Jim Gurnett, 72, has a wealth of experience and knowledge. He’s spent his life serving the community as an MLA, the executive director of the Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers, manager of community services at Bissell Centre, and various other positions. He currently works as a pastoral minister with Inner City Pastoral Ministry.
During Covid, Gurnett provided pastoral services to unhoused Edmontonians at both the EXPO Centre, which was in operation from March to July of 2020, and Tipinawâw at the Edmonton Convention Centre, which opened in November of 2020 and closed in April of 2021. Inner City Pastoral Ministry is funded in part by the United Church of Canada and is not dependent on any financial support from governments. Gurnett said, “We kind of live in this grey area; legally, technically we’re a totally independent society.” This, and Gurnett’s age and experience, allowed him to speak freely about the issues he saw.
Jim Gurnett has worked with people experiencing homelessness and poverty for most of his career. He said that in 1995, there were 300 homeless people in Edmonton. In 2020, there were 3,000. Gurnett blamed this “dramatic increase in homelessness” on “bad government and continued bad government policies.” He continued, “From World War II to 1993, governments built 20,000 to 30,000 units of social housing a year. And then they just stopped. Federal and provincial governments completely stopped non-market housing and at the same time deinstitutionalized mental hospitals, without providing community alternatives.”
“Jim Gurnett has worked with people experiencing homelessness and poverty for most of his career. He said that in 1995, there were 300 homeless people in Edmonton. In 2020, there were 3,000. Gurnett blamed this “dramatic increase in homelessness” on “bad government and continued bad government policies.” He continued, “From World War II to 1993, governments built 20,000 to 30,000 units of social housing a year. And then they just stopped. Federal and provincial governments completely stopped non-market housing and at the same time deinstitutionalized mental hospitals, without providing community alternatives.” ”
He did not mince words. “I think in lots of ways, [the EXPO Centre] helped lots of people who are struggling, but in no way addresses the human needs. It does not accommodate homelessness or provide dignity. If nothing else, [it] illustrates that it’s how it’s being shut down. There has been no working with the community or continuity provided.” Gurnett explained the dates of both opening and closure were arbitrary and based on funding rather than need.
“On one hand, look how thoroughly we embraced the NHL. Four hotels and 12 restaurants, all provided so we can have hockey.” The provincial government gave the NHL $4 million to host the NHL in Edmonton during the summer of 2020.
Funding for supporting people at the EXPO Centre ended on July 31. Gurnett continued, “But the City says, ‘We’re hoping something will come together [for the homeless]’. There are 500 people served here. Goodbye and good luck.”
During the summer of 2020, no shelter services were available to unhoused people in Edmonton, and reduced capacity for day services (one-third, for most agencies, due to Covid restrictions). Still needing community and shelter, an unsanctioned homeless tent encampment was erected near Telus Field. With few other overnight shelter options, 150 people lived in Camp Pekiwewin.
In the fall of 2020, the City of Edmonton summarily dismantled Camp Pekiwewin, and beginning on Nov. 1, services were offered to unhoused Edmontonians at Tipinawâw, a shelter and day use centre in the Edmonton Convention Centre.
Gurnett also worked at Tipinawâw. “Suddenly, the federal government said, ‘We’ve got some more money’ so [the City] said, ‘OK, well on Nov. 1, we will open a new place’, and it was thrown together in a couple of weeks, really. I think the staff had good hearts, but there was no plan. It was thrown together out of nothing, and by organizations that were already busy, and suddenly they’ve got to run this place as well.”
Gurnett described what it was like inside Tipinawâw. “I don’t know if you’ve ever watched the videos that Homeward Trust made about the Convention Centre. They used a big chunk of money that could have been better used to provide for people to make a series of videos, and they were total propaganda.” Gurnett said the videos did not “resemble, in any way, daily life” at the Convention Centre.
He continued, “Tipinawâw was so crowded and a tougher place. To make the videos of it, they almost couldn’t have any people in it, they had to do all the film at times when it was emptier, or find little corners where they cleaned everybody out, because there was just no way you could have made it look good to the public.”
Gurnett clarified, “I’m not saying [the shelter] was a bad thing to do. For those six months, it made a real difference for lots of people.”
Gurnett said the living conditions weren’t good. “There were just so many people, and an inability to control them. In the main hall where people would eat and hang out during the day, there wasn’t a sleeping area. But all day, there’s just people sleeping on the floor, piles of rags and blankets and jumbled. Sleeping under all the tables so that people don’t step on them.” He finished, “If the public of Edmonton had been shown what that place was like inside, there would have been outrage.”
