The province has opened a new support centre in Edmonton with the goal of helping people living in encampments.
Staff at the centre will be able to connect people to shelters, housing, and financial services, help obtaining an identification card, as well as Indigenous cultural supports and liaisons, the government announced Wednesday morning.
A local organization will be at the centre to help care for people’s pets.
Staff from Radius Health and Alberta Health Services will also be at the site to help anyone who wants addictions treatment.
“Upon arrival at the navigation centre, individuals will immediately be in a warm, safe area, including with security,” Jason Nixon, minister of seniors, community and social services told reporters at a Wednesday news conference.
“They will have access immediately to washrooms, showers, coffee, and again a warm space. Their property will be immediately stored in a secure location to make sure that nothing happens to their personal belongings.”
The centre is located at a Hope Mission facility at 10302 107 St. It will be open from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday to Friday, and services will be available 24-7 for people registered at the centre.
Free transportation will be provided to the centre by the city.
“The navigation centre is not intended to replace our emergency shelter system in this province, but rather help connect individuals coming out of encampments to appropriate shelter and appropriate services,” Nixon said.
The province says the project will be evaluated every 30 days to gauge its effectiveness.
In the spring, the space will be converted into a 100-bed women-only shelter with services for vulnerable women.
‘GANG RUN DRUG CAMPS’
Officials at the news conference say it’s imperative that encampments are closed because they are being infiltrated by gangs and organized crime.
“These encampments have turned into gang run drug camps that enable drug dealing, human trafficking, rape, crime, violence, they are not safe places to sleep, nor are they safe places to live,” said Mike Ellis, minister for public safety and emergency services.
“They are violently enforcing tent taxes, forcing vulnerable people to pay for access to water, the ability to even pitch a tent or to access bridges and walkways.”
Dale McFee, the chief of Edmonton Police Service says with the number of encampments that have sprung up around the city, it’s become almost impossible to catch the criminals.
“With hundreds of camps dispersed across the city, criminals can easily disappear into the fray, blend in with the vulnerable, and prey repeatedly on the suffering.”
He says Edmontonians can expect to see more encampments closed in the near future.
“We will be moving with our partners to closing encampments at an accelerated pace.”
“We can’t continue to wait for perfection, or spend more time analyzing and debating or blaming others. Not when people’s lives and the safety of our community is at stake. It does no one any service to deflect or avoid taking action because we lack a perfect response.”
The province held a news conference on Jan. 17, 2024 to announce a new support centre for encampment residents. (Cam Wiebe/CTV News Edmonton)
McFee and the government officials were joined at Wednesday’s news conference by Grand Chief Cody Thomas of Confederacy of Treaty 6 First Nation and Chief Wilton Littlechild.
Thomas thanked the government for including Indigenous voices in the consultation for the project.
“We’re at the table to assist in finding those resolutions, and not standing outside protesting. It’s a very historical day, when we can actually meet the needs of our people that are struggling,” he said.
“Nobody grows up wanting to be homeless, nobody grows up wanting to be addicted to drugs, we need to get to the root cause and I appreciate the province supporting us and coming to the table and finding those tangible solutions together.”
On Tuesday, Edmonton’s city council voted to declare a housing and homelessness emergency.
Ward Dene councillor Aaron Paquette was one of the councillors that voted against declaring an emergency.
“I was really leery of making a promise to the people in that room that action, and fundamental action that would solve this issue was going to occur,” Paquette said of his decision to vote against the motion.
But he says Wednesday’s announcement by the province is a good step towards helping people get the support they need.
“One of the things that’s heartening to me is that there’s participation from Treaty 6,” he said.
“There’s going to be Indigenous members who are helping folks, and building that trust, because there’s obviously trust lost in our institutions with Indigenous folks. So this is a really good way in order to help people make that choice if they’re ready to move out of an encampment and into supports, and maybe even into recovery.”
Edmonton’s Mayor Amarjeet Sohi says he’s glad the province is taking steps to addressing the encampment situation, but he says it won’t address the root cause.
“Encampments are a symptom of under investment in the social sector, including treatment, including lack of access to affordable non-market housing, ongoing trauma that people are experiencing, and poverty,” he said.
“We have so many Edmontonians who are one cheque away from falling through the cracks and into houselessness, so I think until we tackle those underlying causes of homelessness, we will not be able to make a huge difference.”
With files from CTV News Edmonton’s Jeremy Thompson
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