Homelessness is fraught with so many tangled complexities. I want to summarize how I try to simplify some things for myself when thinking about our next steps.
Here are some of the things I know to be true about homelessness in Edmonton.
- It’s a horrific circumstance for people.
- It gets dangerously cold here a few months of the year.
- It’s usually preceded by mental health and addictions.
- The illegal drug supply is poisoned.
- Not everyone on the streets will and can recover from addictions the same way and at the same pace.
- Homeless people with addictions are usually victimized by gangs and often by each other.
- Supportive housing is one part of the answer.
- Treatment and recovery centres are one part of the answer.
- Encampments and tent cities are too low of a bar to be defended as even a temporary solution.
- Governments at all levels have been too focused on their own answers and too dismissive of the answers of others. Stridency has too often replaced collaboration.
- Indigenous people are way overrepresented among the homeless population.
- It takes multiple agencies to address the complex needs of 1 person on the street.
In all my time on council, the City of Edmonton has been primarily focused on one single solution which is permanent supportive housing. I have supported this ongoing advocacy to the provincial and federal governments. Last term I supported using city taxpayer money to build over 600 units of PSH.
During this current term we have focused both on PSH and on the need for expanded shelter space which is an improvement over the stance of the last council. Shelter spaces play an important role in keeping people off the cold streets where they risk life changing frost bite and death. Not every person on the street today requires a permanent supportive housing space. Shelters play a critical role.
But some do require ongoing support. They will not achieve the full independence and prosperity we’d hope they could. We need to be realistic therefore some PSH and subsidized housing will always be necessary.
But in the meantime, there are some steps we need to take. We need to be pragmatic and ambitious starting tomorrow.
- We need to replace the ID’s of people on the street way faster. It can take months to get new ID once you’ve lost it and this prevents people from accessing employment, financial aid, addictions treatment, healthcare and accommodations.
- We need to provide more direct service to people in the evenings and even at night. Why are agencies confined to bankers’ hours when most of the stress and risk for people is after dark?
- Regardless of the current encampment lawsuit, we need to move people up one step from the dangerous squalor of tents, encampments and servitude to gangs. We need to look seriously into a temporary, prefabricated shelter village that keeps people warm, safe and connects them more intentionally to the already large offering of services in our community. People are eager to get off the streets. I reject the mythical narrative that people are more comfortable sleeping outside.
- Once we do this, agencies need to move past their support for people camping outside and focus on supporting people to move from homelessness into shelters and housing.
- And our advocacy toward the province needs to be more focused on temporary treatment and recovery spaces for people languishing on the streets with major addictions issues. I support the provinces recovery-oriented system of care, but this approach will take time- years in fact- and we need more immediate spaces that can serve people who want to begin getting better tomorrow.
It is worth saying that we also need to prepare for the injunction against encampment removal being successful. If it is successful, it could be a deathblow for Chinatown and it would be a huge victory for the street gangs that are currently embedded in and around these areas. It will further entrench gang control and victimization of very vulnerable people.
These are ideas I intend to raise when Community Services Committee discusses the Edmonton's Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness - Lessons Learned on Monday, December 4th. These are ideas that are additional to some of those raised in this report. These are ideas I will continue to raise as our community struggles together to help people who are homeless in our city.
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