Just days after police finally moved in to dismantle a problematic encampment in southeast Calgary last week, a lawsuit was launched in Alberta’s other major city that could hinder the ability of police to take similar steps in the future.
That would be most unfortunate. While the response to homelessness certainly requires fairness and compassion, it’s unreasonable to expect police to simply overlook criminal activity. Moreover, it’s unreasonable to expect society to accept the notion that such encampments have a right to exist in perpetuity regardless of what is happening within their confines.
If anything, one could argue that police have been too slow in dealing with these encampments. An obvious example was the downtown East Village encampment finally dismantled in February 2022. Police described it as a hub of violence and drug trafficking. In the two months prior to the dismantling, there had been 27 recorded instances of severe violence.
There was then, as there was last week, a purposeful effort to involve social agencies and medical personnel and to endeavour to find shelter for those who had been residing in the encampments.
The one dismantled last week near Deerfoot and Glenmore had been there for more than a year. Earlier this year, police seized weapons and more than $100,000 in stolen property from the camp (as well as a separate encampment in the southeast). Evidence of ongoing criminal activity is what finally led to last week’s “Operation Encampment.”
Of course, it’s not just the criminal activity that makes these encampments so concerning, it’s also the well-being of those inside. As the police chief noted in a social media post last week, “We can’t allow encampments to become entrenched in (Calgary). Health/safety concerns, refuse, violence and criminality/stolen property are issues that quickly arise when we don’t address them early.”
This is not an example of a hasty or arbitrary police response, nor is this a violation of anyone’s rights. But not everyone sees it that way. Like their Calgary counterparts, Edmonton police have had to deal with the same problems in many similar encampments. Last week, a group calling itself the Coalition for Justice and Human Rights announced plans to initiate legal action over Edmonton’s displacement of those living within the dismantled encampments. Their claim is that vulnerable people have been placed in dangerous situations, and that therefore constitutes a violation of their Charter rights.
However, it can certainly be argued — given the documented violence and criminal activity within many of these encampments — that leaving vulnerable people in such circumstances is actually placing them in a dangerous situation.
The legal action is also asking the courts to stop the dismantling of any camps when the number of available shelter beds is lower than the total number of those experiencing homelessness. It hardly seems reasonable or manageable to have a shelter bed count that constantly matches or exceeds the number of people living on the street.
When it’s clear there’s been a rise in homelessness, there should be an effort to increase the number of shelter beds and other supports. But that’s hardly a reason for police to sit on their hands in the face of overwhelming evidence of criminal activity.
Of course, we should also remember that there are victims of that criminal activity. All of that stolen property represents victims of crime. All of these issues that have forced police to take action create serious and legitimate public safety concerns in these neighbourhoods. Yes, we should have compassion for those within the encampments, but some compassion should also extend to those in the vicinity.
Hopefully, the courts will see that and, hopefully, police will still have the ability — backed by the political will — to take action against these encampments when necessary.
“Afternoons with Rob Breakenridge” airs weekdays from 12:30 to 3 p.m. on QR Calgary