Safe Harbour’s temporary homeless shelter can operate at its downtown Cannery Row location only until Sept. 30 — with Red Deer city council setting new conditions for security and fencing.
Mayor Tara Veer suggested the four-month timeframe after the majority of councillors appeared ready to oppose an administrative recommendation to allow the temporary shelter to run in that downtown location for another year.
A frustrated Coun. Dianne Wyntjes said some kind of change is needed when business owners say they have lost trust in the city responding to their repeated concerns about vandalism, break-ins and strewn refuse.
While the administrative recommendation called for increased security and garbage pick up, most councillors were skeptical this would solve all the problems. “When will downtown revitalization be recognized? Why do we keep doing the same things and expect to see different results?” Wyntjes questioned. “Will a year’s extension bring change?”
Without the four-month extension at Cannery Row, Veer said the temporary shelter would have to close at the end of the month and this would create dire “unintended consequences” — leaving dozens of homeless people sleeping in doorways and lobbies, or in wooded areas, making park trails feel unsafe.
Granting a four-month extension would allow Safe Harbour’s clients to “get through COVID” at the temporary site, said the mayor, who hoped the physical distancing requirements that necessitated a larger temporary shelter at the start of the pandemic will be lifted by then.
It would also give city administrators time to return to council in June with alternative interim sites for the shelter until a permanent structure can be built in two to three years.
Council spent most of Wednesday debating the shelter’s location after listening to exhaustive testimony at Tuesday’s public hearing from business owners describing their battles against garbage, vandalism, threats and other negative behaviour from some shelter clients. They said these were turning away customers and driving merchants out of the downtown.
Council also heard from medical officials and social service agency managers who spoke about the complexities of dealing with Red Deer’s vulnerable population, and the need to have a inclusive, accessible shelter that effectively saves lives.
All participating councillors (Coun. Michael Dawe was absent from Wednesday’s discussion) expressed concern and compassion for the homeless population. But they said they also felt for downtown businesses and residents who felt “defeated” by the ongoing social disorder.
Coun. Tanya Handley said one group’s needs shouldn’t be allowed to infringe on other people’s ability to make a living or enjoy the city’s downtown.
She and Coun. Vesna Higham were mostly bothered by “the lack of accountability” by shelter clients. If they are unable to take charge of their behaviour, then the shelter operator should be held responsible, said Handley.
“We cannot condone a scorched earth approach that disregards what’s best for our community,” added Higham.
Coun. Ken Johnston favoured “getting a community dialogue going.” Among the things council approved on Wednesday was $41,000 out of city funds to pay for night-time security at the temporary shelter site for the next four months, as well as a part-time community liaison position to help mediate public concerns. The funds would also cover revenue the city will lose by waiving business licence fees for 2022 for all Railyards businesses in acknowledgement of their difficulties.
The shelter must also expand its fencing to provide some visual screening. And Coun. Lawrence Lee pushed for stepping up cleaning efforts for the area surrounding the temporary shelter.
Council was previously told city administrators surveyed more 80 local properties and found no other landlord willing to lease property for shelter services — other than the owner of the Cannery Row site.
General-manager of development Tara Lodewyk said the situation could be different if a site was purchased instead of leased. She said administration will do its best to bring some new options to the council table in June.
It’s uncertain whether Safe Harbour could move all of its clients back to its original shelter site — which is only a block from Cannery Row — if pandemic restrictions are lifted in September. Lodewyk said the trailer that had been used as a daytime warming shelter has been moved off the Safe Harbour site, so that would no longer be available.
She stressed that getting the $7 million permanent shelter that’s been promised by the province is urgently needed — preferably sooner than in two to three years time.