After a decade of hearing complaints from Red Deer businesses about vagrants and crime in the downtown, Coun. Dianne Wyntjes said she finally hit her “breaking point.”
“It was time,” she said, of Monday’s decision by Red Deer city council to remove the temporary homeless shelter from the city’s core in two months.
“How long are we going to hear these same problems?” added the councillor. “It was time to shift, because what we are doing is not working for business revitalization, for the downtown.”
Coun. Vesna Higham voiced similar frustration: “We’ve reached a critical tipping point,” regarding downtown complaints and what the community can tolerate, she said.
“We need a different approach that can both address the needs of our vulnerable population and (create) an inviting atmosphere in the downtown for both business and the public to enjoy,” Higham added.
Coun. Michael Dawe noted that not one person supported the shelter staying at the temporary location in the former Cannery Row Bingo building at Monday’s public hearing. “There wasn’t a single email, letter or phone call… and not a single person spoke to have it remain…”
Regardless of the lack of vocal support for the shelter at the hearing, city councillors know their decision on a polarizing issue will be unpopular with many Red Deerians.
Critical comments — including some accusing council of a lack of compassion — have already been posted on social media.
“It will be a problem no matter what neighborhood any shelter is in,” commented Darren Rice on Advocate’s Facebook page. “Why would we keep spending (money) to relocate a temporary shelter? (It’s now) close to amenities used by homeless people. Keep it where it is and use the (dollars) to come up with a permanent solution.”
“I can’t imagine that moving (the shelter) to a location that is, perhaps, inaccessible to the people who most need it, is going to help things at all,” wrote Matt Gould.
An emotional Wyntjes stressed she sympathizes with shelter clients.
In fact she and several other councillors were openly critical at Monday city council meeting of the provincial government delaying the building of a permanent 24/7 homeless shelter that was first promised to the city in 2019 but might not be completed until 2023-24.
But she also agrees with Mayor Tara Veer, who said on Monday that a small portion of the homeless population is causing a lot of crime and problems in the city — and these criminals should not be dealt a “slap on the wrist” by the courts.
While jail sentences lie outside municipal jurisdiction, Wyntjes said city council is responsible for acting on chronic downtown problems.
Safe Harbour has two months to find another shelter location, and councillors don’t want to be “prescriptive” about which areas of the city to explore. “The urban core is not an option,” said Coun. Lawrence Lee. But he noted homeless people must retain access to rehab and other services.
Several other councillors suggested the shelter be relocated to an industrial area and clients be bused to services, as is done at Calgary’s Mustard Seed shelter. Perhaps some social service agencies will move closer to wherever the shelter is relocated, suggested Wyntjes.
Dawe believes nearby businesses will always object to having a homeless shelter in their area.
“I don’t know that any solution will be perfect,” said Coun. Tanya Handley. “But what we are doing isn’t working for the surrounding downtown businesses, and are dealing with drugs, vandalism to property, so we have to be willing to try something else.”
Kath Hoffman, executive-director of Safe Harbour, said her board needs a few days to consider the implications of city council’s unexpected decision, and that she will reserve comment for now.