Gurnett confirmed the rumour that there were gangs operating in Tipinawâw, preying on vulnerable people and said, “It was even worse. The street gangs beat people up and took their drugs to sell them. So, suppose you’re mentally ill and you just got your new prescription, and you’ve got all your pills and these guys come and rough you up and take them. Well, not only are they going to be abused by whoever they sell them to, but you that have lost them, you’re going to have a psychotic episode and be wandering down the middle of the street waving your arms and behaving crazy and people are going to say, ‘Look at that stupid drunk.’”
Because Gurnett has worked for so long with fragile communities, he has a deep understanding of the policies that have created the conditions unhoused people live in. “We’re now more than 25 years into allowing a certain amount of the population in Edmonton continue to live without the stability of having decent, appropriate housing. The evils that flow from that are so complicated. So incremental, the way they build up, that I don’t think anybody’s got any significant desire to try to untangle it.”
Gurnett was scathing in his assessment of the UCP government. “This current provincial government is not minding people suffering. I think a lot of the people that are making decisions right now believe that these people have created their own hell. And so, why should we use a lot of public funds and effort to do anything about it?”
He illustrated his point with a story. “Honestly, you know, a good little example on this one, like so many things, was totally under the radar and got almost no media attention. [The provincial government] closed the McCullough Centre in Gunn.” Gurnett added, “After World War II, the government built a little village for men [who] were coming back from the war [and] who were unable to function in the world. That little place has survived all through the decades and it gradually became a treatment centre for men with really severe alcohol and drug issues. It was a wonderful little place—probably cost a few million dollars a year at most to operate. About 60 to 65 men would be living there in these little houses—five or six of them together—[and] they [got] their lives back in order.”
Gurnett continued. “A year ago, this government simply said, ‘We’re closing the place.’ They quit taking any new men in as men left, they didn’t replace them until the place was emptied out. So here’s a place that’s already built and functioning and has been doing commendable work, and they closed it to save pennies in the context of the provincial budget.” The effects of closing the Centre were clear to Gurnett. “They’re denying these men—it’s a life and death thing—men that don’t get the chance to go there. There is a much higher probability that they’ll end up dying on the streets in Edmonton or Grand Prairie or Calgary.”
“That’s the kind of mean attitude that the people in power seem to have right now. ‘These guys messed up their lives. Let them pay the price for it.’” Gurnett emphasized, “It’s just outrageous to me.”
(In 2022, the Alberta government announced a “recovery community” in Gunn to open in July of 2023. The news release refers to the previous facility as a “housing program”. The architectural plans of the proposed new facility more closely resemble a prison than the individual houses it replaced.)
In addition to a lack of access to services like Tipinawâw and the McCullough Centre, in the spring of 2021 the City of Edmonton approved a new policy proposed by the police. The police now have the ability to designate a tent erected on public (or unused private) land as a safety issue. The police can declare that a homeless person’s tent is a risk to the campers or the public and remove it with half an hour’s notice.
Gurnett described what this looks like in practise.
“I’ve got pictures on my phone. One day they cleaned up this particular block straight across here between 96 and 97th Street along that vacant land. There was pretty well the whole street, maybe 12 or 15 tents. I took pictures of the one guy that got the notice. He had been all set up, a nice little place. He, as much as he can, packs it all into this grocery cart. One hour later, I took a picture of them three blocks further over just near George Spady Centre. He has zero other options in his life, except to push that card three blocks away.” Gurnett continued, “I can just about guarantee you that a week or week-and-a-half later, the police came and told him, ‘You have half an hour to clean up from there.’”
Gurnett talked about what home means. “The origin of the English word ‘home’ simply means the place where it’s safe to lie down. It’s that simple image that we’ve built the idea that everybody needs a place where you can totally let all the controls and the guards and the cautions go, and have a place where it’s safe to lie down.”
“And in my experience, being around this neighbourhood on and off for 25 years, as soon as [unhoused people] get their [stable housing], they can slowly and steadily start rebuilding everything else about a decent life. There’s exceptions, of course, but by and large, if you’ve got the housing you need, most other things can slowly be crafted from there. But when you don’t have that [housing], then it’s just about a guarantee that everything else will slowly get more and more complicated and deteriorate.”
Covid has both increased the unhoused population and accelerated the needs they have. “For the people that are so poor, mostly homeless, [Covid] has reduced their access to human kind of content. It’s turned it into an emergency provision.”
Prior to the pandemic, the Inner City Pastoral Ministry’s Sunday worship service, which drew about 80 to 100 people every week, offered lunch afterwards. Gurnett said people enjoyed it because they got to socialize, catch up with one another, eat a nice meal, and sing songs.
“Since March of last year, we haven’t been able to have services. Everyday when I’m out here, giving socks to people, they’re saying they’re glad to get a pair of socks. They’re saying, ‘When are we going to be able to have church again, when are we going to be able to have mens’ group again?’ They want to be with each other and connect and share and talk. And there’s been such a loss of that all over through the community because the focus has just been on public health. All that other stuff has been gone and that’s hurt people.”