The 24/7 Integrated Response Hub is currently located in the Wetaskiwin Civic Building. Shaela Dansereau/ Pipestone Flyer.

The 24/7 Integrated Response Hub is currently located in the Wetaskiwin Civic Building. Shaela Dansereau/ Pipestone Flyer.

Wetaskiwin business owners concerned over local shelter’s impact downtown

Downtown businesses have had loss of customers, threats, increased property damage and break-ins.

Some Wetaskiwin business owners are airing their concerns about the location of Wetaskiwin’s 24/7 Integrated Response Hub and the negative impact they say it has had on their businesses.

The hub is a 24-hour access location that provides shelter and supportive programming to Wetaskiwin’s vulnerable population.

Owner of Jasper’s Studio, Mark Elder, says that choosing the Wetaskiwin Civic Building to house the shelter for the third year has led to a multitude of issues. While Elder says he agrees that there is a significant need for the services, it is the downtown location that has him concerned.

“Right now when you get gatherings of ten, twenty people outside that building when it’s nice out drinking, doing drugs, threatening people, wandering around downtown in groups asking people for money, jumping in their cars asking them for a ride, hovering in every bank corridor or anywhere there is warmth, that just causes too much issues,” says Elder.

Elder says that he sees the impact of the hub’s location on his business every day.

“I’ve watched the trouble that I’ve had here like confrontations in the alley twice, once at my front door, people on our roof, it’s just an ongoing thing and it only happened once we put that shelter there,” Elder says. “I don’t want to see anybody out in the street especially in this cold, that’s not cool. But there has to be a plan in place and a line drawn.”

Another downtown business owner who asked to remain anonymous agrees with Elder and his concerns regarding the safety of their customers and businesses’ property.

“We come in early and we leave generally when it’s dark and in the morning they don’t all arrive at the same time so they can’t all come in together. But you’ll have a single female or male for that matter having to deal with walking through a group of six people who may already be intoxicated, who want money, want to know whether they can come into the building and stay warm, or when they’re leaving they’re encountering the same instances,” they said.

Customers have also expressed concerns and both say it is directly impacting business.

“We’ve had some of our senior members call us and they just don’t feel safe enough to come down anymore and do their business with us,” the business owner continued. “We are enabling a group to dictate how our businesses are being run, whether our staff feels safe, whether our customers or members or anyone else coming into the building feel safe and to the point where if they are not, now they are not coming.”

Wetaskiwin Mayor Tyler Gandam says that the issues he’s hearing regarding the hub aren’t new. “I know that the hub and its location is not ideal at all and we are absolutely working on trying to get it moved as quickly as possible.

“While it may seem that because the hub isn’t closing, because the shelter isn’t closing, that council or the city isn’t listening to the issues, we are. We know that there are issues but we have been having those issues in our city forever. We can’t stop now and it’s just going to take some community support in order to make it successful. It’s not going to happen overnight.”

The business owner said that the concerns extends beyond their staff and customers to the local homeless people who have told them they feel it is unsafe for them in the hub at this time, with one woman saying she was scared to use the hub because “your shelter here is too dangerous.” She had been a client of the Hub before and had been robbed while inside and feared those who were drunk and high using the Hub.

Although both Elder and the anonymous source have faced numerous issues because of the Hub, they acknowledge that the city and the RCMP have been very supportive of downtown business owners through this and have listened to their concerns.

A Downtown Safety Plan was presented to council on Feb. 8, aimed at finding ways to resolve or reduce some of the issues downtown is facing.

The central focus of the plan includes increased foot patrols by RCMP and Community Peace Officers and the installation of more lighting around the Civic Building in addition to seating areas.

Gandam says increased foot patrols have already shown results with businesses, residents and patrons of downtown saying they feel more comfortable and safe.

The idea for the congregating area for Hub clients is that, “part of what we’ve heard and what the complaints were that Hub clients were hanging out in front of businesses or behind businesses on staircases that if we could have a place for them to congregate in and around the Hub and not in front of the businesses then we take that part of the problem away,” says Gandam.

Elder and Anonymous say that they wish there was more direct communication between downtown businesses and the Hub itself, and that part of the issues stem from a lack of clarity and understanding between both parties.

The Pipestone Flyer reached out to the organizers running the hub multiple times for comment and did not receive a response.

Gandam says that plans for the hub’s move to its permanent location are in motion but are dependent on a few external factors.

“It will just depend on when we are able to get the resources and try to secure that funding from those outside agencies. So from the provincial government, from the federal government and Maskwacis. Once we are able to secure all of that and put a plan together to have the Hub set up in a permanent location, that’s our priority.”

Currently the City is looking at relocating the hub to Atco Trailers that will be placed on a city-owned property west of the Wetaskiwin Pizza Hut.

“It’s going to take some time, we can’t solve an issue that Wetaskiwin’s had forever in a few weeks or a few months,” says Gandam. “We are looking at it in terms of a long-term goal and how we are going to change the issues that we’ve had historically, it’s just going to take some time.”