Saskatchewan's Opposition NDP and homelessness advocates convened at Pepsi Park in Regina's Heritage neighbourhood on Tuesday to call on the province to address what many are calling a housing crisis brought on by changes in government programs.
They said homelessness is on the rise in Regina. As of noon on Tuesday, there were six tents in Pepsi Park, and 12 people slept in tents there on Monday night. That number fluctuates, according to advocates.
The cluster of tents is being called Camp Marjorie, named after a homeless Regina woman who died last Wednesday. Advocates say the campsite is there to provide the vulnerable with a temporary home, safety and food.
The new Saskatchewan Income Support (SIS) program, which recently came into effect, is being called the cause of the rise in homelessness.
Housing money is now given directly to people in the program, rather than going straight to their landlords. Anti-poverty advocates and landlords say the change has led to unpaid rent and evictions.
SIS also provides less money than the programs it replaced. Some people who rely on the benefits say their income has been cut in half, and that they can't afford food and shelter.
On Tuesday the Official Opposition called on the province to suspend the SIS program. They want social services to reinstate direct payments of rent to landlords, and to work on a comprehensive housing strategy.
"The fact that this government would cut benefits to the most vulnerable while everyone is still struggling with the economic effects of this pandemic is what's keeping families in the cycle of poverty," said Meara Conway, Official Opposition critic for social services, housing and human rights.
"We're one month into the full implementation of this program, and already one-third of those on the program are at risk of eviction."
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.
A temporary fix
Gavin Siggelkow, an advocate for the homeless who has been volunteering at Camp Marjorie, said there are many reasons for homelessness, but that people are suffering.
"There's too many houses that are boarded up with nobody renting them," said Siggelkow.
"People are irresponsible, they have to be held accountable as well, yes. But when landlords are boarding up houses, it's cheaper for them to be empty than have people living in them."
Siggelkow noted that it will soon get very cold.
"We need to have some answers. I think people will freeze to death over the wintertime."
Doreen Lloyd, housing support supervisor for Carmichael Outreach, said shelters are either full, or difficult for people without any money or photo I.D. to get into.
"We have people stopping by on a daily basis that are in a crisis situation. And so at the end of the day, the housing team is really frustrated and it breaks our hearts when we have no place to put somebody at 5 p.m.," said Lloyd.
In the meantime, Heritage neighbourhood resident Lorna Evans said she doesn't feel safe with more people congregating at the site in Pepsi Park.
"It's not safe to come out here anymore. Yesterday morning and the morning before, as I came for my walk, there's a man dropping his pants and defecating on the grass in the park," Evans said.
As temperatures plummet, advocates are trying to ensure there's a generator for warmth and tarps for use at Pepsi Park. A porta-potty was delivered to the campsite Tuesday afternoon.
Evans said she worries that these amenities will enable homeless people to stay in the park tents longer.
Advocates and the NDP say Camp Marjorie is a temporary fix, and that it's up to the provincial government to get people into warm shelters as soon as possible.