City of Red Deer will spend $500,000 cleaning up dozens of homeless camps over the next two years.
During budget talks on Friday, city council approved spending $300,000 this year and another $200,000 in 2019 tackling the growing numbers of homeless camps spread throughout the city.
The budget proposed $200,000 in each of the two years, but Coun. Lawrence Lee proposed boosting this year’s cleanup to $400,000. An amended amount of $300,000 was approved 6-3 by council.
“We are charged with being responsible to provide safe public spaces,” said Lee. “That is one of our primary functions when it comes to our community health initiatives.”
Lee said tackling the homeless camp fits in with council’s focus on enforcement, a strategy that saw 10 new police officers approved earlier this week.
It is not known how many makeshift camps are hidden away in the city’s 4,300 acres of parks and other natural areas. A count last October found more than 60, including about 40 abandoned debris-strewn sites.
“We have been absolutely staggered by the extent of these camps and how quickly they have grown up,” said city manager Craig Curtis.
Dealing with the camps and their inhabitants has been handled by various city departments, police and emergency services. The rising costs of cleaning up the camps has been coming out of their existing budgets.
The $300,000 will provide enough funding to clean up close to 20 camps per week.
No one on council harboured the illusion that cleaning up the camps was a solution to the problem of homelessness, addiction and other health issues.
Coun. Dianne Wyntjes said federal, provincial and municipal governments needed to work together to address the underlying issues that lead to people resorting to sleeping outdoors. Cleaning up camps and moving their residents does not address the problems.
“To me, it’s merely a Band-aid in terms of the bigger issues of additions and mental health,” said Wyntjes.
Coun. Buck Buchanan was among the councillors opposing the cleanup funds, arguing the money was better spent on prevention initiatives.
Coun. Vesna Higham supported the original $200,000 budget item but not increasing it to $300,000. She pointed the finger at other levels of government, which should not “abdicate” their responsibility to address issues such as health care and housing, which are in their spheres.
The federal and provincial governments need to step up to “move the needle” on those kinds of issues, she said.
Mayor Tara Veer supported the cleanup plan and the extra funds allotted to it.
“I think the additional funds allow us to blitz on the backlog,” she said. “I think we have a public safety responsibility to do this.”
The initiative will not address the pressing needs for a hospital expansion and addiction treatment centre, she said.