Edmonton city council calls for 'transition strategy' with province to fund homeless services

Edmonton police monitoring an encampment slated to come down at 95th Street and 101A Avenue in January. (Natasha Riebe/CBC - image credit)
Edmonton police monitoring an encampment slated to come down at 95th Street and 101A Avenue in January. (Natasha Riebe/CBC - image credit)

Edmonton city council is tired of Edmontonians paying millions of dollars to address issues it says the province should handle.

A new report shows the city spent $91 million last year on homeless-related services — up 23 per cent from 2022.

For some Edmonton city councillors, it's been years of last-minute decisions to respond to a worsening drug poisoning, homelessness and addiction crisis.

"Are we happy with the status quo?" asked Coun. Andrew Knack during a council meeting on Wednesday.

"My guess is the answer is 'no.' "

Knack, in his third term as a city councillor, has stressed many times that he thinks the Alberta government needs to do more to address the issues.

He repeated that message at a council meeting Wednesday, this time with more emotion and at intervals, breaking through his typically diplomatic tone.

"Forgive my frustration but I've been sitting here for 10 years, waiting for something that will get better. It's exhausting," Knack said. "I just would like to see something that actually moves us in a direction that can help fix this.

"We all need to get on the same page."

Knack introduced a motion calling for a "transition strategy," to transfer paying for services, programs and infrastructure that the city incurs that should be the jurisdiction of the province.

Ward O-day'min Coun. Anne Stevenson noted city council was asked to approve temporary funding for emergency shelter spaces and services on a few occasions.

"There have been a few instances recently where we as a city have very appropriately stepped up to manage crises to help support all Edmontonians," Stevenson said.

The services ended abruptly when the city wasn't able to continue funding them, she said, causing disruptions in the community.

"So this to me is what a transition strategy is looking at. It's recognizing that we aren't financially able to sustain some of this work," Stevenson said.

Council passed Knack's motion unanimously but Coun. Erin Rutherford had reservations about the jurisdictional pieces.

Rutherford, a former manager of social planning for the City of Spruce Grove, worked on housing and homelessness initiatives.

"I remember being extremely frustrated as an administration about how jurisdiction can be used as a shield and a cover, from all orders of government, to be frank," Rutherford said.

Councillors wondered whether the direction gave the impression of political finger-pointing.

"I don't see it as being political," Coun. Jo-Anne Wright said. "I see it as being pragmatic so that we're getting the information and the data in order to make some sound decisions."

Heather Jenkins, press secretary for Alberta's Municipal Affairs Minister Ric McIver, emailed a statement to CBC News.

"If the City of Edmonton sends an itemized list of all programs and services that they are asking the province to consider funding, we will review their request and discuss a path forward with the city," Jenkins wrote.

Costs of prevention, resolution and response

In July and August 2023, the city analyzed services and programs by department, including the Edmonton Police Service and Edmonton Public Library, looking at homelessness prevention, resolution and response.

In prevention and resolution, services and programs include designing and planning for affordable housing, transit passes, and outreach social workers at the library.

Funding under response includes outreach transit teams, homeless camp removal, drug overdose and response teams, needle collection and pick up, extreme weather response, the winter weather shuttle, public washrooms.

The city provides core services around cleanliness and safety that would exist regardless of the state of homelessness.

If activities continue at their current service level in the absence of homelessness, they were not included in the financial analysis, the report says.

As of April 2024, 3,250 people were experiencing homelessness in Edmonton, according to Homeward Trust.

More than 1,400 people were either unsheltered or staying in emergency shelters, while more than 1,850 Edmontonians are provisionally housed, meaning they are in short-term accommodations like hotels or couch surfing and do not have permanent tenancy.