Red Deer city councillors went in a new direction on Wednesday by unanimously deciding to consider allowing the temporary homeless shelter to continue at Cannery Row for two more years — until a permanent shelter is built.
Following a report on the housing and homelessness crisis Red Deer is facing, council will take the next steps to implementing a diversion plan and securing a temporary solution while the permanent emergency housing site is being built.
This is a reversal of council’s previous motion, made last June, that instructed city administration to look at purchasing a site outside the downtown for the temporary shelter.
The reason for the change was Wednesday’s report from administration that clearly indicated no other viable site options were available. The city’s safe and healthy communities manager Kristin Walsh told council on Wednesday that over 50 sites had been explored for lease options and only one property owner was willing to rent to the shelter — the owner of Cannery Row.
Additional sites were explored for purchase, with the help of a commercial realtor, and none were deemed suitable for a shelter without needing extensive renovations. Walsh said the total cost would be $2-$4 million with a lag time for construction that would leave the city’s homeless population without a shelter for many months.
A gap in service delivery would leave homeless clients out in the cold — literally. The temporary shelter is only allowed to operate at the downtown Cannery Row site while the city’s state-of-emergency due to COVID is in place. That’s slated to end in mid-February if it’s not lifted before, added Walsh.
Most councillors expressed their frustration at reaching this impasse. Coun. Cindy Jefferies summarized the sentiment by saying, “our capacity and resources would be better spent working on permanent shelter solution.”
Coun. Vesna Higham, agreed saying “We’re up against a wall” and there’s no point in council continuing to “hit its head” when it’s obvious that a timely, viable new temporary site is a no-go.
Coun. Bruce Buruma acknowledged some people who have complained about loitering, littering and disturbances in the downtown will no doubt be disappointed in council’s new direction. “Some individuals might not see it that way, but we’re doing the right thing in moving forward,” in light of a lack of other options, he added.
Coun. Kraymer Barnstable called it a lose-lose situation that shows “we need to act quickly on (getting) a permanent shelter built.”
Council already started discussing potential locations for a permanent shelter in a closed meeting on Wednesday.
Mayor Ken Johnston later said he hopes to pin down a proposed site by mid-January, have a public hearing on it, and move towards construction by mid-March — if possible. But it was noted that scheduling and financing is largely out of council’s control, since the permanent shelter is a provincial government project.
Coun. Victor Doerksen said he wouldn’t support extending the temporary shelter location at Cannery Row for any more than two years as there’s a need to “act quickly to get the permanent shelter built…Everyone’s at a loss right now…”
At council’s Dec. 6 meeting, administration will bring back a motion to extend the shelter’s operation at Cannery Row for two years, and also develop a plan to divert more people who are on the brink of homelessness into provisional housing options so they don’t end up at the shelter.
If this passes a first reading, a public hearing will be held in January.
The city’s general-manager of community services, Sarah Tittemore, said the city would work with the shelter operator — Safe Harbour — and businesses on mitigating negative impacts on the downtown, while Coun. Dianne Wyntjes urged Safe Harbour staff to fix things, like the boarded-up Cannery Row shelter door, to help make some positive difference.
Mayor Johnston stressed it will take the whole community to reinvigorate the city’s core. “This is not a downtown issue, this is a Red Deer issue,” he said, urging people to shop, eat and bring the family downtown to check out holiday lights and the Ross Street Patio, which is open for the winter.
“It’s an extremely attractive shopping space and resting space.”