Edmonton’s Bissell Centre was forced to play hot potato and remove homeless people camped in the parking lot behind Bissell Centre East on June 14 in response to orders from Capital Health. For most of the campers, this is just one more move among many and, unless there is change, it will not be the last move.
Bissell’s executive Director Shelley Williams said, “I’ve shed tears today. The situation is these people have been bumped from Mary Burlie Park to the lot behind the Bissell Centre, then to behind Bissell East. We let them stay there for the past few weeks because the city was to have an emergency response. We gave them 24-hours notice and we closed the Bissell early so staff could help them move. We’re hoping this will precipitate some action. We need services right now.
“Passing campers around the city with all their belongings is simply denying their humanity,” Williams said. “We have no suggestions for where they can go. This has got to stop and an alternative must be put forth immediately for the short-term. Longer term permanent housing can be put into place within the next 4 months. We are a can-do province and a can-do city. Hopefully, something good will come of this tragedy.”
On June 8, Capital Health gave notice to Bissell that unless they provided porta potties, water and waste disposal for gray water, then police would be sent in to remove the campers. Williams said providing these services is not an option since Bissell is already stretched financially. She said permanent housing is the solution, not parking lots, river valleys or shelters.
Bissell staff helped people load their possessions into shopping carts, take down tents, and then move to the lot just west of the Bissell Centre. Ken, who has worked with the Bissell four years, said it was the worst day he’s ever had at work.
Leonard Swayne, a homeless camper, sat in an armchair, his crutches beside him waiting for help with the move. He said, “They just came here this morning and said, ‘You have to leave.’ We’re moving over west of the Bissell Centre and we’ll be able to stay there for a few days. A lot of us are alcoholics and drug addicts so we can’t work. I used to have a $12,000 a month job and now I can’t even buy a room at the Salvation Army.”
Swayne estimated that with the people sleeping in about 15 tents, and others who came in at night with their blankets, about 170 people were sleeping in the parking lot.
Some of them moved to a lot a block north, but were removed by police later the same day. As of June 23, there were 33 tents along the fence lines of the lot west of the Bissell Centre. Bissell is distributing donations from a food bank to help meet the needs of the campers — women’s care packages, water and sports drinks. The campers have been policing themselves and keeping the site clean.
The mayor’s chief of staff, Patricia Misutka, said the city has been in contact with social service agencies and is putting together a report to the province and will be meeting with the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing.
“The province did give some money for transitional housing like shelters, but only to build structures,” Misutka said. “In the short term, we’ve convinced them to pay for opening the 200 beds in the shelters for the next couple of months. They are open all winter anyway, but obviously we need a lot more. We are still working on an emergency response, but putting up porta potties just attracts a tent city, which is not an option.”
Misutka also added that the shelters are not always filled to capacity, because some people prefer to sleep outside. That is because people want to have homes, not shelter beds. Edmonton Street News spoke with people camping in tents and sleeping outside and was told by couples and families that they want to be able to stay together, which is not possible within the existing shelter system. One family with two children has been camping by the river for more than one month and getting up early in the morning to make sure the children are in school. If they were to go into shelters, the parents would be separated and the children would be placed in foster care.
By Linda Dumont, Edmonton Street News
Reprinted from Edmonton Street News, © Street News Service: www.street-papers.org