'It’s not safe, period': Edmonton police Chief Dale McFee says safety motivates encampment removals

“We swear an oath to protect people and to prevent crime, and just to say, ‘This is okay, let’s continue to do this?’”

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If complaints to the police are a barometer, thousands of encampments around Edmonton’s core are a storm in the making.

Two years ago, there were 4,500 complaints regarding encampments, estimates Edmonton Police Service Chief Dale McFee.

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“I think now it’s almost 16,000 complaints,” he said in a year-ender interview this week.

McFee outlined the dangers encampments hold for their denizens.

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In the few days since Court of King’s Bench Justice Kent Davidson on Monday granted an injunction that puts restrictions on how 135 structures can be removed by city authorities at eight homeless encampment sites, there have been violent sexual assaults and a couple of fires, said the chief.

“These are really, really volatile and high-risk places,” he said, citing the intimidations of gangs drawn to a place without rules.

There are many shades of mental wellness.

There’s rampant drug use and addiction, he said — lots of meth and fentanyl, some carfentanil, and toxic newcomer xylazine, often used to cut illicit drugs but sometimes taken on its own, with nasty side-effects like rotting the flesh.

There are weapons — axes, knives, guns.

Inclement weather brings tanks of flammables, people trying to cook in a tent, open fires for keeping warm — and accelerants McFee describes as “scary.”

Photos submitted to Judge Davidson in a sealed affidavit were necessarily graphic.

“There were really horrific pictures. It’s good it was sealed, because you can’t unsee what you see — people being burned to death alive,” McFee said.

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“I think you’ve got to understand — these individuals in this space are extremely vulnerable. It’s not safe, period,” he said.

“We swear an oath to protect people and to prevent crime, and just to say, ‘This is OK, let’s continue to do this?’”

Walking the encampment beat

McFee spent several days working the encampment beat recently, walking a community of tents, not houses, and connecting with agencies and individuals. There he saw living, breathing examples of what he learned from days co-chairing the housing task force — that there are two main patterns leading to a life on the streets of Edmonton.

“Hospitals and corrections … they follow those two patterns and get trapped on the streets,” he said.

One encampment dweller he spoke with who hailed from Toronto was a tangled web of social issues not easily addressed.

“He did jail for serious sex assault,” McFee said.

Addicted to meth, the man lost his job. He lost his ID.

He tried to commit suicide.

And he’s homesick.

For a convicted criminal who is living in a makeshift tent as winter descends under a cloud of addiction, a Christmas with relatives, turkey and gravy, presents and mistletoe sounds impossible.

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They’re complex issues, and that’s quite a Christmas wish.

“He wants to go home,” McFee said, adding that he’s working on it.

“We’ll try to connect him to services, and see if we can get him home,” he said.

If there are people back home who can offer supports, what better time to be home for than Christmas?

“I think that’s a big, big win — providing they have those supports,” he said.

McFee said seeing unhoused individuals far from home and estranged from family made him think of his own grown children — and of the many times police are tasked with informing families of the tragic death of a son, a sister, a father, even as Christmas carols play.

“The last thing you want to be hearing is that you’ve lost a loved one over the holidays. It wrecks your holidays for many years,” he said.

Team effort required

McFee said it’s unfortunate efforts to clear encampments are perceived by critics as a “police sweep.”

“This has never been a police sweep — we’re part of the team, just like everyone else,” he said.

“What I want to make clear is that police don’t operate in that space alone. It’s always been a partnership … We need to do this together. It’s pointless to do this alone. It needs to be a team environment.”

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And the team will need to put resources into the shelters to keep shelter dwellers safe, he said.

“That is way easier to do than to keep 1,200 tents safe across the city,” he said.

“I think we have a better chance of keeping people safe (in actual shelters) with all the services, between the police, EMS, (Edmonton Fire Rescue Services), park rangers, community peace officers, and security,” he said.

“It doesn’t mean that’s the answer … we all know there’s more to be done in this space, but I think not acting increases the risk of harm to them,” he said.

Down the road, more fixes

Slightly more long-term fixes need to be addressed, he said.

“There’s gaps — absolutely. We need day shelters — it’s not all about housing. We need stabilization, addiction support,” he said.

A fluid community of tents and tarps and boxes and carts lacks the information structure of tax rolls and postal addresses and census information, and agencies of all stripes are hard-put to know specifics.

“If you think of it, if everyone got a health assessment, we’d actually know who we were dealing with, we’d know what we were dealing with, we’d know where they were from,” McFee said.

Occasionally, there’s that weird, organizing detail.

One officer texted McFee a picture of a tent with an address on it so the occupant could order Skip the Dishes.

Encampment occupants are clearly staying there 24/7.

“It tells you we don’t have the day shelters,” McFee said, citing with a note of envy Calgary’s daytime drop-in centre.

“This isn’t just a housing situation we’re seeing.”

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