With no concrete plan for Safe Harbour’s homeless shelter, a central Alberta psychiatrist is worried about the impact on Indigenous people who use the shelter while dealing with the discovery of more unmarked graves at former residential schools.
Last month city council decided it will not allow the temporary shelter to remain at Cannery Row beyond Sept. 30. Instead, administration will look at buying a piece of land for the permanent shelter, and ATCO trailers would be moved onto that site for use as a temporary shelter.
Council also heard that Indigenous people make up 2.5 per cent of the city’s population but 40 per cent of the city’s homeless population.
Dr. Nolan Hop Wo, an inpatient psychiatrist at the Centennial Centre for Mental and Brain Injury in Ponoka and a resident of Red Deer, said nobody wants a shelter where they live or work, but city council must still find a location.
“I know city council’s in a tough position, but it’s up to them to make decisions for people who are Red Deer’s most vulnerable population,” Hop Wo said.
He said if Red Deer is serious about reconciliation they need to consider how decisions, like possibly closing the shelter until a permanent location can be found, will disproportionately impact Indigenous people.
Hop Wo, who is Métis, said while the recent discoveries of unmarked graves is not a surprise to a lot of Indigenous people, it can still be painful as they reflect on what happened.
He said there’s no quick answer to address what happened at residential schools, but shelters provide those who are also homeless a safe place to be. Stable housing, including shelters, is important for mental wellness.
“As an Indigenous person myself, I can attest that support and empathy from our non-Indigenous communities is needed now more than ever,” Hop Wo said in a letter he wrote to city councillors.
Raye St. Denys, executive director of Shining Mountains Living Community Services, said recent discoveries can be difficult to process.
“I spend probably half my day on the phone, or messaging, with friends or colleagues who were in residential school and finding it very hard because it’s bringing up so many memories. Families will have to deal with it for a long, long time,” St. Denys said.
“Red Deer Industrial School, their records show they had children as young as three years old — really.”
Shining Mountains provides a wide range of services to Indigenous people, including Métis and Inuit, in central Alberta.
St. Denys said a lot of Métis are Catholic so they feel really conflicted.
“That’s the church they were taught to believe in and now they are having to come to terms with what they did.”
She said shelters are a lifesaver for people who have no other option, but staff need to be culturally aware. Safety for both the surrounding community and clients are also necessary.