A vote on declaring a housing and homelessness emergency in Edmonton got put on hold Monday evening after an hours-long meeting at city hall, which at times erupted in shouting and laughter from the packed gallery.
Mayor Amarjeet Sohi called the special meeting late last week after public outcry and extensive media coverage of police and the city dismantling an eighth encampment in the inner city, forcing people out of their tents in frigid temperatures.
Sohi is asking council to call an emergency — in part to get all levels of government to start working on tangible solutions.
He said he’d never thought the situation would be this dire.
“I have lived in this city for 41 years and we had challenges around houselessness but not to the level that we’re experiencing today,” Sohi told news media after the meeting.
“And if we don’t put our heads together, if we don’t create a table where every order of government and community is coming together, we will not be able to get a handle on this.”
Council agreed to resume the meeting Tuesday at 1:30 pm.
Sohi said he hopes the declaration will get all levels of government at the table.
If passed, he’ll ask for a meeting with the Grand Chief of the Confederacy of Treaty 6 Cody Thomas, Alberta Minister for Seniors, Community and Social Services, Jason Nixon, and federal Minister of Housing, Infrastructure and Communities, Sean Fraser.
“Declarations have a purpose, and one of the purpose is to heighten the awareness among Edmontonians, it’s also to heighten the urgency of different players coming together at the same table,” he said.
Along with declaring an emergency, Sohi’s motion also directs administration to form a task force led by the mayor and city manager in collaboration with community and business leaders.
The task force would have a mandate to “mobilize all sectors to create vision and raise capital that can be deployed to complement social service mechanisms,” the motion reads.
It includes an injection of $3.5 million from community safety and well-being reserve to fund innovative solutions and “attract additional sources of funding through the task force.”
Anger from the public
The chamber gallery was full, with some members of the public throwing criticism at council and the city for their actions and for not doing enough to help.
Michelle Wells joined the meeting and outside the chamber told news media that she gives out care packages to people in need and sees first-hand what’s happening at encampments and on the street.
“You see the need and the hurt. They’re hurting, they’re suffering.”
It’s an emergency, she said, but the motion largely outlines longer-term housing needs and not the crisis that exists.
“They’re just covering their butts over that,” Wells said. “Something needs to be done right now, and it doesn’t address any of that.”
Coun. Karen Principe questioned the move to declare an emergency.
“I don’t want public perception to be that we haven’t taken this seriously before, because we have. Council has been very committed.”
At that comment, several people in the gallery laughed.
Shouting, laughing and clapping are not permitted in council chamber, a rule outlined at the onset by Coun. Aaron Paquette, who was chairing the meeting.
The meeting got heated with someone shouting “cowards,” and “genocide,” from the back of the gallery.
Paquette urged calm and explained that discussion needed to be respectful.
“I’m very sorry but if we have another outburst, the people who are talking will be removed,” Paquette said. “We would actually prefer you to stay.”
A few people left the chamber. Later, another man started shouting and was escorted out of the council chamber by peace officers.
The motion directs administration to come up with a list of immediate actions such as providing city-owned land to service providers able to immediately increase the number of Indigenous-led transitional spaces in Edmonton.
Sohi showed a breakdown of what the city has done, while it’s applied for funding and asked for support from the federal and provincial governments.
Since the current council was elected in fall 2021, the city has injected $46.9 million into the system.
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