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Fires, deaths, budget, impending cold put Edmonton's encampment response under scrutiny

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Recent fires in tents killing two people and sending another two to hospital in critical condition.

Impending cold weather.

Debates about spending more on the response to the overall crisis.

They're all converging at a critical crossroads for synchronized efforts to address Edmonton's homeless encampments, which have reached a record number this year.

As city council prepares to debate the municipal budget next week, Edmonton Police Service Chief Dale McFee said Thursday during a police commission meeting that the crisis surrounding encampments — for which the city has received almost 15,000 complaints this year, a number well over the previous high 9,000 received in 2022 — needs to be met with more resources to "take them down."

"The encampment strategy needs to be, we need to get enough resources to actually take them down and then figure out if those that want to be housed can be housed, can some of them be sent home, etc.," McFee told the commission.

Ward O-day'min Coun. Anne Stevenson, who sits on the police commission, said on Friday all parties involved in the city's encampment response — both the city and EPS have dedicated response teams — are "in agreement that encampments are not ideal living situations."

"There's nothing satisfying about the current state. It's not working well for anyone at all," Stevenson told CTV News Edmonton.

"I think the tension that I really feel is we absolutely need immediate response when there are safety issues. We need to be actioning that. I think the city teams have been working really hard to improve those timelines, but at a certain point, there's just a volume level that creeps up and they aren't able to keep pace."

The city told CTV News Edmonton the average response time for a peace officer to assess an encampment complaint is 8.6 days but can be done more quickly if it's near playgrounds, schools or daycares.

When it comes to debating whether the city should add an additional $13.7 million to address encampments to "sort of manage the symptoms rather than addressing the cause" — a figure city staff included in its fall operating budget adjustment but did not include in changes they recommended — Stevenson said "it's hard to weigh" that sort of investment against $18 million in grants provided for construction of permanent housing.

"That said, we still need the band-aid while the wound is healing," she said. "We do need some immediate response. There are very real impacts happening right now ... impacting those living in encampments, impacting those surrounding encampments. We can't do nothing. Finding that middle ground, finding that balance is not going to be perfect, but that's that's the way forward in my mind."

Laurence Braun-Woodbury, the director of service integration and employment for the Bissell Centre — a city organization that supports the low-income and homeless community with outreach programs — told CTV News Edmonton he believes encampments will only start to disappear once all levels of government commit enough resources to properly help people who live in them.

"Until more care-oriented resources are brought to bear that can address the systemic barriers that keep people entrenched in houselessness, unfortunately this will continue," Braun-Woodbury said. "There are larger economic drivers that are pushing more and more people into houselessness every day (such as) rising rents, rising housing prices, inflation costs. These also need to be addressed as upstream effects if we're going to be tackling this crisis in the long term and not just mitigating the consequences as they arise or this winter."

Stevenson said the city needs to watch for a "tipping point" over encampment responses creating "their own challenges."

"If there's a mismatch in our response to encampments versus the timeline for people being able to access shelter or housing, then we can create even bigger issues, in some cases," she said. "The focus right now that the city has around safety, around using the scoring matrix, the risk matrix, I think is really trying to balance those difficult tensions. It's certainly not perfect, but the situation isn't."

According to the province's ministry of seniors, community and social services, there are 1,281 shelter spaces in Edmonton, with 300 becoming available in the next few weeks and another 200 early next year, adding that shelters are currently under capacity and not turning people away.

With files from CTV News Edmonton's Jeremy Thompson and Chelan Skulski 

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