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Evictions begin in central Edmonton encampment as advocacy group loses bid to stall removals

An advocacy group that accused the City of Edmonton of failing to ensure there is adequate shelter spaces to accommodate people evicted from homeless encampments has lost its latest bid to halt the evictions.

The Coalition for Justice and Human Rights alleges the city and the Edmonton Police Service have breached an interim injunction by failing to ensure there is adequate shelter space to accommodate people being evicted from the encampments.

The Edmonton-based coalition argued its case before Court of King’s Bench Justice Kent Davidson Tuesday.

Chris Wiebe, a lawyer representing the coalition, told CBC News that Davidson denied the group’s request for a pause.

The decision came as police officers and city crews arrived to begin clearing a central Edmonton homeless encampment a few blocks away from the Law Courts building.

A cluster of makeshift shelters in the area of 95th Street and 101A Avenue makes up the eighth and final camp earmarked for removal by the city and police.

At the centre of the makeshift shelters, a tent was painted with the words “These are our homes.”

Some camp residents, wrapped in blankets, huddled around a fire and refused to leave as officers began patrolling the area. One resident closed his eyes and shouted, “We’re standing our ground. We’ll be peaceful as much as we can.

“Be humble to us and hear our prayers.”

Eviction notices were issued to camp residents Monday. Bright yellow removal notices were pinned to tents and tarps.

The interim injunction, granted last month, set a series of conditions to be met before eight homeless encampments deemed risks to public safety can be cleared, including a requirement for adequate shelter space.

The coalition argued that the city is relying on provincial estimates for Edmonton’s shelter capacity and that the reports don’t accurately reflect the number of available emergency beds. Displacing people from encampments is flawed, harmful and ineffective, the coalition said in a statement Monday.

“The interim injunction states that, when there is inadequate shelter space, closures should only proceed where there is an imminent risk to public health/safety,” the coalition said.

“People in encampments have not been told the reasons for their clearance, and they question if an imminent risk exists.”

The city has maintained that the encampments are too dangerous to remain standing and that it continues to abide by all conditions of the court order.

Police declined to comment on the alleged breach of the court order and referred questions to the city. Deputy Chief Warren Driechel is expected to hold a news conference on the encampment removals Tuesday afternoon.

The order is set to expire Thursday, when court will hear an earlier application from the coalition, which has launched a lawsuit against the city over its policy of removing homeless camps.

A cluster of tents and tarps in the snow
A cluster of tents stood at the camp Tuesday before city workers and police arrived. The camp is the eighth site deemed high risk by the city. (Natasha Riebe/CBC)

In a statement issued after Tuesday’s court decision, the city said it will continue to defend its approach to camp removals at Thursday’s hearing. 

The statement reiterated that the city’s approach is justified because of public safety risks.

Encampments threaten the safety of the community at large, and people who sleep rough outside face “severe dangers,” including the risk of injury from crime and cold weather, the city said.

“Evidence will be presented of examples of gang victimization, armed robbery, physical and sexual assault, sexual exploitation, sanitation issues leading to disease, frostbite and cold-weather injuries, and fatalities caused by tent and encampment fires.

“These risks will be shown to be attributable to outdoor sheltering, not the removal of encampments.”

The statement said that in the last five years in Edmonton, at least seven people have died and 26 others have been injured in 276 tent or encampment fires.

A series of tents in the foreground of Edmonton city.
Homeless people prepare to move as police and cleanup crews tear down homeless encampments in Edmonton on Dec. 29. The city is removing eight camps it has deemed high risk. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

Complaints about encampments have continued to increase, the city said. Between Jan. 1 and Oct. 22 last year, there were 13,683 complaints from members of the public.

The city said it has relied on provincial data to ensure there is adequate shelter capacity for encampment evacuees, and that capacity has remained below 95 per cent during the removals.

“A person seeking indoor shelter in Edmonton will never be left without an indoor place to shelter,” the statement said.

According to the city, 79 people have been displaced from seven different encampments since the evictions began two weeks ago.

The city said it couldn’t confirm how many people went to shelters and how many moved on to other encampments. 

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