Council decision has Red Deer's homeless shelter scrambling to find a new home

·5 min read
Red Deer's temporary homeless shelter is surrounded by fencing that keeps it separated from adjacent properties.  (Heather Marcoux/CBC News  - image credit)
Red Deer's temporary homeless shelter is surrounded by fencing that keeps it separated from adjacent properties. (Heather Marcoux/CBC News - image credit)

CBC Edmonton and CBC Calgary have teamed up to launch a pop-up Red Deer bureau to help us tell your stories from central Alberta. Reporter Heather Marcoux will bring you the news from Red Deer and the surrounding area. Story ideas and tips can be sent to heather.marcoux@cbc.ca.

The temporary homeless shelter in Red Deer has to move within two months. A permanent shelter is still years away.

And now, the community does not know where unhoused people will find shelter this summer.

Last week, Red Deer city council decided against giving Safe Harbour, the organization that runs the shelter, an extension that would allow it to keep operating in the former Cannery Row building downtown.

If a new home for the shelter isn't found soon, Mayor Tara Veer is worried the city could see more rough sleeping encampments pop up.

Safe Harbour currently serves 100 to 120 people per day through drop-in services, and shelters 50 to 60 sleepers at night.

A person walks on the Red Deer street that separates Turning Point's overdose prevention trailer, right, and Safe Harbour's temporary shelter in the former Cannery Row building.
A person walks on the Red Deer street that separates Turning Point's overdose prevention trailer, right, and Safe Harbour's temporary shelter in the former Cannery Row building. (Heather Marcoux/CBC News )

The current building is directly across the street from Red Deer's overdose prevention site, which is operated by the non-profit Turning Point Society. The shelter's downtown location made it easy for shelter users to access both services, as well as the downtown soup kitchen and street clinic.

But it's also close to many downtown businesses, a proximity that isn't entirely welcomed.

Council reviewed many complaints from business owners about debris, crime and the behaviour of shelter users before deciding to give the shelter just two more months in the current location.

Service providers worried

In a statement sent to media late Sunday night, Kath Hoffman, Safe Harbour's executive director, said the organization has been helping to build a safe and healthy community for the past 19 years.

"The overwhelming complex health needs of the people we serve, combined with the continual temporary facilities we've had to operate from, challenge us tremendously," Hoffman said.

According to Hoffman, a lack of areas zoned for this type of purpose in Red Deer means that while council gave Safe Harbour two months to find a location, in a practical sense the organization needs to find a new spot in two weeks. That's because the zoning process typically takes about six weeks. Safe Harbour is currently trying to identify locations that may work, and plans to present these findings to the city as soon as possible.

Council's decision is also being felt over at Turning Point, said executive director Stacey Carmichael.

"Nobody would have ever expected this. Honestly," said Carmichael.

Carmichael said Turning Point, which works with addicted and unhoused people in Red Deer, is Safe Harbour's closest partner organization in the community.

She is worried about what the closure of the temporary shelter will mean for her clients and for Red Deer's downtown.

"I understand there are issues — but I'm not sure this was a good solution," she said.

"For example, to take away one of the only bathrooms that these folks have access to in the downtown as a solution to public defecation — that kind of summarizes all the decision-making in this and how unusual it is."

Years of advocacy, years of frustration

According to Red Deer's mayor, the city has an ethical obligation to look after its most vulnerable citizens but that needs to be done in a responsible manner that doesn't impact the wider community.

"Given some of the frustrations of the downtown business community, we are trying to find the right solution for our community," said Veer.

She has been lobbying throughout her almost eight years as mayor for provincial support for a permanent homeless shelter.

"It's not a surprise that the public is frustrated and that service providers are frustrated and that the vulnerable themselves are frustrated," she said, "because here we are, years later."

Veer said the Alberta government provided a grant of $7 million for a permanent, integrated homeless shelter in Red Deer.

That project was first announced two years ago but it is still in the planning stages and there has never been an announcement of where it would be located.

"After a year of working with the City of Red Deer regarding the integrated emergency shelter project, we are assessing the recent decision by city council to not renew the temporary emergency shelter operations at the former Cannery Row bingo site," said Natalie Tomczak, press secretary to Josephine Pon, minister of seniors and housing, in an email.

"We will continue to plan and work with community partners and the City to address the urgent need for a larger, more functional space to meet the increased demand."

Veer says the city has not yet submitted specific location options to the province but noted that ultimately, the province will determine the location of the permanent homeless shelter.

City officials have repeatedly pressed the provincial government to provide more specifics, including which agencies are being considered as potential service providers.

She'd like to see shovels in the ground this year.

"There is significant consequences in the community of having temporary Band-Aid solutions to very complex social problems and challenges," she said.

Location issues

Carmichael said it makes sense to keep the shelter downtown, where clients are already accessing several services.

Brandon Bouchard owns Tribe, a restaurant in downtown Red Deer. He said that while downtown Red Deer isn't perfect, it is a safe, welcoming and vibrant community — even with the shelter.

"Like any downtown in any city in Canada, there's going to be a homeless population," he said.

"Whether the location is two miles from here or two blocks from here, I don't know what the difference will be. And I guess only time will tell."