Advocates for those who are homeless in Regina are calling on the municipal and provincial governments to declare a state of emergency and public health crisis because of homelessness and addiction in the city.
As winter draws nearer, they're preparing to erect what's being called a "tent city" at Pepsi Park, in Regina's Heritage neighbourhood, that could operate as a temporary shelter for people experiencing homelessness.
The first shelter — a small blue-and-grey tent — went up on Friday afternoon.
"Hopefully, this is the start of something better for our people on the street," said Shylo Stevenson, a communications officer for Regina Needle Recovery and Community Support.
His non-profit outreach group is asking the city, the province and the Saskatchewan Health Authority to declare a state of emergency and public health crisis in response to the increasing pressures of homelessness and addictions on people.
It's not currently known just how many people are experiencing homelessness in the city. A count is planned for this fall.
A 2015 count found there were 232 homeless people in Regina, while a 2018 count put the number at 286.
City of Regina Coun. Andrew Stevens (Ward 3) said he's prepared to put forward a motion to declare a state of emergency, with a list of supports that people need, but hopes the city can find solutions without involving council.
Stevenson said the needle recovery organization and other groups came to a verbal agreement with the city that tents in the park wouldn't be torn down, as happened this past summer in Toronto, when police cleared an encampment and arrested 26 people.
But Regina's tent city remains a work in progress that, so far, hasn't been given simple necessities, advocates say.
In an email to Mayor Sandra Masters and several city officials, the chair of Carmichael Outreach's board asked if the city can be counted on to "help provide the basic human dignities of a washroom."
"I cannot in good conscience send folks to a place without a washroom and the basic human dignities that cleanliness affords. Never. Let alone in the midst of a pandemic," board chair Alysia Johnson wrote.
"These are people, not dogs going to a dog park."
Johnson's email said she's been waiting for a response for three weeks.
In a separate email, she asked for funding to rent large event-style tents, fencing for security, industrial heaters, portable toilets, garbage cans and disposal boxes for needles.
The requests were aimed at providing "safety, service and dignity to those who will make this space a temporary place of refuge," she wrote.
CBC News contacted the City of Regina for a response to Johnson's emails.
"Before we respond publicly to letters sent to city officials, we first strive to respond directly to the individuals or organizations who have contacted us in writing," a city spokesperson said.
CBC also contacted the government of Saskatchewan and Saskatchewan Health Authority for comment but has not yet received a response.
'No place to go'
In an interview with CBC Radio's The Morning Edition, Stevenson told host Stefani Langenegger there's no room for people in shelters right now.
Some shelters are closed for pandemic-related reasons and others are accepting fewer people, leaving "no place to go" for those who are homeless, Stevenson said.
He said he knows of a new shelter in the works, but it won't open in the near future.
Regina Needle Recovery said it contacted the City of Regina in July about creating a winter weather strategy, similar to what is now being implemented. The idea came from observations in Vancouver of a similar tent setup.
But Stevenson said he only heard back on that request a couple of weeks ago, when they were given the go-ahead along with Carmichael Outreach to facilitate, he said.
While it will be located near support services like a methadone pharmacy and a John Howard Society location, the tent city is only a "Band-Aid" solution.
"We expect our people to sleep in a tent in –40 C, –50 C weather and hope they make it. And it's a matter of when, not if, someone passes away from the elements from being homeless," Stevenson said.
"It's sad and unfortunate that we're putting our people through this when a lot of … our pets get more respect and more value than a lot of our people battling addiction, battling homelessness and trying to get on their feet," he said.
In a letter posted to its Facebook page, Regina Needle Recovery expressed disappointment with the city for not providing a facility to house some of the city's most vulnerable.
It also said that there's been a dramatic uptick in homelessness as a result of the provincial government implementing the Saskatchewan Income Support program in place of previous support programs — something advocates predicted in 2019.
A systemic problem
Stevenson said under the newer income support program, which replaced the Saskatchewan Assistance Program and the Transitional Employment Allowance, money is given directly to people to pay their bills.
It's less than what was supplied with the previous programs, Stevenson said.
The previous assistance program also provided the money directly to landlords, eliminating the possibility that people battling addiction would spend the money elsewhere.
According to the Saskatchewan Landlord Association, 31 per cent of tenants who use income support didn't pay their rent for the month of September.
"People were struggling already with the … [Saskatchewan Assistance] Program from social services, and then they go and change the programs and reduce the amount that a person does receive," Stevenson said.