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Hackett: Back to the drawing board on homeless shelter


It’s over two years ago now, that the picture was crystal clear.

City of Red Deer administration, after an extensive search that included more than 50 potential sites, found that the current temporary shelter at the former Cannery Row Bingo was the best location for a permanent shelter.

City council, in an attempt to pander to downtown businesses and citizens who feel downtown is crime and drug-ridden because of the unhoused population, decided that path was not one they were willing to travel down.

So here we are, four potential shelter sites later, back to where we started. The city is asking the provincial government for more detailed plans on what a shelter would look like, in order to find a suitable location. Apparently, that question has gone unanswered, which seems mind-boggling this far along in the process.

The province said it is up to the city to find a site, and only then will they find an operator that will draw up plans that will fit into the $7 million budget they’ve committed to the project.

All along, the city should have just left this whole project in the hands of the provincial government and been willing to re-zone whatever land the province asked for. It would have been much easier to wash their hands of this.

Instead, the city is stuck in unenviable limbo. They promised they would provide a solution to this problem, and they’ve struck out so far. For the baseball fans out there, I’d say they struck out looking, watching site after site go by with little progress to show for it.

We also see some fingers being pointed at the previous council, which needs to be nipped in the bud right away because the majority of the council, including the mayor, was part of that past group.

As I’ve written before, a solution to the homelessness situation in downtown Red Deer seems like a problem nobody wants to solve.

Inevitably, it will upset somebody and this council seems disinterested in ruffling the feathers of any group loud enough to speak for themselves (except those who came and spoke loudly and proudly in support of the supervised consumption site and based on the result of the vote to shift the SCS out of town, those pleas politely acknowledged but ultimately ignored).

There is so much political talk and so little consideration for the human beings who rely on the shelter. I can’t bemoan that point enough. These are people who need our support—need our help to get back on their feet—and we continue to play politics with their survival.

Earlier this week, data provided by Alberta Justice and reported by CBC showed that over the past five years, the number of homeless people who die annually in Edmonton has risen dramatically. The numbers show that 37 died in 2019, that number jumped to 302 in 2023. In Calgary, it rose from 51 to 294.

Edmonton’s homeless population jumped significantly during that time, from about 1,390 to 2,868 in 2023. A point in time survey in Calgary counted about 2,782 homeless individuals.

Red Deer’s 2022 point in time survey counted 334 people experiencing homelessness, a 132 per cent increase from 2018.

Data isn’t available about how many have died in Red Deer.

I won’t dive into all the numbers, but I do encourage people to have a look at Red Deer’s 2022 point in time survey.

That data is a scary look into the consequences of not providing some sort of support for the homeless population in our city. They aren’t going to magically disappear without shelter services and the issues people are facing downtown would likely get worse without a shelter.

Some communities across Canada have found innovative solutions.

In Ontario, Peterborough, a city of about 83,000 people, recently completed what it calls a “Modular Bridge Housing Community”.

The initiative is partially funded by a provincial homelessness prevention program. It offers 50 units, which are made from old shipping containers and will cost the city about $21,150 each and be staffed full time.

“The units are furnished with bed frames, bed mattresses, bedding, a mini fridge, shelving, and storage space. Residents will also be supplied with dressers, chairs, laundry baskets, cutlery, night stands and lamps,” a release from the city states.

The project cost the city just over $2.4 million and operating the site is expected to cost about $2 million annually. The city received $2.5 million from the Ontario government over the next two years. The site also has around the clock security.

The project is a two-year pilot intended as a temporary solution to address homelessness in the city.

This, of course, isn’t a perfect solution. It’s not permanent. It raises all kinds of questions. How are the individuals picked, what happens to people who aren’t selected, how long do people stay, does it actually help?

One such community exists in Cambridge, England and was studied by the National Institute of Health in 2023. Cambridge, which has a population similar to Red Deer, set up six self-contained units similar to the Peterborough project. They interviewed the residents selected for the program and came up with interesting findings.

“Based on longitudinal interviews with residents, we found that residents experienced positive outcomes across a variety of dimensions: improvements in drug, alcohol, and money management skills, readiness for employment and skills development, improved social relations, a burgeoning sense of community, and a sense of personal safety and security,” the researches wrote in their conclusion.

“However, the future housing trajectories of the residents varied, driven by different motivations that highlighted the need to create room for innovative move-on housing arrangements to cater for individual requirements.”

That doesn’t sound perfect, but it certainly sounds positive.

In the conclusion, they also state:

“We argue that our case study demonstrates that providing people experiencing homelessness with their ‘own front door’ in conjunction with ‘wrap-around’ social services can allow them to readjust to fruitful participation in the wider society, including with their own families, and that this option should therefore be included in the array of temporary accommodation and social services offered to people experiencing homelessness worldwide.”

That sounds like precisely the vision Red Deer has had for a shelter site all along. The city has the right idea, but execution is lacking at this point.

With so many roadblocks and red tape holding up a more permanent solution in Red Deer, it’s time to look outside the box and find a way to help the city’s most vulnerable population.

Byron Hackett is the Managing Editor of the Red Deer Advocate and a Regional Editor with Black Press Media.

Byron Hackett

About the Author: Byron Hackett

Byron has been the sports reporter at the advocate since December of 2016. He likes to spend his time in cold hockey arenas accompanied by luke warm, watered down coffee.
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