Break-ins, robberies, threats and property crimes were cited by local residents who were against allowing a “temporary” homeless shelter to continue to operate in the former Cannery Row Bingo building.
“My staff do not feel safe working in this area anymore” — and customers do not feel welcome, said Diana Rude, the owner of a nearby bridal boutique — one of 25 business owners who wrote to the City of Red Deer in opposition to the temporary location at 5239-53 Ave.
Rude mentioned two break-ins and two robberies occurred in the past year — as well as numerous calls made to police to remove homeless people who wouldn’t leave her commercial property.
Her concerns about aggressive behaviour and social disorder were echoed by many other respondents in similar letters to the city.
Local dentist Dr. Glen Chabaylo also added: “You are not helping those homeless addicts who truly want to recover, leaving them so close and vulnerable to the known downtown locations of the dealers who prey on them…
“Place another shelter away from downtown to give people a safer option…”
Whether to continue allowing the Safe Harbour homeless shelter to operate out of the large building north of Superstore, where it was temporarily moved at the start of the pandemic, was hotly debated at Monday’s public hearing.
“People are fed up,” said Coun. Buck Buchanan. “What people tell us is true: The fires, the drug paraphernalia, the crime… the abuses that are happening…
“We have invested millions and millions in (downtown) infrastructure and businesses are telling us, ‘What are you doing? You ask us our opinion and you are not listening to us.’”
In the end, city council could not support continuing the shelter’s operation in the city’s core. Councillors Vesna Higham and Tanya Handley summarized the general sentiment by saying they could not approve keeping it in the former bingo building because of how much damage was being caused to the downtown community.
A two-month extension of shelter operations at the former bingo hall was approved, however, to allow the city some time to find another location for the temporary homeless shelter — possibly in an industrial area.
To do otherwise, said Coun. Michael Dawe, would be to “spread the embers” around, adding more problems in other spots in the city, including the park system, where sleeper camps are already an issue.
Mayor Tara Veer concurred, saying, “If this facility closes in two days… we are right back where we started with the 60 to 80 rough sleeper camps in neighbourhoods and parks. “We will be encountering people who are fearful…”
While she acknowledged two months will be tight timing for city administrators and Safe Harbour to find an appropriate site, Coun. Lawrence Lee believes it’s long enough “to be innovative and creative.”
“Wherever it does land, I hope it’s easily transitioned, has the space, and is the least impact to the community,” he added.
Many councillors vented frustration about why the government is taking so long to deliver a permanent shelter to the city.
While the Alberta government approved $7 million for a permanent homeless shelter for Red Deer in 2019, no location or timeline has yet been approved for this project.
“Nobody is winning at this point” — not homeless, people, social agencies, nor businesses and other Red Deerians — “it’s time for the province to get that message,” said Coun. Ken Johnston. “Red Deer is tired of being a temporary fix.”
After a decade of lobbying for a permanent shelter, waiting for two to three years for one is “unacceptable,” said Coun. Dianne Wyntjes, who suggested sending the letters received from the downtown business community to the province to get them to expedite the homeless shelter they have promised the city.
City administrators had recommended council allow Safe Harbour to keep running the homeless shelter out of the former bingo building for another two to three years, until a permanent facility can be built and opened by the province.
But council did not favour keeping a temporary shelter in the downtown for more than two more months.
City manager Allan Seabrooke had cautioned that community reaction will be the same, regardless of which location is suggested. “Nobody wants this facility anywhere in the city,” said Seabrooke, “but it’s badly needed.”
Without a shelter, more homeless people would end up sleeping in doorways, sidewalks, or the park system. Dozens of rough sleeper camps are already being removed from wooded areas.