Housing agencies press Edmonton city council for solutions amid rising homelessness, deaths

“If we’re not going to build the housing, we’re going to keep increasing that mortality rate.”

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As Edmonton faces its worst year for homelessness in more than two decades, officials and outreach agencies are struggling to curb the sharp increase in people who are living and dying without permanent shelter.

More people are homeless in Edmonton than at any other time since tracking began in 1999, according to data from Homeward Trust.

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As of April 1, there were 3,262 people on the agency’s By Names list including people who sleep outside (878), in shelters (543), and who are in temporary or otherwise precarious housing (1,841). Of all these names more than 700 on the list are new, the agency’s data website shows.

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The last peak was in 2008 when 3,079 people were homeless that year. Homelessness started to decline after that year, hitting a low of 1,196 in 2016 before starting to rise again. Numbers have jumped exponentially since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

More people without homes are dying too with 302 deaths in 2023, up from 200 deaths the previous year, data from the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner  presented to city council on Tuesday shows.

Councillors also reviewed a draft of Homeward Trust’s community plan to prevent and end homelessness. That plan identifies a gap of 1,400 to 1,700 supportive housing units, 150 to 250 bridge housing units, and financial support for 300 to 600 in units within five years.

The draft calls the current situation “a community crisis,” saying homelessness has shifted dramatically in recent years.

“In the wake of drastic unaddressed economic, health, and social change, the homeless-serving sector and its supportive infrastructure has housed and supported as many people as resources and circumstances have allowed for, but it is not enough to merely catch people as they are left behind by larger social systems,” the draft states.

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“Too many people are being lost.”

The Edmonton Coalition on Housing and Homelessness (ECOHH) suspects the death toll is even higher than what’s captured by the coroner’s office — more than 400 for 2023, or twice as high as it’s ever been before.

Nadine Chalifoux, spokesperson for ECOHH, said more people will keep dying on the streets, and fall into homelessness if they don’t get homes they need.

“For the past several decades, elected leaders have failed in doing their duties to ensure that all people have adequate housing,” she told council.

“If we’re not going to build the housing, we’re going to keep increasing that mortality rate.”

She called on city council to recognize the “gigantic human misery of homelessness” and the thousands of family and friends of people who have died and who mourn their unnecessary deaths.

“Most of these deaths also are far too soon. Life expectancy for people who are homeless is half what it is for the rest of us.”

ECOHH sent a letter to city council criticizing the updated plan to end homelessness.

The document, according to Chalifoux, lacks targets and there needs to be clear measures so those involved in this sector can know whether they are making any positive change. It also lacks clarity on how the agency will be held accountable, Chalifoux said.

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Jim Gurnett, also with ECOHH, told Postmedia the plan needs to go back to the drawing board.

“When you have hundreds of people dying a year from something like this, it’s time to get serious about how we’re going to actually prevent it,” he said.

In 2022, the city auditor found the City of Edmonton’s overall approach to homelessness is disjoined, not co-ordinated, accountable or evaluated. The audit also found it’s not clear how much money in total is spent on the file.

Edmonton’s corporate plan on homelessness is expected to be released in the coming months.

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Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect the source of the death count.

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