Following two days of heated meetings and passionate debate, Edmonton City Council has declared an emergency on housing and homelessness.
Councillors voted 9-4 Tuesday to call an emergency. Three subsequent motions seeking solutions to the crisis passed unanimously.
The special council meeting started Monday but was paused overnight after going long, several outbursts from the public gallery and the arrest of a protester in council chambers.
The emergency motion was proposed by Mayor Amarjeet Sohi, and was approved after days of dangerously cold temperatures and several arrests at a nearby homeless encampment.
“If we don’t take this seriously, if we don’t treat this as a long-term emergency, more and more Edmontonians will fall through the cracks and become homeless,” Sohi said.
But several councillors expressed concern about calling an emergency, including Coun. Aaron Paquette who pointed out that housing is the primary responsibility of the provincial and federal governments.
“If we vote for this…we are making a promise that we as a municipality are taking on a responsibility that we have no hope of ever fulfilling,” Paquette said.
“We don’t have the power, we don’t have the authority, we don’t have the budget. And that’s the frustrating position we are in.”
A recent count found that 3,170 people are homeless in Edmonton, which Sohi said is a record high. The mayor stated that 301 people died last year as a result of being unhoused, up from 156 in 2022.
Edmonton has $183 million in this budget cycle for affordable housing but Sohi said the city cannot keep pace with the need.
His motion does not address encampments or shelter spaces directly, rather focusing on longer-term solutions like housing.
It calls for an emergency meeting with provincial and federal ministers as well as the Confederacy of Treaty Six First Nations. It also proposes a new task force and $3.5 million in city money to get it running.
Rent control is something Sohi also wants to discuss with other orders of government and the motion calls for a report to explore ways to increase the number of Indigenous-led transitional spaces including using city-owned land to do so.
“There’s criticism out there that this is symbolic. It’s not symbolic because there are actions that are matched with this,” Coun. Erin Rutherford said.
“I will not sleep if there are no actions attached to this.”
‘THERE NEEDS TO BE ACTION’
But Coun. Sarah Hamilton disagreed on the impact of the primary motion.
Although she acknowledged Canada’s housing crisis is “crushing the dreams of young people,” she said declaring an emergency is misleading and will not bring immediate relief to unhoused people.
“I think a lot of people came here in the past two days expecting to see urgent action related to the issues we are seeing on our streets today, that when you walk out the doors of city hall, you are confronted by,” she said.
“And there is nothing on this list that will change that, and it will not change that in the next 18 months. I cannot support the declaration of an emergency.”
About 100 members of the community were at the Monday meeting, and some returned Tuesday to insist councillors do something right now to help people on the streets.
“If we’re going to call an emergency but yet we’re not really going to have immediate movement or action on things, we’re actually deflating the whole point,” said Renee Vaugeois, with the Coalition for Justice and Human Rights.
“A lot of effort can get put into task forces and I’m concerned that that’s not really going to get us anywhere.”
Michelle Wells, an Indigenous woman who volunteers to help homeless people on the streets, also believes the mayor’s plan lacks urgency.
“It’s all fine and dandy to declare a state of emergency, but there needs to be action behind the words and that needs to be immediately,” she told CTV News Edmonton.
‘WE HAVE A $5 BILLION SURPLUS’
On Friday, Jason Nixon, Alberta’s minister for seniors, community and social services, panned the mayor’s motion as “dangerous” because it may stop people from seeking shelter from the cold.
“I will continue to stand with [Sohi] in advocating for fair funding from the federal government,” Nixon told reporters.
“But when it comes to his bizarre decision to talk about having a state of emergency that will have no effect, that will not help any individuals that will be in trouble, will not create any more resources, and it’s just a complete political stunt.”
Through the cold snap, Nixon has insisted that Alberta has more than enough shelter spaces and no one would be turned away. He said he was not interested in attending Sohi’s emergency meeting.
Nixon said Friday the provincial Edmonton Public Safety Cabinet Committee is working to address the situation and that Alberta has committed “billions” for long-term affordable housing projects.
Edmonton city councillors met with the provincial government Tuesday morning for a briefing on what the cabinet committee is doing.
But NDP MLA Brooks Arcand-Paul believes the UCP government should move faster on getting people housed.
“We have a $5 billion surplus that could be going to allocate housing for folks who are living rough. We have temperatures that are plummeting. We are not seeing the province coming to the table,” he said after Monday’s meeting.
Prior to debating Sohi’s motion on Monday, councillors on the community and public services committee unanimously voted to recommend council approve the city’s updated affordable housing strategy.
That plan outlines the need for $15.4 billion in government investments in an effort to end homelessness in Edmonton by 2050.
The strategy predicts the city will need an additional 650 emergency shelter spaces, 189 transitional housing units, 1,700 supportive housing spaces and 39,700 affordable homes by that year.
City officials say one-in-eight Edmonton households currently are struggling to afford housing bills and other essentials like food.
Councillors Hamilton, Paquette, Karen Principe and Tim Cartmell voted against Sohi’s emergency declaration.
With files from CTV News Edmonton’s Jeremy Thompson
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