottles and cans to a depot.
Palmer said he wishes more Edmontonians understood that most people in camps aren’t trying to cause trouble — they’re just trying to survive.
“We do things differently and we’re just trying to get by, like everybody else,” he said.