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Edmonton homeless support centre to become permanent as deaths in unhoused population rise

The Alberta government’s navigation and support centre for people experiencing homelessness will become a permanent fixture in Edmonton as the number of deaths in the city’s homeless population spikes.

Premier Danielle Smith, along with Social Service Minister Jason Nixon, Public Safety Minister Mike Ellis and Edmonton Police Service Chief Dale McFee, touted the success of the targeted support project for homeless Edmontonians in a news conference on Tuesday and announced plans to open a centre in Calgary. 

Smith said homelessness has become a reality for too many Edmontonians, with encampments popping up all over the city. The rising cost of living — tied with an addiction crisis and decreased housing supply — have contributed to a major increase in encampments, she said.

“These are dangerous places, especially for women and people with disabilities,” she said, adding some Albertans in encampments have died in fires or from drug overdoses, while others have been assaulted, robbed and exploited by gangs.

“No one should ever have to live like this.”

Data provided to CBC News by Alberta Justice suggests the number of homeless people who die annually in Edmonton has increased dramatically over the past five years — from 37 in 2019 to 302 in 2023.

A woman with shoulder-length brown hair and a green blazer stands in front of a microphone.
Premier Danielle Smith says her government’s temporary navigation centre to get homeless Edmontonians off the streets is working, receiving more than 700 people since January. (Peter Evans/CBC)

Boyle Street Community Services, which also tracks deaths in the homeless population, said it had been notified of 72 deaths in the first 78 days of 2024, and that the new approach to dealing with encampments had not decreased the volume of deaths being reported.

Smith said the grave number was the catalyst for the province’s opening of a temporary navigation and support centre in January at Hope Mission’s Karis Centre on 103rd Avenue and 107th Street.

“We knew that we had to do something,” she said. “We just couldn’t continue to see those numbers go up.”

Support centre is working, province suggests

As Edmonton police tore down homeless encampments over the winter, the centre connected the city’s most vulnerable with income support, shelter and housing options, identification, health care, mental health resources and addiction treatment.

In the two months since the provincially funded navigation and support centre opened, the results have exceeded expectations, according to Jason Nixon, Alberta’s minister of seniors, community and social services.

He told reporters that more than 700 people have accessed the centre since mid-January, and roughly 550 people have been connected to shelter and housing programs, with 240 people being directed to housing programs and 315 people being connected to shelter spaces.

He said the province plans to keep it open.

“Alberta’s government will not abandon the most vulnerable among us to die in tents,” he said.

“The results are clear this approach is working.”

A woman with short curly hair wears a suit. She speaks to media.
Janis Irwin, the Alberta NDP housing critic, said the numbers provided by the provincial government are not accurate. (Peter Evans/CBC)

But Janis Irwin, NDP MLA for Edmonton-Highlands-Norwood and housing critic, told reporters Tuesday the numbers provided by Nixon are not accurate. During budget estimates last week, she was told only five people had been provided permanent housing.

She believes Nixon’s estimates refer to individual shelter spaces.

“We know shelters are not homes,” Irwin said. “That’s not the type of support that people actually need.”

Advocates skeptical about navigation centre’s benefits

Cala Hills, a site manager at NiGiNan Housing Ventures, said her organization has received many referrals from the centre, but they often aren’t able to accommodate everyone seeking housing.

Due to an extensive waitlist at Pimatisiwin, an emergency shelter run out of the former Sands Inn & Suite 12340 Fort Rd, she said the referrals have died down. 

“We do have shelter space and permanent housing, but unfortunately, most of those spaces are full,” she said, noting how her organization has close to 200 permanent housing spaces and 80 shelter spaces.

All of those beds are full, she said.

There is not much support NiGiNan can provide to those on the wait list, Hills said, so staff do what they can to direct people to other places like the navigation centre.

Jim Gurnett, a spokesperson with the Edmonton Coalition on Housing and Homelessness, said things on Edmonton’s streets are the worst they’ve been in many decades. The aggressive removal of encampments has put many people at risk and is increasing suffering, he said.

The people who used to build somewhat decent little campsites, with protection from wet and protection from cold, are now just huddling under bare tarps in doorways and along sidewalks, he said. 

“I have watched within 15 minutes of somebody trying to set up a little bit of something to shelter from the wind and cold with the tarp – the sheriffs or the police are there telling them to take it down and move,” he said.

Gurnett said funding and resources would be better directed toward the Bissell Centre and Boyle Street Community Services — two agencies that offer day services to the homeless population.

A man dressed in a police officer's uniform stands at a microphone.
Dale McFee, chief of the Edmonton Police Service, said there have been no fatal tent fires or overdose deaths in encampments since opening the navigation centre. (Peter Evans/CBC)

Earlier this month, the city quietly ended stop-gap funding to Boyle Street and Bissell, saying it’s a provincial responsibility to fund those types of services.

“Fund the existing agencies properly, don’t play games with trying to create some new body that has no roots to do its work well,” he said. 

Gurnett said there needs to be more diverse, safe and healthy shelter options for people who will not go to existing shelter space in the city. He also believes non-market, publicly funded housing is needed.

Dale McFee, chief of the Edmonton Police Service, said Tuesday there have been no fatal tent fires or overdose deaths in encampments since opening the navigation centre. He said the longer the centre stays open, fewer encampments are constructed.

“That is what empathy looks like. That is what it looks like to treat people with compassion,” McFee said, noting how calls for service have dropped 6.5 per cent since January.

Still, McFee said there’s still a lot of work to do.

“We need to keep up this momentum,” he said.

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