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Community and Public Services Committee meeting, May 21

2024 May 19

To: Members of City Council

Re: Community and Public Services Committee meeting, May 21, Agenda items 7.1 Updated community plan to end homelessness- progress update & 7.2 Mortality rates and Edmonton’s homeless population

2024-05-19 re CoE CPSC mtg
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The Edmonton Coalition on Housing and Homelessness (ECOHH) sees this agenda item as a painful opportunity to speak to Council, and through it to people in the City of Edmonton, about a situation that threatens our ability to say we are a community where every person matters.

It would be good to begin this meeting with an acknowledgement that for the past several decades elected leaders have failed miserably in their duties to ensure people have adequate housing to base their lives and create their homes.

We discuss this issue in the security and comfort of City Hall, while, at various places around the city, the relentless assault of the past five months on people who are homeless goes on. People who are ill, powerless, and without resources are being pushed from corners where they have sought some temporary shelter, in many cases with loss of personal property, with no consideration of their human rights, and often with significant psychological trauma being inflicted or reawakened. They may be casually told there is room at an institutional shelter for them, as if such places have any remote resemblance to a place where a person can create a home.

This is not a path to ending homelessness. This is an approach that strengthens the awful message that homelessness kills.

ECOHH is pleased to finally see some attention by Council to the connections of homelessness and mortality. Since 2005 we have gathered information each year to identify people who have died of homelessness. We have been careful to ensure our work was as cautious as possible, not wanting to be seen as alarmist. In the early years the counts were in the range of 50 people a year and this seemed horrible. They increased until 150 or 200 or more was the usual figure. This year we will be announcing shortly a total of deaths in 2023 twice as high as ever before.

Even in the report before you, with all the factors that result in far too low a total, you are being told by your own administration that there were 302 deaths last year, a number based on information from the Chief Medical Examiner, that fails to account for all those who died of reasons that office would not document or those with long histories of homelessness but housed at the time of death.

To put the deaths due to homelessness in context, in 2022 there were 7521 deaths in Edmonton, one death for every 146 people. There were 160 deaths of people who were homeless, or one for every 18 or fewer people! The deaths from homelessness are roughly comparable to deaths from stroke and breast cancer and far higher than from Alzheimer’s Disease or kidney failure.

It has been disappointing to ECOHH that each year members of City Council attend the memorial service to honour and grieve the lives of these people, yet in 18 years none have every approached ECOHH to explore why so many die and what needs to happen to stop it. We hope that today, with information from your own sources at hand, you might finally recognize the gigantic human misery of homelessness, you might consider the thousands of family and friends of those who have died who mourn such 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. Decades lost to enjoy family, and participate in community life.

The quality of life for those who do not die is also awful. People are physically cold and wet, unable to maintain basic sanitation or have clean clothes to wear, subject to every sort of danger, unable to properly manage health conditions, to prepare a meal, to rest properly, to enjoy any sort of recreation, hounded from most public spaces.

In the context of this gigantically disturbing human reality, we look at the update you are considering today of the community plan to end homelessness. It is a bland and technical document expressing no sense of understanding what homelessness really means and how urgent it is to end it. It speaks of “continued improvement,” but never admits of consistent failure to act adequately on this catastrophe.

A few months ago City Council passed a motion declaring homelessness an emergency. ECOHH may not agree it is an emergency in the sense of being an “unforeseen situation,” since it has been evident, and plans to address it have been being written, for well over a decade. But we do agree it is an emergency in the sense of it being a “pressing need” and calling for “urgent action.” This report does not reflect such a perspective. The report graphs how, for 25 years, there has been, week in and week out, around 2000 people or more homeless-- a picture of utter failure that would probably not be tolerated by citizens in relation to any other public issue. And most people who work with those who are struggling with housing would say that the official numbers are too low, that the process of counting and documenting them misses many who are homeless.

The report describes how many units of supportive, transitional, and scattered site housing will be needed over the next five years. In each case the numbers are greater than the number of units created in all the years up to now. There is little indication of how such greatly-increased housing will be realized.

Good plans need to be designed for accurate evaluation to know whether they have resulted in any positive change. This report is silent about how it will be held accountable, what exact measures will be used to determine is it is actually doing anything to end homelessness.

The report provides information on consultation with people living in homelessness and people working with service providers to this community. Input from these two groups of most knowledgeable sources clearly describes major issues and problems, and yet, of the ten recommendations in the report, seven deal primarily with technical issues and secondary matters, not with the heart of the issue-- how to stop having thousands of people living-- and dying-- in misery.. If wildfire or flood was threatening Edmonton neighbourhoods, we would not say, “We will develop a better data collection process to improve how we prepare to address the danger,” or “We will find new ways to measure success.” We would act to save lives.

It is hard to avoid skepticism about what lies ahead when the new task force to address homelessness recently announced does not have representation from people struggling with homelessness, although it has ample representation from those involved with for-profit housing. There is a difference between gathering comments from this population, as was done in preparing the report, and actually engaging these most directly affected people in taking action. Consultation is not collaboration. Genuine engagement of this demographic would demonstrate that these voices were being heard.

It is disappointing to read in the report that one of the recommendations—in a plan to end homelessness!—is to improve the shelter system. This lines up with other recent evidence of a growing move to redefine terms so people begin to believe that if shelter space is available the need for housing has been addressed, a deeply flawed perspective. Homelessness is the tip of an iceberg, the mass of which lies under the surface—the failures to ensure non-market and affordable housing for those with small economic resources and to provide the community-based services needed for those with mental illnesses and developmental disabilities.

Deaths due to homelessness are the summit of that tip. It is Edmonton’s shame that we allow this to continue. The reports before you today lack the substance to support meaningful action that will, after far too long, lead to an end to homelessness in Edmonton.

The need for better attention to ensuring homelessness is ended has a companion need to prevent further homelessness, a significant threat when there are 50,000 households in core housing need in the city as well.

Please do not be content with the milquetoast recommendations of this report. The deeply disturbing and cruel content you have presents some sense of the ugly realities of homelessness. Act with boldness to show you are leaders who do not believe some of our sisters and brothers should be treated as second-class.

Thank you.

Nadine Chalifoux


ECOHH-identified deaths due to homelessness

  • 2022- 160 people died

  • 2021- 222 people died

  • 2020- 132 people died

  • 2019- 99 people died

  • 2018- 96 people died

  • 2017- 107 people died

  • 2016- 106 people died

  • 2015- 51 people died

  • 2014- 47 people died

  • 2013- 40 people died

  • 2012- 45 people died

  • 2011- 43 people died

  • 2010- 57 people died

  • 2009- 46 people died

  • 2008- 47 people died

  • 2007- 44 people died

  • 2006- 41 people died

  • 2005- 32 people died

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