Strathcona homeless camp folds tent, citing spike in overdoses, inadequate drug testing

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A homeless encampment on Edmonton’s south side will begin dispersing in the coming days, in part because of an increase in overdoses.

On Tuesday, an organizer with the Old Strathcona Peace Camp said they plan to pack their tents and move on over the next week. Around 50 homeless people live in the encampment, located in Light Horse Park.

Cameron Noyes, a street outreach worker, said one of the main factors behind the decision to close was a spike in overdoses tied to a “bad batch” of opioids. He said the camp has seen four overdoses since moving to the park two weeks ago.

Noyes said in a news release that without better drug testing, “someone will most certainly die.”

“It’s actually a big factor,” he said. “It’s like trying to play a sport blindfolded. We don’t know what the substance is that’s in whatever they took.”

The Peace Camp is one of two major homeless encampments that have taken shape during the COVID-19 pandemic. The larger of the two, Camp Pekiwewin, formed in a field in Rossdale in July and has since grown to around 200 residents. Pekiwewin opened around the time the city announced plans to close a temporary drop-in centre established at the EXPO Centre at the start of the COVID outbreak.


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The Peace Camp set up shop in Dr. Wilbert McIntyre Park Sept. 5 to draw attention to issues facing the south-side homeless community — in particular, harassment faced by people who camp in the river valley and in Mill Creek Ravine.

Later that month, the city sought to evict the Peace Camp, which led campers to move to nearby Light Horse Park. In a statement at the time, city spokeswoman Carol Hurst called the move “disappointing” and encouraged campers relocate to local shelters.

Noyes said organizers decided Sunday to close the camp. One issue was volunteer burnout. Volunteers will continue to provide services, just not around the clock at the camp, Noyes said.

“We’re taking things down slowly over the next few days, and we’re going to make sure the resources we’ve been delivering to the camp — harm reduction, meals, water and firewood — are still there so (residents) can transition,” Noyes said.

​Overdoses are another concern. Activists and drug users say illicit drug supplies have become increasingly toxic during the pandemic due to border closures and supply disruptions. Alberta’s most recent opioid statistics found 82 per cent of the 414 Albertans who died of a fentanyl overdose between March and June had another drug in their systems.

Noyes managed to obtain some rapid fentanyl testing strips from his daughter, who works in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, but they’ve since run out. The tests allow users to check if their substance has fentanyl in it by dissolving a small amount in water.


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“We haven’t been given one kit by the city or province or any organization here,” he said. “They all come from Vancouver.”

“There is no better way to stop an overdose in advance than the test strips,” he said, adding, “Alberta is a void for that. It’s messed up, but we couldn’t get em’ if we tried.”

Cooling temperatures, COVID create worries for Edmonton homeless

​Noyes said many homeless people who choose to camp feel unsafe in the shelter system. He said thefts are common at shelters, and that many don’t allow partners or pets. He added many of the shelters are run by faith groups and some people don’t like proselytization. The Hope Mission was recently the site of the first outbreak in Edmonton’s homeless community, he added.

Last week, the City of Edmonton announced $8 million in federal and provincial funding to establish a 24/7 shelter at the downtown Edmonton Convention Centre. The facility will be able to shelter 300 people overnight and provide a variety of drop-in services during the day.

Interim City Manager Adam Laughlin said the COVID-19 pandemic has been especially hard on homeless people because it shuttered services they rely on. He estimated 180 people are becoming homeless in the city each month.


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