Have Progressives Lost the Plot When it Comes to Homelessness, Health and Public Spaces?

Has our culture of outrage prevented us from thinking critically about encampments?

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There was exposed electrical wiring. There was black mould around all of the bedroom windows. Many of the floorboards were splintered. There were no working smoke alarms. The plumbing was inadequate and water was pooling in basements that were infested with mice.

These were just some of the conditions we saw in so many houses that were deemed unfit for human habitation in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Provincial environmental health officers determined that hundreds of housing premises were in poor states of repair, and that continued occupancy would unnecessarily expose those living in them to conditions that might become injurious or dangerous to their health.

These were the properties of slum landlords — some of them notorious. Many of them eventually deteriorated to the point of no return and were demolished, but often not before they became hot spots for crime, drug dealing and human trafficking. They were also blights on working class communities particularly in north central Edmonton, fuelling social disorder and raising significant community safety concerns.

There are still many problem properties today where unaccountable and sketchy landlords can take advantage of vulnerable and poor people who are desperate for any housing.

Remarkably, back in the 1990s and early 2000s, progressive activist groups opposed the closing of these houses, but not as vigorously as they protested the recent removal of encampments from many of the same communities that continue to struggle with problem properties. I write about them here because their voices continued to be widely covered by much of the media.

Their position puzzled me back then and it puzzles me today. Of course, they will claim a defence of the poor and the marginalized but when you look closely, we need to ask what are they are really defending?

How is it safe for children to live in a house with exposed electrical wiring and black mould? How is it safe for anyone, particularly someone under the influence of toxic street drugs, to sleep in a tent heated by a propane tank and a stolen blow torch with an exposed flame when it’s -30 Celsius outside?

And just like the clear evidence that emerged through countless court hearings in the 1990s about slum houses and slum landlords, there is similarly clear evidence today about the role that violent street gangs played in recent large encampments.

It is also not difficult to understand, gangs aside, how dangerous it is for people to be sleeping in tents during the coldest days of winter while relying upon open fires to stay warm, particularly when illicit drug use is involved.

So, when people exclaim incredulously the “tragedy” of dismantling encampments when it’s -40, they need to think about this more deeply. Hopefully they come to the realization that the colder it is, the more dangerous encampments become and the more likely it is that people will die or suffer serious burns or frostbite. So, instead of demanding “hands off” the encampments, perhaps progressive activists can get a lot clearer about what people living in the encampments actually need. Instead of simply outgunning each other to prove online who hates the UCP and the EPS the most, they could talk more clearly about supportive housing, treatment and recovery spaces and more effective outreach capacity. And sure, talk about harm reduction like supervised consumption spaces, too. These things are all necessary.

What I hear these days from many voices is the right for vulnerable people to sleep in tents, to use deadly drugs and to possess stolen property wherever and whenever they want. I don’t think defending someone’s right to squalor — whether in an encampment or a derelict house or near a heating vent in an alley — helps anyone who is vulnerable or has no other options.

We all need to think much bigger. We need a higher bar as a community. We can’t simply advocate to keep people barely breathing in inhumane conditions, we need to collectively advocate that people should live full and thriving lives.

We recently witnessed the Grand Chief of the Confederacy of Treaty 6 help us raise the bar. Chief Cody Thomas told Windspeaker recently, “We’ve got to act now, because people are dying. The encampments are not a safe spot for anybody to live.

“We’re at the table to assist in finding those resolutions and not standing outside protesting,” said Thomas.

Chief Thomas has made many comments in this regard lately, speaking for Indigenous members of our community. Yet no one opposing the encampment removals have amplified his voice. I suspect if he had said something that criticized the UCP and the EPS rather than supported them he would have been trending on X within minutes.

(Michael Walters is a former Edmonton city councillor and is currently a partner at Berlin Communications.)