The debate around homelessness in our downtown core has been going on for years, and in the meantime people on all sides of the issue are being hurt.
We all know that our homeless population, people with addictions and mental illnesses need our help, with safe consumption sites, places where they can practice daily personal hygiene, access to free laundry areas and toilets, food to eat and a place to sleep until they get a permanent home. We have a reasonably good inkling of some of their histories, and we are saddened that many are nothing short of tragedies.
However, we have not put a face to the people included in the phrase ‘downtown business owners’ – all types of retailers, shopkeepers, businesswomen, chiropractors, optometrists, bar keepers, restaurant owners and fitness trainers, to name just a few.
And it is not just the business owners who are affected, but also all the people they hire. They too are included in the faceless many who on their way to and from work are accosted by panhandlers and face filth, nudity, violence and foul language.
I recently witnessed a man grab some merchandise and run out of the nearby store door, hotly followed by three clerks who had to drop everything to try to catch him. When they returned a few minutes later I asked whether they had been successful and was told that they caught up to him but then had to abandon their efforts when he threatened violence. I asked the cashier if this happened often. She looked me straight in the eye and said every day. Would you ever have thought this was part of your son’s or daughter’s job description?
It is not hard to imagine why customers are no longer keen to do their shopping downtown.
There is also a third group of people who are affected by this issue – and that is all of us – we, the taxpayers. The city tax coffers become more and more empty every time a downtown business fails, probably not to be replaced.
I am grateful for city’s many efforts, like increased police presence, the Ross Street patio, daily street cleaning patrols, winter homeless shelters and the like.
But this just cannot go on indefinitely.
We are losing the battle and our business owners are losing hope. An empty downtown would be a major blow to the entire city.
Our provincial governments have promised to provide leadership and funding to address these problems. On Jan. 20 the Red Deer Advocate published that “Nearly a year after Premier Jason Kenney announced $7 million for a 24/7 emergency shelter for Red Deer, little is known about the scope or timelines for this “top priority” project.
“Despite numerous queries from the Advocate, no updates are being provided about how many beds will be created, what kind of day-use space will be built, where the location would be, or when construction is expected to start.”
The provincial government has not announced any steps at all that it has taken to keep its word. And now, given the misfortunes that have recently fallen upon us, I think that the solution to our Red Deer problem is so far down on the government’s To Do list that it will never see the light of day.
So, where does that leave us now?
There is an old proverb to the effect that if you need to count on something being done, you’d better do it yourself. With that I refer you to the wisdom of the Central Alberta Addictions Consortium, which had a stellar membership that published the Red Deer’s Alcohol and Drug Report in 2015.
The summary of the document identified the need for a made-in-Red Deer, community-driven response to this issue.
“In order to begin this work, a vital first step will be working with the City of Red Deer to establish a leadership committee to oversee and initiate detailed discussions among key stakeholders moving forward. Indeed, leadership at all levels will be required to address the community needs outlined in this report. As part of this work, the consortium consulted with community members and service providers in order to get a sense of the issue from a broad community perspective. Through these consultations, we learned that Red Deer is an engaged and caring community that values comprehensive responses to the harms of substance use.
“The need for leadership on this issue was another prominent theme in these consultations, as we seek to support evidence-informed practices and to reduce stigma surrounding this complex community issue. Though there remains a divide between general public awareness and the current science surrounding substance use and related harms, Red Deer has a clear opportunity to engage all stakeholders in this conversation to promote well-rounded and effective local approaches.”
So there you go. We need to do it ourselves, and luckily we have many talented and award winning leaders and volunteers in all of the needed fields right here in Red Deer. We need to select a lead co-ordinator, a major general if you will, to oversee all operations and keep the ball rolling.
We need a detailed vision of the aims of the operation.
Then we need volunteer architects and engineers to translate those visions into a blueprint of the structures required.
Most importantly, we need to call on our skilled and dedicated fundraisers to help enthuse our people, all of us, to make yearly financial contributions to the cause. I know that it can be done because fundraisers are already doing it right here in Red Deer every year.
We can do this if we maintain the will to try.
Donna M. Stinson is a Red Deer resident.