In a heated meeting that was interrupted several times by outbursts from a full gallery, Edmonton city councillors decided Monday they needed more time to consider declaring an emergency on housing and homelessness.
In a vote of 9-4 councillors decided to come back to the matter at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday.
Mayor Amarjeet Sohi has proposed the idea, following days of dangerously cold temperatures and several arrests at a nearby homeless encampment.
“People are dying,” Sohi said.
“Declaring an emergency will signal to Edmontonians that council understands the magnitude of this problem. This is a call to action.”
A recent count found that 3,170 people are homeless in Edmonton, Sohi said, which is a record high.
The mayor also said 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 was intended to create more affordable housing, not shelter spaces. Rent control is something he also wants to discuss with other orders of government.
“The number of people seeking housing services has increased by 68 per cent while the number of people being housed has only increased by seven per cent. That is a significant and troubling gap,” Sohi said.
Sohi’s motion called for an emergency meeting with provincial and federal ministers as well as the Confederacy of Treaty Six First Nations. It also proposed a new task force and $3.5 million in city money to get it running.
He also called for a report to explore ways to increase the number of Indigenous-led transitional spaces including using city-owned land to do so.
Council chambers were standing-room-only during the meeting and about 100 people attended an Indigenous drum circle in city hall before it started.
Coun. Aaron Paquette helped chair the meeting. He repeatedly implored people to stop making outbursts or he would have to adjourn.
“People are in pain. You’ve lost people. I have lost people in the past few weeks. I understand…that is why we are here,” he said after people again started shouting.
At one point, a masked person screaming “genocide” was arrested and removed by peace officers.
Councillors seemed to agree that more needs to be done on housing but many had questions about whether or not a declaration and a task force would achieve tangible results.
‘A COMPLETE POLITICAL STUNT’
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.
Sohi said Monday he did not talk with Nixon over the weekend but that their respective offices are in contact and he hopes to work with the minister going forward.
Nixon said Friday the provincially led Edmonton Public Safety Cabinet Committee is working to address the situation and that Alberta has committed “billions” for long-term affordable housing projects.
Sohi said he was aware of some of the committee’s work but has not been briefed by Nixon on it. A provincial update for city councillors was scheduled for Tuesday.
“I think provincial focuses will be more on the symptoms, not on the root causes,” Sohi said in defence of his motion.
39K SPACES, $15.4B NEEDED: CITY STRATEGY
Prior to the mayor’s special meeting, councillors on the community and public services committee unanimously voted to recommend that 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.
“The implementation of this strategy is very, very important and that will require the ongoing leadership of city council as well as ongoing collaboration from provincial and federal governments and the community,” Sohi said.
City officials say one-in-eight Edmonton households currently are struggling to afford housing bills and other essentials like food.
Edmonton already provides grants, land and tax breaks to encourage affordable housing. The strategy would add new ways to increase units, including ones for people with disabilities.
“I think the most notable one is looking at creating an acquisition program that will allow nonprofits to be able to acquire existing housing and turn it into non-profit affordable housing,” said Christel Kjenner, the city’s director of affordable housing and homelessness.
“And that would be a really quick way of helping to address the need. We know construction of new buildings can take a number of years.”
Kjenner said the city will not be able to add nearly 40,000 units without major investments from the province and Ottawa but is hopeful both governments will contribute.
With files from CTV News Edmonton’s Jeremy Thompson and David Ewasuk
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