March 3rd, 2024

‘People are dying’: Edmonton council meeting hears call for homelessness emergency

By The Canadian Press on January 15, 2024.

A housing and homelessness emergency is expected to be declared at a special meeting of Edmonton city council Monday afternoon. Edmonton Mayor Amarjeet Sohi speaks at a press conference in Edmonton, Thursday, June 16, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

EDMONTON – The mayor of Alberta’s capital introduced a motion calling for an emergency to be declared over homelessness and housing Monday, along with a plan for immediate and systemic change.

Amarjeet Sohi told a special city council meeting that action has to be taken now, adding that 300 people have died as a result of homelessness over the past year.

“Service providers are being forced into unsustainable expansion to keep up with the demand. People are dying. Creating an emergency will signal to Edmontonians that council understands the magnitude of this problem,” Sohi said.

“This is a call to action. The conversation I want to have today is not specifically about encampments or shelters. I’m here to talk about the system as a whole and how to best address the root causes.”

Sohi said there is a record number of unhoused people and a high number of deaths and amputations. He said a 12.1 per cent increase in rent between November 2022 and November 2023 is adding to the problem and nearly a quarter of Edmonton’s households are very low or low income.

Sohi said his first action will be to invite Alberta’s social services minister, the federal housing minister and the grand chief of the Confederacy of Treaty 6 First Nations to discuss possible solutions at an emergency meeting.

The mayor is also calling for city and community leaders to team up and create a future vision, as well as raise money to help support social service efforts, as well as reducing red tape related to housing and homelessness.

He told council that it is important to send a message.

“If we don’t take this as an emergency, we will continue to deal with symptoms and those symptoms will continue to grow,” he said.

“I want to get to what the root cause is and really come up with tangible, workable solutions that are more meaningful in a way that we are making a dent or at least stopping the growing population of houselessness.”

Council delayed its vote until Tuesday.

Police in Edmonton dismantled the last of eight homeless encampments last week deemed by the city to be high risk.

The Coalition for Justice and Human Rights has filed a lawsuit over the city’s encampment eviction policy and is seeking an injunction to put restrictions on the city and police response to camps in certain situations, such as when temperatures get too low.

The council chamber was packed and Coun. Aaron Paquette pleaded with the audience to be civil as they accused council of being “cowards” for not taking action and asking “how many more people have to die?”

“We take this very seriously and people are in pain. You’ve lost people. I have lost people in the past few weeks. I understand,” Paquette said.

“It’s so important that we have this conversation and take what actions we can as a municipality.”

Tim Richter, the CEO of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness, said there really wasn’t much substance in the city’s resolution.

“The question I would have for the City of Edmonton – if this were a natural disaster what would you do?” Richter said. “There is a process that every city has.”

He said people unhoused in a natural disaster are immediately found lodging and given support.

“There are all sorts of things that the city could do if it was really thinking of this as a disaster. In a disaster, the city leads and senior levels of governments come in and support their areas of jurisdiction,” Richter said.

“This feels a lot more like a stunt than it is a meaningful effort at resolving homelessness. This is an emergency with no sense of urgency.”

– By Bill Graveland in Calgary

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 15, 2024.

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