Homelessness has defeated every task force, secretariat and committee created to end it. But this time it will be different

Right in the middle of Mayor Amarjeet Sohi’s grand speech during a two-day special council meeting he called in order to declare a housing and houseless emergency, Roy Cardinal led a walkout, in which he was joined by about 85 per cent of the public gallery.

Cardinal was an elder and resident of the 95th Street and Rowland Road homeless encampment,  who was violently arrested by the Edmonton Police Service (EPS) when they completed their new year encampment sweep in -30C weather. 

As Sohi was speechifying about how money was required from all levels of government to address the issue, Cardinal folded up a five dollar bill and left it on the pony wall that separates the public gallery from the councillors. As he left the room, he said loudly “if you need money, here’s some money,” and “put it in your budget.” 

The spontaneous and largely silent (except for Roy) action revealed much about how the public feels about declaring a housing and houselessness emergency and creating a task force to deal with the problem— nobody cares. 

And why should anyone? The Alberta government created a similar task force in 1990. In 1999, there was a joint task force set up by Edmonton city council and the provincial government to address homelessness. In 2008, the Tories launched a secretariat on homelessness. In January 2009, the Edmonton Committee to End Homelessness released its 10-year plan to end homelessness. In 2014, city council created the Task Force to Eliminate Poverty. That task force created End Poverty Edmonton, an organization which is being slowly and quietly wound down. In 2017, the city of Edmonton and Homeward Trust released a report saying that they could eliminate homelessness by 2022

In the battle of homelessness versus government task forces, secretariats and committees, homelessness is undefeated.  

A smattering of headlines about government efforts to end homelessness over the the past 34 years.

But just in case you think it might work this time, here’s what Sohi’s motion does. It declares a housing and houselessness emergency, creates a task force with $3.5 million in funding, and calls for a meeting between all levels of government, with administration reporting back on immediate options that the city can take. None of this stops Roy Cardinal or someone like him from getting violently arrested for peacefully living in a tent. None of this stops the city taking away the only protection Roy had from the cold in the midst of a brutal cold snap. None of that stops all of Roy’s possessions from being tossed in the trash after several cops piled on top of him in the freezing cold to handcuff him.

Not to be outdone the UCP’s has its own task force, the newly created Edmonton Public Safety Cabinet Committee to handle the issue of houseless and encampments. Of course this committee is not to be confused with the Edmonton Public Safety and Community Response Task Force (created in December 2022 and now already kaput).

The UCP have mocked Sohi’s declaration of a housing and homelessness emergency as performative and have their own plans to address encampments that they’re going to announce shortly. The new UCP cabinet committee has Chief Dale McFee, the real mayor of Edmonton, sitting on it so any proposed solutions are likely to be as brutal and uncompromising as his encampment sweeps have been. 

Meanwhile, a lawsuit that could have forced the city to change its brutal and inhumane encampment policy was thrown out of the Court of King’s Bench by Justice Jonathan Martin. According to the judge, the Coalition for Justice and Human Rights failed to meet the necessary criteria to gain public interest standing, preventing the group’s lawsuit from proceeding. 

The City of Edmonton and the EPS’s vigorous defense of the status quo encampment policy was successful. No arguments about whether or not the constitutional rights of unhoused people were being violated by the police and the city ever made their way before a judge. 

One of the major reasons given by Justice Martin in not letting the lawsuit proceed was a sworn affidavit from Susan McGee, the CEO of Homeward Trust. 

The Coalition for Justice and Human Rights, the non-profit attempting to sue the city over its encampment policy, is not a group that delivers services to unhoused people, like Boyle Street Community Services or Bissell Centre. The city argued that because they don’t do that, they shouldn’t have public interest standing. 

McGee, agreeing with the city, told the judge that the lawsuit to challenge the constitutionality of the city’s encampment policy would result in “irreparable harm and frustrate efforts to connect unsheltered community members to housing… it will unintentionally divert processes from strengthening the current housing response, and it will normalize the existence of encampments exacerbating the harm suffered by unhoused persons.”

In 2017, McGee signed her name to the aforementioned city report that said homelessness could be ended by 2022.  

After the case was thrown out, Avnish Nanda, one of the lawyers for the Coalition for Justice and Human Rights, was hopeful about the impact it had had. 

“A lot of resources and energy went into this challenge but we do think it has changed the city. We know it has changed on the ground how unhoused folks feel, how social agencies are engaging with the city and the city’s own policy,” Nanda said, pointing to the city changing its policy on encampment evictions after the coalition secured an interim injunction placing restrictions on how they can proceed. 

“The city is forced to account for what it does to thousands of unhoused people each year and it would have not been possible had it not been for the coalition’s efforts,” he added. 

“But at the end of the day, task forces, words of goodwill, convening people, saying the right things is not going to address the real issue here, which is that the city’s own policy is putting people in harm’s way and city council members, including the mayor, don’t even know what’s in the policy. That’s shocking from a governance perspective, from a fundamental democracy perspective. What is happening and who is calling the shots at city hall?”

(Disclosure: Avnish Nanda is representing The Progress Report’s Jim Storrie in an unrelated legal matter.)