City of Edmonton spent nearly $1.7M to clean up encampments in 2023

Clean up crews remove leftover possessions at a homeless encampment at 96th Street and 105th Avenue on Jan. 18. (Natasha Riebe/CBC - image credit)
Clean up crews remove leftover possessions at a homeless encampment at 96th Street and 105th Avenue on Jan. 18. (Natasha Riebe/CBC - image credit)

The City of Edmonton spent nearly $1.7 million to clean up homeless encampments last year — nearly 65-per cent more than in 2022, according to data provided by the city.

City crews and the Edmonton Police Service also removed hundreds of more encampments in 2023 than the previous year, data shows.

"It's outrageous that we spend that much money attacking poor people," said Jim Gurnett, a spokesperson with the Edmonton Coalition on Housing and Homelessness.

Cleaning up encampments involves parks and roads services staff and equipment such as waste services vehicles. Staffing and equipment vary based on size and location of the encampment, a city spokesperson told CBC News in an email.

The average cost to clean up a site is around $700, the spokesperson said.

Christ Webster, a separate city spokesperson, told CBC News there is no set cost for such events, as encampments can vary in size, location, the number of tents and potential hazards on site.

Data suggests, however, the total cost of cleaning up encampments has grown each of the last four years — and more than tripled since 2020.

The city spent about $525,900 in 2020, data shows. The city spent more than $778,600 in 2021, then more than $1 million in 2022.

The city and local police tore down 2,417 encampments in 2023 — nearly 500 more than the 1,920 encampments in 2022, data shows.

The city is trying to ensure sites are safe after they're vacated, said Karhiio Ward Coun. Keren Tang

"It's reflective of rising costs of trying to deal with a housing crisis," Tang told CBC News.

"Quite frankly, I am very worried," Tang said. "I don't want to see that trend continuing if we don't get a handle on this."

City council declared an emergency on housing and homelessness last month. Council is scheduled to discuss the situation again during a meeting Monday.

Gurnett, from the Edmonton Coalition on Housing and Homelessness, suggested developing safe and secure places for people who are not going to admit to institutional shelters, so they can do some version of camping, would be less expensive.

"It's way cheaper to provide ongoing sanitation services than to have to go in with all kinds of special equipment and do these gigantic cleanups of the properties," Gurnett said.

The data shared by the city exclude costs associated with police efforts during cleanups.

In 2021, the Edmonton Police Service formally launched its High-Risk Encampment Team, which consists of one sergeant and four constables. The team helps city crews during closures, while providing people living in the camps with education and awareness, and connecting them to support services where appropriate, police spokesperson Cheryl Sheppard told CBC News in an email.

Depending on the encampment, the team may need help from the service's other areas, such as disruption, patrol and beats, among others, Sheppard said. As a result, police are unable to provide the exact budget and personnel hours.

Homelessness complaints rising: police

City councillors say they've received more complaints as Edmonton's homeless population remains double what it was before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Police told CBC News say the number of complaints the city has received through its 311 line has grown each year since then — nearly quadrupling since 2020.

The city received 17,000 complaints last year — nearly double the roughly 9,300 complaints made in 2022, police say.

There were almost 6,600 complaints in 2021, and more than 4,400 filed in 2020, police say.

Phil O'Hara, a resident of the McCauley neighbourhood, is concerned about the welfare of homeless people and the vibrancy of the neighbourhood.

"I'm not concerned about the cost," he told CBC news this week. "What I'm concerned about is we don't take preventative measures up front and allow the situation to get so bad."

O'Hara suggested governments need to include input from neighbourhoods affected by encampments and disorder. He described the situation in McCauley, near Hope Mission and Herb Jamison Centre, as disastrous.

"The city allowed it to get too far. Too bad," he said.