Oil Sands Truth: Shut Down the Tar Sands

Closing Edmonton's Tent City

Closing Edmonton's Tent City

EDMONTON — It’s a difficult feat to be homeless but still have a space that feels like a home, but that’s exactly what life in Edmonton’s tent city has felt like for Claude Parisee over the past month.

Surrounded by the books he reads to pass the time, and secure in the knowledge that guards watched his belongings and kept unwanted troublemakers from causing a stir, the former resident of Hull, Que., said life has largely been good in the makeshift community, which was set up in May and at times swelled to 80 tents and up to 200 people.

Residents had been told they must leave the fenced-in property, which sits on a patch of provincial land behind a non-profit centre for the homeless, by mid-afternoon Saturday.

The site has been closed to new residents and has been fenced in since early August, when the government said it was going to gradually move residents out.

“I guess they don’t want to spend the money to support this place anymore, but the problems still remain, because many of us will just go camp somewhere else,” said Parisee as he and about 20 other people packed up their belongings just after noon.

Government spokesman Jerry Bellikka said there are enough spaces in homeless shelters for all the remaining residents of tent city. Low-cost housing has been found for 58 people overall.

“There has always been the capacity within the shelters to take everybody here, but many of the people here didn’t want to go to a shelter for one reason or another, they felt that something else was what they needed,” said Bellikka, adding case workers had helped resolve issues such as a lack of space for couples in the shelters. Other people were given bus tickets to get back to their home communities, or were set up with apartments.

Several of the residents say they’re not willing to live in shelters and can’t afford the city’s high rents, so they’ll just pitch their tents somewhere else after they’ve been forced to leave.

Parisee is one of those who will be in the same tent Saturday night. He said he’ll pitch it somewhere in Edmonton’s river valley, where he knows he’ll have to fend for himself.

“It’s a chance you’ve gotta take, you might wake up dead in the morning,” he said, sipping a beer as he watched other residents pack up. He used to work in construction, but now is on disability and can’t afford rent.

Dawn Cardinal, 52, has been at the tent city since June. She was evicted from an apartment in February and became homeless for the first time in her life. She’s angry the government is kicking them off bare land that hasn’t been used for many years, and plans to move her tent somewhere else, along with her niece.

“Just because it’s provincial land, it’s still the government. They should start doing something, instead of kicking people off,” she said.

“How do they think that people will not make another tent city?”

The government won’t interfere if people want to move their tents elsewhere, said Bellikka.

“In some circumstances, people make their own choices and you can’t force people to accept something they don’t want.”

About a dozen people who were not residents of tent city came Saturday to hand out food and keep an eye on how guards and the government would get people to leave.

Jim Gurnett, who works with a social welfare agency, said he was sickened by the number of people who are homeless or in substandard living in the city, and that it will take a lot more work to make up for years of neglecting affordable housing.

“They have to be somewhere else, they’re not going to disintegrate, they’re not going to evaporate,” said Gurnett.

Kevin Soto, who was barbecuing huge slabs of meat to help feed the remaining residents, said he’ll be sad to see the end of the sense of community that has built up since May.

“It was a family thing,” he said, twisting the meat with a pair of shears and stopping frequently to chat with other people milling about his tent. “We all knew each other from the street.”

Soto said he’d been part of the tent city from the very beginning. Despite his sadness at having to leave, Soto said he’s not angry at the government and would be happy to take permanent housing if it could be found.

“If they can find us a place to stay, it would be nice, it would be beautiful,” he said.

Parisee said he, too, remained hopeful he’d soon have a real place to call home. A place had been found for a friend, and he said many people were helping the residents of tent city in their search.

“I’ll just camp out until I can find a place to stay,” he said. “My turn’s coming up.”


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