A micro victory for decency as judge puts brakes on EPS/Edmonton's Christmastime sweeps

The Edmonton Police Service’s and the City of Edmonton’s plan to conduct the largest homeless encampment sweep in city history just before Christmas was temporarily foiled by lawyers representing the Coalition for Justice and Human Rights. 

The coalition sought an emergency injunction to stop the sweeps after the plan was revealed by the Progress Report late in the afternoon on Thursday, December 14. The public outcry at the plan to take away what little shelter these unhoused folks have just before Christmas was loud and vociferous, especially with there being insufficient emergency winter shelter spaces for a potential influx of hundreds of new people into the shelter system. 

A protester with a sign at a protest outside the Law Courts on Dec. 18 in advance of the injunction hearing to stop the largest encampment sweep in Edmonton's history.

After two days of hearings, the result was a negotiated settlement that saw the city and EPS agree to a series of conditions before they try to sweep the eight encampments again. These include giving encampment occupants 48 hours notice. 

Notification of the sweeps must be given to homeless serving agencies. The city‘s lawyers fought vociferously against a proposed -10 Celsius cap, pitching that encampment sweeps should still happen all the up to -15 Celsius. It was all moot however as the final agreement ended up with softened language that just sees the EPS "consider the weather, and the potential harms associated with encampment closure during especially," before closing down any of these encampments. 

Crucially, the EPS must now inquire to see if there is sufficient emergency shelter space to take the people they’re displacing from their makeshift encampment shelters. Police can only ignore these conditions and immediately close an encampment if there is an “imminent risk to public health and safety.” 

The city and the police lawyers fought all of these conditions tooth and nail and only agreed to them after what amounted to a public negotiating and arbitration process in front of Court of King’s Bench Justice Kent Davidson. All these conditions are in effect until Jan. 11, 2024, at which point the coalition’s lawsuit against the city’s homeless encampment sweeps policy will be heard in front of a different judge.

Despite giving the police a lot of leeway to still shut the eight encampments in question before Christmas if they really want to, the cops are still bristling at these minor restrictions. 

"It might slow us down," Deputy Chief Warren Dreichel said when asked by reporters if the conditions would change the police’s plans. 

Asked if the police had learned anything, Dreichel said, "No, I don't think so."

Dreichel kept trying to deflect blame and put it back on the city, repeatedly returning to statements made by someone at the city about the EPS working unilaterally on this giant sweep. While this might be an oblique swipe at Mayor Amarjeet Sohi, Dreichel does have a point. This sweep was planned closely by the EPS in concert with senior City of Edmonton staff. 

Sohi may have indeed only found out about it after we tweeted about it, as he claims, but the court proceedings revealed that senior city staff were intimately involved in the planning. 

Media kept trying to give Driechel a chance to show any kind of empathy or contrition, and he resolutely refused to take it. Asked if the sweep’s timing may have contributed to public backlash, Driechel essentially said sure, some of that emotion came into play but there’s no good time of year to send a family a death notice.

Deputy Chief Warren Driechel drew the short straw and had to the face media after the judge's decision to put conditions on the largest encampment sweep in Edmonton's history.

And yes, unhoused people are dying tragically of drug poisonings and fires in their makeshift shelters. When it gets cold, they will freeze to death as well. But the EPS and City of Edmonton aren’t offering a solution beyond packing your shit (if you’re lucky) and moving onto the next encampment.

After the cops had left and the president of the coalition had done their media scrum, Joshua Bell got a chance to speak to the media. Bell  recently secured housing with the help of Homeward Trust and the Bissell Centre after spending 18 months of homelessness living in encampments around the Bissell Centre and downtown. He spoke about his firsthand experiences being caught up in seven different encampment sweeps over that year-and-a-half.

“The one thing that gets overlooked is that there are humans out there. We’ve fallen on hard times or we’ve been outcast from our family and friends, and there’s not a lot of people on our side. Thank God for the coalition, because bless their souls, they’re really doing a lot for us,” said Bell. 

“When it’s so cold out, I’ve seen these tents ripped down and thrown out like they’re nothing. And what? Where are we supposed to go? What are we supposed to do?

“They say shelters are the number one resource for us to go, have you ever spent time in a shelter? It’s not the best option.”

Bell referenced people’s physical and mental health issues that preclude them from being able to move all of their possessions at the drop of a hat. 

“You not only have to deal with the fact you just got cleaned out, but you’ve got to figure out where you’re going to rebuild and what you’re going to rebuild with. I don’t agree with how they do it,” he said. “There’s got to be a better way.” 

The Edmonton police and the city are still free to close down any other encampments they like between now and Christmas without any restrictions. The conditions they agreed to only apply to the eight encampments they proposed to close down this week. 

While this might be a small victory for decency, the propaganda and dehumanization of unhoused people living in encampments by the police and our governments didn’t stop. The lawyer for Chief Dale McFee brought up graphic details of an alleged sexual assault that the police say was tied to people living in an encampment, though not an encampment that was slated to be shut down. The next day Premier Danielle Smith jumped all over the story, tweeting out that she fully supports the Edmonton police’s decision to shut down encampments. 

No evidence has yet been offered that the alleged sexual assault was committed by people living in an encampment, nor has anyone yet been charged. But that didn’t stop the police and the UCP, working in concert, to make the argument that all encampments should be shut down because of one alleged incident. 

And thankfully other people outside of Edmonton have taken notice. Marie-Josee Houle, Canada’s Federal Housing Advocate piped up on Twitter saying that “Encampments are not a safe or sustainable solution for housing. However, the safety justification from the Edmonton Police Service is misleading. Clearing encampments does not improve safety.”

Moving forward, there must be a moratorium on encampment evictions in Edmonton and across the country until all people can be adequately housed. All governments have obligations to promote and protect the human rights of encampment residents.”

Editor's note: A detail around sweeps of these eight encampments not taking place in -15 Celsius weather was changed after a copy of the exact order was received. We regret the error.