'Monumental concerns': City of Wetaskiwin revokes use of building as homeless shelter

·3 min read
The City of Wetaskiwin's Civic Building has been operated as a homeless shelter, but after concerns of safety voiced by nearby business owners, the city has revoked the use of the building. (Travis McEwan/CBC - image credit)
The City of Wetaskiwin's Civic Building has been operated as a homeless shelter, but after concerns of safety voiced by nearby business owners, the city has revoked the use of the building. (Travis McEwan/CBC - image credit)

Clients and operators of a Wetaskiwin homeless shelter are facing an uncertain future after city council revoked its use of the downtown Civic Building.

Wetaskiwin city council passed a motion Monday to terminate the agreement authorizing Open Door Association to lease the building as a shelter. The organization now has less than 90 days to find a new location.

"It was extremely tough, I think no matter how a person voted on Monday, you saw both sides of it. You saw the safety concerns, that feeling of safety that the businesses and the patrons of our downtown felt," said Mayor Tyler Gandam.

"We also felt and saw the impact of what the hub was doing in terms of the programming available to the vulnerable clientele."

Speakers at the meeting said the shelter's services were linked to six-month reduction in crime and a drop in emergency room visits at the local hospital.

Open Door opened the 24/7 shelter space in November, providing respite for up to 60 people each night. Over the past six months, the Integrated Response Hub offered support programs out of the Civic Building to 250 people.

From the outset, the city-owned building was slated to be a temporary space for the shelter, but the group was under the impression it had more time.

"The Open Door is extremely disappointed and appalled that the city would make a decision like this and that there are some councillors that feel that this is appropriate for clients," said Jessica Hutton, executive director of the Open Door Association.

"Obviously, our stance is that these are humans that are very sick and need a lot of help. And with no place to go, we have monumental concerns about what's going to happen to the population."

Clients worry more issues will arise

James Litzenberger has been staying at the shelter since January.

"I would have died, because I had nowhere to go in the winter. I don't have friends and family that could take me in because of the whole COVID thing," he said.

Litzenberger says people who use the shelter are stigmatized by business owners and the public who feel threatened by their presence.

"If we don't find a new venue, that's just going to put more of us out on the street, more people walking around. There's going to be more public intoxication, because we don't have our little corner back there, and the cops are going to be working harder," he said.

James Litzenberger has been staying at the Integrated Response Hub in Wetaskiwin since January. He's frustrated by the decision to terminate the use of the Civic Building as a shelter.
James Litzenberger has been staying at the Integrated Response Hub in Wetaskiwin since January. He's frustrated by the decision to terminate the use of the Civic Building as a shelter.(Travis McEwan/CBC)

A newly formed task force met last month to address safety concerns related to the shelter and discuss potential alternative locations.

"We have had lots of options that we've been working on, but they definitely are going to either grind to a standstill or not be feasible in the time frame that we now have in the 90 days," Hutton said.

Zoning bylaws, rental space and funding are all barriers in the search for a new shelter location, Hutton says. The City of Wetaskiwin is looking at the cost of using modular units as one potential solution.

"I'm hopeful that while it's not going to be operational in this building now, the programming that the hub brings to the city is going to continue," Gandam said.

"We're going to try to find a better location while we still continue to find support through the province, through the federal government and through the Four Nations of Maskwacis."