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Tension in Wetaskiwin rises after homeless encampment sets up at local food bank

Homeless encampment sets up at a Wetaskiwin food bank after eviction from local shelter.
Tents set up outside of Rock Soup Greenhouse and Food Bank following the closure of the local shelter. Shaela Dansereau.

An encampment for the homeless has sprung up on the property of Rock Soup Greenhouse and Food Bank in Wetaskiwin Alta., following the eviction of all clients of the 24/7 shelter that has been located in Wetaskiwin’s Civic Building since November 2020.

Following months of contention among community members, businesses and city officials, City of Wetaskiwin council voted to revoke the Open Door Association 24/7 Integrated Response Hub’s lease for the civic building in May 2021. All clients of the hub were to vacate the premise by Aug. 10.

On that day, the city terminated its Local State of Emergency, under which it was able to utilize any building or facility for a shelter.

With no plan B, and nowhere else to go, many people found themselves on the street again. Some clients of the hub knew that during this difficult transition, they wouldn’t be turned away by executive director of Rock Soup, Craig Haavaldsen.

“Once people started showing up, they knew we would just take care of them,” said Haavaldsen. “Within two hours we had about 25 people, and the volunteers and I set up an encampment.”

Haavaldsen said approximately 35 tents are pitched beside Rock Soup, with 45 campers, and the food bank has been providing three meals daily since the hub’s closure.

“This isn’t something we asked for,” said Haavaldsen. “I didn’t choose to close the shelter, but we know that we can’t turn people away. And that’s the whole thing with Rock Soup, is if people become hungry it’s the community that’s supposed to come around them and support them, so that’s what we’ve done here.

“But it’s unsustainable. We’re burnt out. My staff are being verbally accosted every half hour, people are having racial slurs hurled at them, individuals are coming and demanding the addresses of my volunteers so they can come and harass them at their houses.”

The violence among those who oppose the hub and encampment in the community is rising, including some even transitioning from verbal to physical assault and harassment of volunteers. Haavaldsen himself was hit by a truck of an unhappy community member in the Rock Soup parking lot.

Barricades had to be erected at both entrances of the parking lot and volunteers stationed as parking lot monitors to act as another line of protection for both the food bank volunteers and those in the encampment.

When expressing their fear for volunteer and camper safety Rock Soup volunteer, Magpie, broke down in tears.

“People will drive by and record people like animals in a zoo,” said Magpie. “It breaks my heart.”

“We have gotten death threats as volunteers – for helping the homeless, which is what as a community we should be doing. But it feels like Wetaskiwin only sees their community as far as their property line goes.”

On Aug. 11, the city provided an update on the situation, stating that a stop work order has been issued for the encampment as it is not permissible under commercial zoning in which Rock Soup is currently zoned, and that they are providing a seven-day window for compliance.

City of Wetaskiwin Mayor Gandam stated, “With the recent closure of the Hub in the Wetaskiwin civic building, Rock Soup has invited those experiencing homelessness to set up camp on their property. The property is not zoned or appropriate for a shelter or campground, and the city has issued a stop order to have the tents removed. Rock Soup was given seven days to remove the tents (from Thursday, Aug. 12).”

“Furthermore, tents were also set up on a property adjacent to Rock Soup’s, which was done without permission from that property owner. An order was issued by the city to vacate the property, and was delivered by the RCMP. It was refused.”

“This refusal makes this already tough situation more challenging when we’re met with non-compliance and disregard for other people in the community. It’s also frustrating that the Rock Soup is condoning trespassing on the adjacent property while they have signs set up asking people not to trespass on their property.”

On Monday, Aug. 16, here will be an open mic session at the regular council meeting, where local residents or business representatives have five minutes to address council on any topic, as long as it is not already on the regular council agenda. Many of the Rock Soup volunteers say they will be in attendance.

“This is something that is going to take the entire community to help resolve,” says Gandam.

“There is a very clear divide right now that will only get worse if we can’t work together. Understanding, compassion, and open dialogue are all crucial right now.”

Those wishing to participate in the open mic session must register with the city’s legislative executive assistant by noon Monday.

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Rock Soup volunteers sit at the entrance of the food bank monitoring vehicles coming in. Shaela Dansereau/ Pipestone Flyer.
Indigenous Coordinator at Rock Soup, Floyd Baptiste, says he felt it was important the the food bank help those who have recently transitioned back into homelessness. Shaela Dansereau/ Pipestone Flyer.
Residents of the homeless encampment sit behind Rock Soup and share in conversation. Shaela Dansereau/ Pipestone Flyer.
Executive Director of Rock Soup Greenhouse and Food Bank, Craig Haavaldsen.
Rock Soup has set up barricades at both entrances/ exits to the food bank to monitor who is coming in and out of the parking lot. Shaela Dansereau/ Pipestone Flyer.