Once again, in the darkest, coldest part of the year, we are having a conversation about housing and supporting the most vulnerable among us.
Since the beginning of December I have heard from many constituents concerned about the encampments in Edmonton and the City’s approach - some in favour, and some opposed. There is no question that we urgently need to find a better way to manage those encampments.
And we are getting one.
On Wednesday, the Province of Alberta announced that they will be taking several measures to address the encampment crisis. In broad terms, they will be creating a Navigation Centre where anyone in need can enter and seek immediate health care, employment and health services and shelter and housing support.
From now on, when an encampment is dismantled, occupants will be transported to this Centre to get the assistance they need. Secure property storage will be provided. Couples will be accommodated. This Centre is intended to work as a hub within the existing shelter system, which had over 1,770 spaces as of January 15.
This is not a final, permanent solution to our housing and homeless crisis. Not by a long shot. But it does address the immediate, urgent need for more encampment support.
It has been said that we, as a community, as a society, need to address the root causes of this housing crisis, not just the symptoms.. I completely agree. Our housing system, our continuum of care is woefully inadequate.
But we cannot let encampments become the normalized, accepted consequence of an inadequate care system.
Earlier this week Mayor Sohi put forward a motion to create a task force including all levels of government and other stakeholders and identify potential housing solutions and to have City Administration provide a list of quick actions that the City can take.
I generally support these actions.
But this motion was prefaced with a call to declare a housing and homelessness emergency.
Emergency declarations should be carefully considered. Such a declaration must include swift, tangible actions that will result in a definite outcome.
There are no such swift actions that the City can take on the housing file. And those swift, tangible actions on the encampments are already being taken by the Province.
As we have seen with the declaration of a climate emergency, when such declarations are made without tangible actions, it appears to be political posturing, an attempt to claim the moral high ground, an empty gesture. And then it becomes a distraction - with a disappointed public, in subsequent intergovernmental discussions and future Council debates.
I won’t make that mistake again.
While I support the call for urgent action to resolve our housing and care crisis, I won’t support empty gestures, or worse, declarations that are interpreted as promises to solve problems we cannot solve alone.
There are a lot of players in this space besides the three levels of government.
Shelter operators that are first in line to provide temporary relief from living rough.
Housing organizations that are trying to provide housing to as many people as possible.
Social agencies that provide those basic services - a place to get warm, an address, a shower, help retrieving identification - that help people get back on their feet.
EPS which is trying to balance compassionate support with accountability and safety - for the entire community.
Community activists that are sharing the stories of those in need and trying to communicate some perspective.
And at the centre of them all, people that live in constant distress.
My goal is to examine every opportunity where the City can contribute to collective solutions. Starting with encouraging the Edmonton Public School Board to declare surplus all of the sites where they already know they won’t be building schools. Those sites could quickly be made available to housing organizations.
Can we take quick actions? Sure. Is the need urgent? Yes. Are we in the midst of a crisis? Clearly.
Do we need empty political gestures that distract us from the work? Probably not.
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