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With -30 Weather Ahead, Edmonton Pushes People from Tents

Police and city continue with failed encampment policy.

David Climenhaga 8 Jan 2024Alberta Politics

David J. Climenhaga is an award-winning journalist, author, post-secondary teacher, poet and trade union communicator. He blogs at AlbertaPolitics.ca. Follow him on Twitter at @djclimenhaga.

With temperatures falling and lows below -30 C forecast by the middle of this week, Edmonton police and city crews continue to break up homeless encampments in the city core.

Police in black uniforms and city employees in white hazmat suits, which, given the nature of the work, are likely worn more for theatrical effect than practical safety reasons, dismantled the sixth camp since Dec. 29 Saturday.

But if the point of the exercise is to make unhoused residents of Edmonton go away, it’s clearly not working.

Rousted from their encampments, homeless people are often seen pitching their tents at new locations within sight of the old ones. When the police advance, the homeless retreat. When the police move on, the homeless return. (Indeed, a play on Mao Zedong’s famous description of guerrilla warfare.) Surely pursuing a policy that gets such results is the height of absurdity.

However, it would seem this effort, strongly backed by the United Conservative Party government, is motivated less by concerns about public safety and the welfare of the unhoused and more by the desire to look tough, generate headlines and embarrass Edmonton’s progressive-leaning city council with the enthusiastic assistance of the city’s UCP-friendly police chief.

Still, it was a bizarre irony the tone-deaf government of Premier Danielle Smith chose this moment to promote winter camping in Alberta.

On exactly the same social media feeds where UCP politicians are quoting local right-wing media commentators cheerleading the clearances and making inflammatory and unsubstantiated claims about what happens in homeless encampments, the government is urging other Albertans, “don’t wait until May to start camping!”

“Our government is proud to support year-round camping and outdoor recreation opportunities,” says a tweet by MLA Searle Turton, the UCP’s minister of children and family services.

“Winter camping: Go out and feel the magic!” exclaims an Alberta government media release on the same topic, published Tuesday and widely ignored by media.

“I encourage every Albertan to spend as much time as possible outdoors this season,” notes MLA Todd Loewen, the UCP’s minister of forests and parks, in the release.

Just remember, though, if you want to sleep outside undisturbed during “our beautiful winters,” you’d damn well better have a $60,000 SUV and a wallet full of credit cards. As has been observed of Alberta in the 2020s many times before, you really can’t make this stuff up.

Meanwhile, that Dec. 28 letter to Edmonton Mayor Amarjeet Sohi and city council imploring them to intervene to seek a moratorium on the rousts has now been signed by more than 3,300 people. More can sign the letter online.

Alas, there’s not much chance council will entertain the letter’s request to “immediately convene an emergency City Council meeting to explore the use of your powers as Council to halt the violent and disruptive decampment of hundreds of community members from the only shelter they currently have.”

Councillors have decamped to their winter break and will doubtless be trying to keep their heads as far down as possible in hopes the weather stays warm and the controversy blows over.

“These sweeps don’t ‘resolve’ anything,” said Bradley Lafortune, director of Public Interest Alberta, which drafted the letter. “Just today we saw people relocating less than one block away and within clear sight of the camp that was swept by EPS [Edmonton Police Service] and the city at Hope Mission.”

As for the city’s revised clearance policy required by the Dec. 18 interim injunction on shutting down encampments, Lafortune said, “the ‘new’ policy is just the old policy with the most minor modification to confirm whether there is shelter capacity if the encampment exceeds 20 structures. Most encampments do not reach 20 structures and EPS and the city can divide encampments by street, sidewalk or fence, even if they are in the same area.

"Essentially, there is a big, gaping loophole in this so-called modification that renders it meaningless.”

“The only way to fix the encampment strategy is to throw it out, stop the sweeps, and start from a policy development process that takes a Treaty and human rights-based approach and includes the lived experience and knowledge of Edmontonians experiencing houselessness,” Lafortune concluded.  [Tyee]

Read more: Alberta, Housing

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