A contentious riverfront site proposed for a permanent homeless shelter was swept off the table on Monday when Red Deer city council vowed to proceed with public consultations.
“Council is in a position that we will have to make a generational decision about the location,” said Mayor Ken Johnston. “We need to (ensure) people who are impacted by the decision have had the opportunity to be involved in the decision-making process through further engagement.”
After an independent report revealed much opposition to the proposed permanent shelter site on city-owned land at 4934-54 Ave, along the Red Deer River and close to the new Capstone development, council dropped that location from further consideration.
Interim city manager Tara Lodewyk said it’s not like all the work done, so far, in narrowing sites down with real estate agents will go out the window. But “there will be a clean slate,” she added, and the city will keep an open mind going forward.
Council heard on Monday the findings of a Maven Strategy report, compiled from seven focus groups with selected city residents.
Participants expressed the sense they weren’t being heard by the city, that decisions were rushed, the process wasn’t transparent, trust was broken. As well, there was uncertainty about how downtown businesses could continue to operate, and bafflement over what an integrated shelter will really mean.
On a more positive note, most participants agreed that a homeless shelter is needed for a city of Red Deer’s size and they expressed a willingness to work with the city, collaboratively, to find the best solution. Johnston said he and other councillors were heartened that people wanted to help the city find a solution.
Council voted unanimously to move ahead with a more thorough public process, which will be revealed on April 15.
But Coun. Vesna Higham expressed some doubts. She noted that downtown property owners have already repeatedly stated they don’t want the shelter near their businesses as the disorderly behaviour, crime, litter and loitering are driving away customers.
While Higham generally favours listening to the public, she fears that having more consultations will create a sense that council is delaying a decision on a contentious matter “when time is of the essence… Many businesses are hanging on by a thread,” hoping the temporary shelter in their midst will soon close when a permanent shelter is built elsewhere. She also expressed concern about “consultation fatigue.”
Johnston said the shelter issue is so important to the city it warrants more public consultations through a more transparent process. He noted the province assured the city that the $7 million allotted for a permanent homeless shelter will still be available after March 31.
‘This is a decision we do not take lightly,” added the mayor. While the permanent shelter is a provincially-led and owned project, he believes it will have long-term impacts, “and we want to make sure our community is heard.”
Lodewyk said the Maven Strategy report shows “we need to keep momentum” and build on common ground, engaging the community and rebuilding trust. She added the city’s approach going forward “will be purposeful, collaborative and transparent.”
There’s also a recognition the city should strive to have open discussions as much as possible, said Lodewyk. While there’s a need for in-camera meetings for land, labour and legal matters, she believes there are ways to discuss land options without pinpointing an exact location, or price and without disclosing property ownership to preserve confidentiality.
“There’s a need to share some of the process we discuss in camera out in the open… For the community to truly help us they have to understand the processes.”
Previously, city councillors had narrowed down 80 potential shelter locations to 20, and then to five, before putting the riverfront proposal forward that proved highly unpopular with the downtown business community.
Lodewyk said the public will get a chance to see some of the other locations the city had discussed at the upcoming public engagement sessions.