The Alberta government opened a new navigation and support centre on Tuesday to take in people after they are removed from homeless encampments in Edmonton.
The move comes as the Edmonton Police Service plans to take down encampments at an "accelerated pace," said Chief Dale McFee.
The new $13-million temporary centre will be run out of the Karis Centre in the Hope Mission shelter in central Edmonton.
When police shut down encampments, an Edmonton Transit bus will be on site to keep residents warm and take them to the centre.
At the centre, residents will be offered help with housing, financial supports, health care, addiction treatment and mental health services. The centre will have storage for belongings and residents will be able to keep their pets with them.
Edmonton police Chief Dale McFee addresses the news conference as Treaty 6 Grand Chief Cody Thomas looks on. (Nathan Gross/CBC News )
While the intake part of the centre is only open from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday to Friday, services for people who are already registered will be available around the clock.
Seniors, Community and Social Services Minister Jason Nixon said transportation is available to move people to the next service.
"We will ensure there is a warm hand-off between that navigation centre and the next support sector that that individual will go to," Nixon said.
Nixon was joined at Wednesday's news conference by McFee, Public Safety and Emergency Services Minister Mike Ellis, Treaty Six Grand Chief Cody Thomas, Chief Willie Littlechild and Justice Minister Mickey Amery.
Photographs showing a tent fire and weapons seized from one encampment were set up on easels inside the news conference room at the Queen Elizabeth II Building on 107th Street and 98th Avenue.
Crime, gang activity?
The announcement came one day after an Alberta Court of King's Bench judge ruled that a human rights group had no legal standing to speak for people in encampments in its attempt to get an injunction against the evictions.
Nixon, McFee and Ellis were adamant that the encampments were home to violence, crime and gang activity and needed to go. They dismissed complaints from encampment residents that the shelters were more dangerous.
McFee said he would question information about camp safety from people who are addicted to drugs.
"It doesn't mean they haven't felt it. It doesn't mean that we can't get better," McFee said.
"We keep saying this and we keep blaming the people that are really basically keeping people alive."
The decision to open the centre came after provincial officials met with Edmonton Mayor Amarjeet Sohi and city council on Tuesday.
Coun. Aaron Paquette said the meeting was positive and productive and he was pleased to see Treaty 6 is involved. He is also pleased the province wants to help homeless people return to their home communities if that is what they want.
While Ellis claimed encampments were hotbeds of gang activity and crime, Paquette said not all are impacted.
"How do you target that and how do you narrow that down?" Paquette said.
"So I think a light touch is preferable to, you know, any heavy handedness."
Shelters not ideal
Jim Gurnett, spokesperson for the Edmonton Coalition on Housing and Homelessness, was critical of the response from both EPS and the province.
Gurnett called the drive to tear down encampments the "height of foolishness" because people simply move elsewhere.
He disagreed with Nixon's assertion that shelters are safe and said staff aren't able to maintain good standards.
Jim Gurnett speaks for the Edmonton Coalition on Housing and Homelessness. (Travis McEwan/CBC )
"I talk to people every day out here on the streets that have had quite frightening and dangerous experiences in shelters," Gurnett said. "So don't tell me that camps are dangerous."
Rachelle Gladue, co-founder of Indigenous-led organization Tawâw Outreach Collective, said she doesn't believe the province's plan will work. She is also concerned the police are involved.
Gladue preferred the province spent the money for the centre on building supportive housing so people don't have to spend months on wait lists.
She disagreed with Nixon's assertion that shelters are a better option than staying in an encampment.
"I don't think we should expect unhoused people to subject themselves to really unsanitary and unlivable conditions, Gladue said. "If we focused efforts on creating higher standard shelters and creating healthier shelters, more people would go."
The City of Edmonton spent about $1.7 million to tear down 2,392 encampments in 2023, compared to roughly $1 million the year before. The city has spent $82,000 so far in 2024.