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Edmonton declares homelessness emergency, while judge scraps lawsuit against city’s dismantling of encampments

The City of Edmonton has declared a housing and homelessness emergency after a lengthy, emotional and at times raucous council meeting that started Monday and wrapped Tuesday afternoon.

Council voted to support most of a motion from Mayor Amarjeet Sohi calling for action on housing and homelessness, but four councillors — Tim Cartmell, Sarah Hamilton, Karen Principe and Aaron Paquette — voted against the part of the motion containing the actual declaration.

“We’re making a promise as a municipality that we can fix this,” Paquette said during the meeting. “We don’t have the power, we don’t have the authority, we don’t have the budget.”

It’s a frustrating position the city finds itself in again and again, he said, with the provincial and federal governments responsible for housing, health and shelters. 

All council members agreed to the remaining parts of the motion that called for action.

Those include creating a task force led by the mayor and city manager, in collaboration with business and community leaders. The motion includes spending $3.5 million on finding innovative solutions, and attracting additional sources of funding through the task force.

It also directs administration to make a list of immediate actions the city can do, such as offering city-owned land to service providers to increase the number of Indigenous-led transitional spaces.

Sohi had put forward the motion to declare the emergency, as the number of people considered homeless in Edmonton remains double the pre-pandemic numbers— about 3,100 people. In 2023, 301 people died as a result of homelessness, up from 200 the year before, Sohi said, using statistics from city administration.

“I hear from business leaders, I hear from the social sector, I hear from community leaders that we’re all willing to step up,” Sohi said at the end of the meeting Tuesday. “And this is an opportunity for us to do so.”

Sohi will now ask for a meeting with 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.

Tuesday’s vote came after a fractious meeting Monday, which at times erupted in shouting and angry laughter from the packed gallery.

Coalition loses lawsuit bid

Hours earlier at the Edmonton court house, a judge ruled that a human rights group does not have the legal standing to sue the City of Edmonton for its practice of dismantling homeless encampments.

In a decision Tuesday, Court of King’s Bench Justice Jonathan Martin determined that the Coalition for Justice and Human Rights does not have legal standing to represent the interests of people in the city experiencing homelessness.

The Edmonton-based coalition had filed a lawsuit in August over the city’s encampment eviction policy, describing the approach as a violation of the human rights of people who live in the camps.

The coalition had been 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 City of Edmonton had asked the court to strike the action, arguing that the coalition lacks either private or public interest standing.

In Tuesday’s decision, Martin said the coalition lacked expertise and experience in advocating for and working with unhoused persons, and that allowing the case to proceed with the group at the helm could set a concerning precedent. 

Avnish Nanda, one of the lawyers representing the coalition, said he was disappointed but not surprised by the decision.

“There’s a lot of difficulty when you’re trying to hold governments and powerful folks accountable, particularly for the most vulnerable and marginalized in our society,” he said outside the courthouse.

Nanda said his client will spend time looking at the decision before deciding whether or not to appeal.

In a statement, the City of Edmonton said it doesn’t believe litigation is the best way to find solutions to homelessness.

“As we presented to the court, our lawyers felt the coalition did not meet the legal test for standing on this matter. While we are pleased that the court agreed with this position, our response to this legal action is in no way intended to diminish the City of Edmonton’s concern and dedication to ensuring the safety of our unhoused residents and the well-being of our communities,” the statement said.

Edmonton Police Service also got involved in the case, after gaining intervenor status. EPS lawyer Jeffrey Westman called the coalition a “heartfelt and sincere” organization, but said Chief Dale McFee remains confident in the EPS approach to encampments.

“He wanted to show the public the very deep, meaningful, thoughtful ways that our police officers engage with vulnerable persons every day. And I think that that was done,” Westman said.

The lawsuit — and several inner-city camp evictions that followed during the winter season — have put the city’s approach to encampments under intense scrutiny.

Months after the lawsuit was filed, the city made plans to tear down eight inner-city encampments it had deemed a danger to public safety.

The planned sweeps by Edmonton police prompted a series of interim injunctions, which set conditions for the removals. Last week, after weeks of public outcry, tents at the eighth and final encampment were torn down as extreme cold blanketed the city. 

The coalition had argued that it should be granted public interest standing in the case. 

The group took the position that all other possible litigants face barriers to bringing legal action, and if they were prevented from challenging the removals, the city’s bylaws and practices would become become immune from court oversight.

The city argued that the coalition has no direct involvement with the issue, does not work with unhoused Edmontonians, does not conduct public outreach, and has no expertise in the matter at stake.

Martin disagreed with the city’s assertion that only a person directly experiencing homelessness could bring the case but said the coalition fell short of proving that it was the only party capable of bringing the lawsuit.

“This court recognizes the difficulties faced by unhoused persons, the need to ensure that their voices are heard and amplified,” Martin wrote. 

“But the circumstances of this matter and the evidence before this court are insufficient to find that the coalition ought to be granted public interest standing.” 

WATCH | Councillors Aaron Paquette, Anne Stevenon discuss the homelessness crisis:

Encampments are symptoms of deeper failings: Edmonton city councillor

3 hours ago

Duration 2:15

Councillors Aaron Paquette and Anne Stevenson joined Edmonton AM host Mark Connolly in studio to discuss why the City of Edmonton is calling on provincial and federal assistance to support vulnerable Edmontonians.

The mayor and council met with provincial government officials Tuesday morning. 

Paquette said the provincial government has a critical role to play in addressing the chronic issues surrounding poverty and housing in Edmonton.

“Housing, shelters, mental health, addictions — these are all provincial responsibilities but because the city tries to address the gaps, by no fault of the public, they start to think that it’s the city that’s responsible for this, which is frankly not the case, but we do what we can.” 

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