By Brett McKay
An amendment giving bylaw and peace officers more authority to remove people from the transit system for loitering or using drugs is the latest action in a series of efforts aimed at curtailing crime and perceived threats to safety downtown through law enforcement.
The city has also funded several outreach programs over the past two years to help people who are struggling with houselessness, mental illness, and drug abuse get resources and connections to further care. These programs join the patchwork of city services, charities, and volunteer-run organizations in Edmonton dedicated to dealing with these crises.
The city calls this a "multilayered approach", but it's all inadequate to the task at hand, suggested Robert Miller of the Harm Reduction Society (HARES), a volunteer-run mutual aid organization that works to meet the needs of downtown community members who are missed by the city's programs.
"There are a lot of finer points to what lacks in the city response, but the biggest is simply that these services are over capacity and under-resourced," he said of the lack of adequate housing supports that creates a need for street-level outreach. "Outreach teams help to keep people alive, but they are ultimately still left out in the cold by policy failures at every level of government."
These responses will only be effective to a certain extent until the underlying issues are adequately addressed, Miller said.
"We live in a society where housing is a commodity, which must be denied to some in order to create value for others; our society is built on Indigenous genocide, and refuses to reconcile with this fact, let alone take steps to heal that damage; we live in a society where the moral value of a human being is largely decided by the colour of their skin and their capacity to produce value, and those deemed undesirable or unprofitable are made illegal."
On the eve of the June 9 deadline set by Justice Minister Tyler Shandro to see Edmonton's public safety plan for downtown and in the transit system, city council voted to amend the bylaw governing the conduct of transit passengers, prohibiting people from remaining on transit property for any reason other than using transit and banning the visible use of drugs.
Councillors who opposed the amendment worried that the rule will be applied inequitably, with racialized and Indigenous people bearing the brunt of enforcement. This was why council removed the loitering provision in the bylaw last summer, said Coun. Aaron Paquette of Ward Dene.
"It simply did not work and it was not equitable," he said. "It was obviously very heavily weighted toward visible minorities as the enforcement target."
But the majority of councillors agreed with city manager Andre Corbould that the amendments were needed to help transit riders feel safe.