95 names remembered at Edmonton Homeless Memorial

Support worker Kristen Szumlas recounts the moment she first expressed love to a member of her community.

She was leaving the support housing of 23-year-old Shaine Olson. On her way out the door, Olson gave her a customary “I love you.” Without thinking, Szmulas returned it.

Olson closed the door with a big smile on her face.

“That was like two and a half years ago,” explained Szmulas. “And I never looked back.”

It’s just a small part of the legacy Olson leaves behind.

“She has left a hole in our community,” said Szmulas. “She’s left a hole in our hearts.”

Shaine Olson, 23, was among those remembered at the memorial. (Kristen Szumlas)

Olson is one of the 95 people whose death was commemorated Wednesday at the Annual Edmonton Homeless Memorial for 2018 deaths linked to homelessness.

Members of the homeless community, social workers and other loved ones gathered at Boyle Street Community Services for a ceremony before a funerary procession led by police bagpiper brought them to the Edmonton Homeless Memorial statue across from city hall.

There they held a smudging and laid flowers in honour of the dead.

“Shaine was the toughest person I’ve ever met,” Szmulas remembers of her friend.

“She was resilient, she was stubborn and she didn’t let people in very easily but when she did it was just a beautiful, beautiful thing.”

Edmonton police bagpiper Dale McDonald led the procession to the Edmonton Homeless Memorial statue across from city hall. (Stephen Cook/CBC)

The Edmonton Coalition on Housing and Homelessness determines the number through the collaboration of outreach groups and support services. Last year, 107 people were remembered.

There have been 801 deaths commemorated since the memorial began 14 years ago. 

Szumlas said it’s the people and not the numbers that are important.

“There’s stories of survival, there’s stories of resilience. They deserve to be honoured, they deserve for their names to be known.”

“They don’t deserve to just be a statistic, a number.”

Martin Melvin Daniels moved to Edmonton from the Red Earth First Nation during a construction boom. He has struggled with homelessness and at 51-years-old has seen a number of friends die.

“For all my good friends and good buddies … I hope that you’re upstairs there,” he said.

‘It wears you out’

In 2016, the count doubled in conjunction with the fentanyl crisis. But memorial organizer Jim Gurnett says the deaths are due to more than drug overdoses.

“My personal view is that it is accounted for by the fact that chronic homelessness has gone on for 25 or 30 years now,” he said. Many of those remembered were in their 40s and 50s, victim to the cumulative effects of a shortage of appropriate housing.

“Eventually you’ve been attacked in so many ways so many times that it wears you out.”

Homeward Trust, which is responsible for Edmonton’s Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness and implements homelessness strategies on behalf of all levels of government, has a list of approximately 1,800 names of people who experienced homelessness in 2018.

Last month, the city community and public services committee directed administration to come up with a plan to fast-track 600 units of permanent supportive housing around Edmonton.

But Gurnett said the city cannot address the problem alone.

“I commend the city’s positive attitude and the money they did commit,” he said. “But we’re not going to make any reasonable dent in the problem until there’s a large investment from the federal and provincial governments.”

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