Red Deer city council unanimously approved first reading of bylaw changes that would allow the temporary homeless shelter at Cannery Row to operate at the same site for another year.
A public hearing has been set for May 25 in council chambers at City Hall ahead of expected second and final readings of the necessary bylaw amendment. Another amendment is also proposed that would ensure no expansion of the existing site operations.
Last month, council voted to move the shelter out of Cannery Row, just north of Real Canadian Superstore, and gave Safe Harbour Society two months to find another location.
In a report to council, city staff pointed out the Cannery Row site was chosen as a homeless shelter in the early stages of the pandemic because it had room for those using it to physically distance and isolate themselves if necessary.
“AHS representatives have expressed concerns that any attempt to relocate the temporary shelter during a pandemic comes with a significant risk,” says the report.
On Thursday, the province reported that COVID-19 cases had hit 2,048 additional cases, a record daily high. Alberta now also has 21,385 active cases.
Premier Jason Kenney announced additional health restrictions for regions hard hit by the virus, including Red Deer, which now has 722 cases.
Besides the potential health risks, city staff said there was “no way” the homeless shelter could find another location by council’s May 31 deadline and recommended it be allowed to stay until May 31, 2022.
Coun. Dianne Wyntjes asked what would happen if the move-out date was extended to November or December.
Community services general manager Sarah Tittemore said staff do not see that as a realistic timeline and moving during the winter would put vulnerable people at risk.
“Our greatest risk is a gap in service, especially during the winter and we wouldn’t recommend a six-month term,” said Tittemore.
During the next year, staff will continue to look for a new shelter space while stepping up cleaning efforts in the area and doing more to address concerns of neighbouring businesses.
Coun. Ken Johnston, who had unsuccessfully proposed a one-year extension in March, said the same reasons he used then, still apply.
“Except COVID is even more of a concern now than it was just a few weeks ago.”
Johnston said the shelter is there for people suffering from intense poverty, addiction and trauma.
“This is not a baseball team we can put on a bus and move to another location in the city.”
Coun. Dianne Wyntjes said the success of the downtown will rely on attracting more residential development and does not want to see what started out as a temporary shelter site become permanent.
“That’s my worry about where we’re going with this.”
Mayor Tara Veer said many in the business community have lost faith that the homeless shelters are temporary.
“After eight years, there is a sense of frustration that temporary is not temporary,” said Veer.
However, the city is “closer than ever” to a permanent shelter. The province announced $7 million for a permanent shelter last year, but it is likely two to three years away.
While the community has been split on the homeless shelter issue, it has been “exacerbated by the absence of long-term solutions.”
Coun. Vesna Higham said council has an obligation to balance the interests of Red Deer’s vulnerable and the rights of the public and businesses to feel safe in their community.
The safety issues downtown have had a big impact on many businesses, she said.
“They use the word cautiously, but that’s what they feel — desperation.”
The way that services have been provided to the homeless and other vulnerable people in Red Deer has not been working, she said.
“We need to achieve a better balance in how these services are provided and I hope this process has brought that to light.”
When the shelter issue came up last month, not a single person attended the public hearing, said Coun. Buck Buchanan, who does not want to see that repeated this time around.
“Hopefully, those people show up, virtually of course, to express themselves as to what this should look like.”
On April 7, council directed administration to compile a list of potential sites throughout the community to bring back for consideration within four weeks. The report to be presented is expected to provide detailed information about process, timing and costs.