Chaos breaks out as Battlefords Agency Tribal Chiefs takes over homeless shelter

·6 min read
Battlefords Agency Tribal Chiefs will be funding and operating the Lighthouse shelter in North Battleford, Sask. until at least Mar. 31, 2022. (Don Somers/CBC - image credit)
Battlefords Agency Tribal Chiefs will be funding and operating the Lighthouse shelter in North Battleford, Sask. until at least Mar. 31, 2022. (Don Somers/CBC - image credit)

The Lighthouse Supported Living homeless shelter in North Battleford is under new management — but the transition has resulted in serious upheaval for its clients.

Battlefords Agency Tribal Chiefs (BATC) has taken over operations as of Oct. 1, allowing the shelter to stay open at least another six months.

Clients have been moved to a hotel on the city's outskirts while their usual home is renovated and cleaned for most of the month.

In a Facebook post, BATC said, "In what was supposed to be a caring and professional transition, it has been nothing short of heartbreaking at every turn" — but added, "this transfer was necessary."

CBC News contacted former manager Judy Armstrong, who said she and the other shelter staff quit after hearing they would likely lose their jobs to BATC staff within the month.

"All we were told is the funding got pulled, and these are the only people that will fund it," she said. "And this is what they want in order for the doors to stay open."

The shelter has struggled to secure stable funding for most of its seven-year history. Over the last six months, it operated mainly on funds provided by Métis Nation - Saskatchewan, a funding arrangement which ended on Sept. 30.

'The place is filthy, absolutely filthy, disgusting. I brought in a contractor into the kitchen and he was just sick.' - BATC Director of Operations Alexis Christensen

Last week, BATC, MN-S, the City of North Battleford and Lighthouse Supported Living jointly announced that BATC would be funding and operating the shelter until at least Mar. 31.

The day after the announcement, Armstrong said she and a few other staff members first heard word most of their jobs weren't guaranteed beyond another week. The rest of the staff, and the clients, heard the news on Sept. 30, she said.

'Uproar' at the shelter

Armstrong said the clients were in an "uproar" because they didn't want the change and new people coming in. She said they talked openly about taking the couch and the TV — and started arguing and fighting.

Armstrong said the lone staff member present at the time went home, called Armstrong to tell her what was happening and said, "I can't do it anymore."

"I just instantly thought, 'Oh God, oh no,'" Armstrong said. "And I called a board member right away and said, 'You need to get over there, there's no staff. Something's going to happen.'"

'These people have been traumatized their entire lives. And now, all we're doing is traumatizing them even more.'
- Former Lighthouse manager Judy Armstrong

BATC director of operations Alexis Christensen said staff keys had been left behind. She said alcohol for a managed alcohol program, as well as confiscated drugs, were missing — and client medication was mixed up.

Christensen said the clients were then moved to the Lone Star Hotel, a day earlier than planned — a plan Armstrong said clients first learned about that evening.

According to Armstrong, the staff member that left the shelter unsupervised has acknowledged that was wrong and is apologetic.

Armstrong said clients, some crying, are now calling her to say they're not happy and want the former staff back.

"These people have been traumatized their entire lives. And now, all we're doing is traumatizing them even more," she said.

"As staff, I feel like I've deserted them. Somebody they trusted, somebody they came to for everything. And they're still coming to me and now I can't help them."

BATC said it moved over 40 clients to the hotel in less than two hours last Thursday evening, and all were met with case management and caring spaces.

The hotel is located about two kilometres from downtown North Battleford, where the shelter is situated, and clients have to cross a major highway and railroad tracks to get there on foot.

BATC said it would be offering shuttles while the clients were at the hotel.

Questions about shelter's condition

Christensen said before the Lighthouse staff walked out, the plan was to keep the manager on for a month and the other staff for a week to help with the transition — and to "assess them, see if there was somebody willing to stay on, who we needed, who we didn't", adding they heard good things about the manager.

Christensen said a lot of the chiefs have community or family members at the shelter and "they did not want it to be the same anymore".

She said the chiefs weren't sure they wanted to keep anyone because they wondered about the facility's condition.

"The place is filthy, absolutely filthy, disgusting," she said. "Like, I brought in a contractor into the kitchen and he was just sick. One of our chiefs had to sit down and cry, it's that bad."

Armstrong said if it wasn't up to code, the shelter would have been shut down.

"No, it's not the cleanest place in town because we were renovating, for one thing," Armstrong said. "So yeah, we did leave a mess."

"And it's a homeless shelter. It's not a clean place. That's reality."

Christensen said the communication between the Lighthouse and BATC was lacking and the relationship "just wasn't strong" — which is why she said BATC had a plan in place, including a full complement of staff, when it realized the shelter wouldn't have funding by Oct. 1.

But without the existing staff, the planned transition period for clients fell through.

"I would just say I'm sorry," Christensen said. "There's nobody here who hasn't cried over this situation. There's nobody here who's not just devastated we couldn't do this better."

Acknowledgement of communication failures

Lighthouse Supported Living board chair Jerome Hepfner said it was unfortunate how things unfolded.

When CBC News asked Hepfner about the communication timeline, he said there were a lot of decisions being made earlier that week.

"Given the complexity of the short time frames, there are some decisions that were made that made it really hard to communicate properly to the staff and the tenants," he said. "And we made the best that we could given the circumstances."

Hepfner said it was the previous weekend that Lighthouse Supported Living heard that BATC was planning to bring in an entire team of its employees to operate the shelter.

When asked what he was told about why BATC wanted its own staff, Hepfner said, "I don't have a good background on that piece of it."

"Communication processes in both directions could have been probably tightened up and improved," he said.

Lighthouse Supported Living, which also operates a shelter in Saskatoon, has agreed to lease the North Battleford shelter to BATC for the next six months.

Hepfner said his organization is determined to work with BATC and the other partners in the Battlefords.

A new name, a new plan

As part of the transition, the shelter has a new name: Miywasin Kikinaw, which is Cree for "a beautiful place."

In a news release, BATC said community programming, outreach, partnerships and a strong strategic plan will improve the lives of the shelter's guests and the day-to-day operations.

"It is our hope to work with clients on a case-by-case basis, while focusing on health, wellness and future transitioning," it said.

Christensen said the hope is to have the clients back in the renovated shelter by Oct. 21.

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