The homeless population in the northern Saskatchewan Town of La Ronge was left in limbo as emergency funding ended for short-term winter shelters at the Drifter’s Motel and the Lac La Ronge Indian Band’s Kitsaki Hall.
The Scattered Site Outreach Program, which provides meals and addictions counselling for the community’s vulnerable, also closed its doors on Wednesday.
“Today was a shock. It was a shock to the system. And now I'm trying to figure out what the plan is. We have our vulnerable people sleeping outside and there’s still snow on the ground,” La Ronge Mayor Colin Ratushniak said.
“I think that I have an idea and a solution. I just don't have something immediate that we're going to be able to get up within 24 hours. But I think it's something that we can start talking about next week and work on getting something into place — hopefully, quite quick.”
Both the shelter and outreach programs are run by former La Ronge Mayor Ron Woytowich in his capacity as executive director at the Kikinahk Friendship Centre.
He said things were running along smoothly until funding didn’t materialize. Now he says his clients, who were doing well, are without any kind of help.
“With the motels they had a really nice place to sleep. They just wanted a warm place to be — a place to take a shower and clean up and eat well — but now that's gone, too,” Woytowich said.
“I was the chair of the health region for a long time and I would not want to be working in emergency right now. These people are going to show up there.”
The Saskatchewan Health Authority funds Scattered Site for addictions and mental health support and referrals in the community. It’s been that way since 2017 when the previous 12 health regions were amalgamated into one network.
“I had a phone call with health and it's not the local people anymore. They always funded us and we just made the deal among ourselves. But since the province took over and amalgamated all the health regions, it's people in Regina making those decisions,” Woytowich said.
“These are year-to-year contracts. On March 31 nothing was signed. I'm hoping that funding is renewed. Honestly, I'm hoping it's not permanent.”
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Health said the province is “working with the management at Scattered Site regarding ongoing funding for their program” to “ensure timely payment of funding installments.”
Woytowich said all he needs is for the province to put its intent to fund in writing to get things going at Scattered Site again — but that hasn’t happened.
“All we need is an email from them saying they will fund it again and we'll reopen even though we don't have the contract yet,” Woytowich said.
“But then, of course, it's a long-weekend.”
Woytowich said there are 112 registered clients at Scattered Site — with between 30 and 40 going through the program daily.
He said around 30 people “give or take” were being sheltered between Drifter’s Motel and at Kitsaki Hall. Around 11 jobs will be lost at the shelter and three more at Scattered Site if funding isn’t renewed, he said.
Kikinahk’s shelter program only runs during the winter and depends on separate funding through the federal government — which Woytowich said further complicates things.
The former mayor has long advocated for a year-round shelter that would coexist with Scattered Site.
Those dreams were crushed last year when a group of local business owners petitioned town council not to let Kikinahk buy in the downtown core — arguing it would hurt their bottom line.
Kikinahk continued to rent a space downtown for its outreach program. Last-minute partnerships were made with the Lac La Ronge Indian Band and Drifter’s Motel for short-term shelter space.
But owning a building would have given more stability to both programs as a permanent one-stop-shop for a shelter and outreach program, Woytowich said.
“Everything would have been fine and of course the cost would have gone down because we wouldn't have to pay rent. With a building in place the same department would have funded us in operations,” he said.
“I don't know how to feel. I'm pissed right off.”
Woytowich isn’t just frustrated because of the pushback in La Ronge. He now suspects the provincial government doesn’t want to keep funding the outreach initiative on an annual basis anymore.
Ratushniak said Woytowich should have reached out to keep both programs afloat before it got to this point. The ultimate victims, he said, are the community’s most vulnerable residents.
“Leadership came to Kikinahk and to the board of directors eight weeks ago to make sure that this would not happen.
“We asked what support they needed, we asked for whatever they needed to make sure this did not happen and unfortunately it has — which is very frustrating,” Ratushniak said.
“We had all the players at the table and we wanted to come up with a plan. Now we have to play catch up.”
Ratushniak said there need to be short-term and long-term solutions for the homeless situation in La Ronge. He said the community needs to get away from relying on precarious funding as “a yearly band-aid as it always seems to be.”
“It's a really unfortunate situation. I'm frustrated but at the same time I'm also a solutions-minded person that's not going to dwell on what's happened. We will figure it out. We have meetings lined up back to back next week about this,” Ratushniak said.
“I am behind the scenes making phone calls — making those connections and trying to figure it out — but it doesn't help that we’re going into a long weekend.”
Michael Bramadat-Willcock, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Northern Advocate