Source: Dylan Ferreira/Unsplash

On Friday, Dec. 29, the Edmonton Police Service (EPS) began tearing down the first of eight homeless encampments that had been deemed “high risk” by the municipal government. The city and the EPS had hoped it would be a quick, business-as-usual operation. Instead, it has been a pointless endeavour, failing even to get rid of the encampments and only succeeding in exposing the most vulnerable population in the city to the coldest, deadliest climates that Edmonton is capable of experiencing.

This sweep has forced many homeless people to face the winter isolated from their communities, their tents, shelters, and even warm clothes that were forcibly taken from them. Even relative to the already-vicious treatment of homeless people under capitalism, this is beyond the pale. It is not an exaggeration to say that people will die as a result. 

What makes this sweep particularly appalling is that it occurred during record-breaking cold weather in Edmonton. Coming off the warmest December in the city’s history, Edmonton saw a steady decline in temperature through January before being hit with a brutal cold snap. An extreme cold warning has been issued, and since Jan. 10, temperatures have ranged from a Wednesday high of -21 °C to a Friday low of -46 °C, with wind chills into the negative 50s. Despite this, the city and police have continued to move forward with their plan.

Tensions over the nearly two weeks of encampment sweeps came to a head on Wednesday, Jan. 10, when, at a camp near 95th Street and Rowland Road, officers reacted violently to the protests of residents and activists. Three people, including journalist Brandi Morin who had shown up to defend the inhabitants of the camps, were arrested for obstructing the police. One of the arrested had a taser clumsily waved near his head by a police officer.

For their part, the police have justified their actions by fearmongering about the safety risks posed by homeless encampments, citing fire hazards, the presence of organized crime, sexual assault, drug use, and untreated biohazardous and human waste. The police have even shown reporters gruesome videos of people getting burned alive. 

“We wanted everybody to understand the impact of the people living on the street and the risk that they face daily from dying—whether it’s from an overdose, in a fire or being victimized by somebody else,” said EPS Deputy Chief Warren Driechel.

“These are the realities of the encampments,” said Driechel. “In no way are our members going in these sites and being malicious . . . We are not going in with the intention to up-end and displace these people without care and concern.”

The man having a taser waved in his face while crushed under the weight of two police officers will surely be relieved to know that it was not done so maliciously.

Both EPS and the provincial UCP government love to remind us that there are supposedly plenty of empty shelter spaces available to accommodate these newly displaced people. The office of provincial Seniors, Community and Social Services Minister Jason Nixon said on Wednesday that “shelters in Edmonton are currently under-capacity and not turning people away.” Begging the question: Why are people still living on the streets?

Driechel cites an Edmonton Journal article in which one man says he simply did not know that there were supports available and assumed that because so many other people were on the street, he should be on the street. If Driechel had bothered to read a few paragraphs down from that dubious claim, he could have read up on another testimonial from a woman going by “Peaches” which does not paint shelters as the panacea for the homeless that he and the government think they are.

“People get robbed in (shelters),” Peaches says. “People overdose in there … they are kicked out if they smell or don’t look rich and fancy… I don’t feel safe in there at all … I got sexually harassed daily.”

Multiple people affected by the teardowns have come forward stating that they don’t feel safe or comfortable in shelters, having experienced theft or assault. The municipal and provincial governments’ claims of plenty of available shelter space have also been heavily disputed by advocates for the homeless, who say that these statements are inaccurate.

If people living on the street remain on the street, it is only a matter of time before encampments appear once more. Within a day, the recently swept encampment at the Bissell Centre had returned. All that expense, all that dehumanisation, and all that the city has to show for it is a temporary decluttering for the city, as well as a mass dispossession of homeless people’s things.

Edmonton Coalition on Housing and Homelessness spokesperson Jim Gurnett describes the process: “You watch a garbage truck come in and crush up beds and mattresses and personal mementoes and it just gets hauled away.” 

“All they’re doing is being shuffled around the neighbourhood, losing a whole lot of valuable personal possessions, including a lot of the materials that help them to stay warm and safe during the bad weather.” Many were without that which kept them warm, when on Friday night, temperatures fell to 50-year lows. 

Blood-boiling as it may be though, the encampment sweep is, unfortunately, not particularly surprising or unusual by itself. It’s part of life in any city under capitalism. Last summer in Montreal, several people were evicted from an encampment that at least one of them had been returning to for almost a decade. Earlier last year, a similar process was carried out on Vancouver’s East Hastings Street. 

In Edmonton, as with any other major city in the country, resources for the vulnerable are under constant threat. Amidst the encampment sweeps, it was recently announced that Old Strathcona Youth Services would be evicted from the building they occupy, with no alternative site found at the time of writing. Notably, Boyle Street Community Services, the largest provider of services to homeless people in Edmonton, was forced to disperse throughout the city after the Edmonton Oilers forced them out of their building, the hockey team’s ownership seeking to develop the area into a retail and commercial space.

Perhaps realizing just how wretched this makes his government look, Edmonton Mayor Amarjeet Sohi, after several weeks of largely silent approval for the sweeps, only stepped in on Thursday, Jan. 11, calling for a special meeting of the city council where he claims that he will put a motion forward to declare a “housing and homelessness emergency” in the City of Edmonton. 

The Mayor declared that the system was at a “breaking point” and that the encampments were symptomatic of “systemic issues,” adding that “the number of people flowing into houselessness exceeds the capacity of our social system.” The Mayor’s idea to declare an emergency after the city and police have forced homeless people into the cold, creating the emergency, is completely absurd. If Sohi, and other councillors wanted to help, they would have argued against the sweeps publicly. Instead, they only spoke up when public outrage pushed them to. For these evictions, the city government and the police have blood on their hands. 

In response to the sweeps, we’ve seen community members step up to defend the encampments, risking police aggression in doing so. These inspiring examples, however, are limited by their lack of both organisation and strength in numbers. In order to defend encampments in the future, more people must be mobilized, and the labour movement should play an active role to make this happen.
Even defending the encampments is not enough. The rotten capitalist system must be overthrown. So long as our governments serve the interests of landlords and corporations, the homeless will always be dehumanised, and seen as a nuisance to be ignored or swept under the rug when necessary. So long as capitalism is allowed to exist, empty houses will always be seen not as potential homes for people who need them, but as empty vessels for speculation and profit. To truly make housing a guarantee for every person on the planet, the private ownership of housing must be abolished through the expropriation of landlords. The management of housing must be placed in the hands of the working class and allocated on a planned, democratic basis. In that way, and only in that way, can we guarantee that no one goes without a home.