Thursday’s Southern Alberta Council on Public Affairs session was a hot topic for discussion with Mike Fox, director of community services for the City of Lethbridge, speaking on homelessness and encampments.
Entitled “Homelessness – A Complex Social Issue”, the session began with Fox talking about the city’s side of the issue and how it tries to work towards solutions.
“It has to be a community response,” said Fox. “It is not just the city, it is everybody. We have to create a collective impact. That includes provincial resources, federal resources, and municipal resources.”
Speaking towards unity, Fox noted the City’s work towards finding solutions.
“This topic affects every department at the City,” said Fox. “Coming from the lens of Community Social Development, a small department at the City of Lethbridge, that tries to work with stakeholders using provincial, federal, and local dollars to try to address the issues and complexities around the vulnerable population.”
On the City’s handling of homeless encampments, Fox noted the Encampment Response Steps found on the City’s website.
“One thing we do try and prevent at the City, and most municipalities across Canada do, is an encampment getting entrenched,” said Fox. “Once a camp is entrenched, some of the vulnerable are preyed on, there is an increase of illegal activity. A lot of times those encampments have to be dispersed. […] The reason why encampments are broken up is if there is an increase in illegal activity, or there starts to be situations where it can be harmful to residents or people in the community.”
On Wednesday, the encampment at the Civic Centre was dispersed along with a fence being put up around the area to prevent access.
“We had to take action,” said Fox. “We do understand that it is going to spread people out. But again, once an encampment becomes entrenched, we have to look after the safety of those in it, but also the safety of residents around the area.”
During the question-and-answer period of the session, Fox felt the heat from the hot seat as many in attendance raised concerns about the after effects of dispersing the encampment.
One woman in attendance asked if the city could look at using vacant space to help towards alternative spaces for them to go.
“Why can’t we use the northside Save-On-Foods that has been sitting there vacant for five years?” she asked.
“There are barriers to some sites that, including the one that was mentioned, are privately owned, and would need to be purchased and renovated. It would have to go through a process to be allowed that, and that would take time,” replied Fox.
“I’m speechless,” said Leanne Michelle Crow Eagle, an attendee at the SACPA session. “There was a lot of questions and no answers. Just excuses or ‘this takes time’.”
Crow Eagle says she was present when the fences were put up, saying homeless people in the area form a community relying on each other for safety, and dispersion only causes more issues with separation.
“What we had in our tent city was a chance to connect with people. When we were getting attacked, we all pulled together to help,” said Crow Eagle. “People come in and are trying to throw things, people drive by at night saying ‘I’m going to burn down tent city’.”
With winter weather coming in, the issue of housing and places to go will continue to rise as temperatures drop.
“We all just came together, to help each other out,” said Crow Eagle. “That’s what a community is supposed to be.”
Ryan Clarke, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Lethbridge Herald