City of Wetaskiwin council decided by vote at a special meeting Feb. 20 to close its emergency shelter early this year, citing increased threats, assaults, vagrancy and other crime.
The special council meeting also saw a special situation uncommon for municipalities: it was standing room only in council chambers as dozens and dozens of members of the public attended the meeting called specifically to discuss problems stemming from the emergency shelter hosted in the downtown Civic Building, also referred to as old city hall. The emergency shelter’s contract called for its closure at the end of March, 2020.
Mayor Tyler Gandam said he himself has been at the shelter volunteering and saw both positive and negative incidents, and also had the opportunity to see things like threats, arguments and fights. Gandam said he’d heard other complaints as well.
“The shelter has become a flophouse for up to 100 guests,” said Gandam, who added he felt it was unfortunate that a much-needed service was harmed by some bad behaviour. “I’m not giving up, it’s just that the current situation isn’t working.”
The mayor made a motion to close the shelter as soon as possible after conferring with Lighthouse Ministries, the church who runs the shelter under funding from the City of Wetaskiwin.
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Mayor Gandam also noted that last year the city had provincial help in funding the emergency shelter; this year, no funding was received. The city has been solely funding the emergency shelter and it seemed to be a point of contention.
Gandam said last fall he spent quite a bit of time trying to find partners who could help operate the emergency shelter but could find no one. “I had no provincial help,” said Gandam. “I had no help or communication with any of the four bands.”
The mayor said the original purpose of the shelter was to help homeless people in Wetaskiwin when the weather turned bitterly cold, but other problems were coming to the forefront. “It is a mental health and addictions issue. But the shelter is not addressing the problem we have in the city. It’s magnifying it.”
Councilor Kevin Lonsdale agreed with the mayor, noting city staff and shelter volunteers plus the Lighthouse staff all did a great job. However, he said the shelter has contributed to the deterioration of downtown Wetaskiwin.
Lonsdale said he wants to help people in need, including homeless people, but “Some of the homeless are not homeless.” Lonsdale said the people of Wetaskiwin have done their part and need help from other partners.
Councilor Gabrielle Blatz-Morgan said she was brokenhearted and disappointed that the shelter situation had come to this; she said there had been feedback that people didn’t feel safe and the shelter is contributing to that feeling.
Later in the meeting she said she would vote against closing the shelter early.
Councilor Wayne Nielsen, attending the meeting via Skype, agreed with Blazt-Morgan. He said the shelter should be left open until the end of its agreed-upon contract and that closing the shelter was not going to eliminate the issue of crime in Wetaskiwin.
Councilors gave members of the public well over an hour to speak their minds on this issue.
Some volunteers or staff at the shelter spoke, noting most shelter guests are law-abiding and only a few cause trouble.
One lady who spoke described an assault she suffered at her place of employment downtown and was connected to the emergency shelter.
Many commented that the crime problem has been ongoing in Wetaskiwin and will continue regardless of whether the emergency shelter is closed.
Many also commented that emergency shelter guests can sometimes exhibit signs of mental illness or addictions, things the shelter was not intended to address.
A couple people mentioned the recent fire at Manny’s Motel, displacing its residents, had an effect on negative activity at the emergency shelter.
Councilor Dean Billingsley said issues go deeper than just an emergency shelter. “We have a serious mental health and addictions problem in this community,” said the councilor. Billingsley said the shelter isn’t there to solve those problems.
The motion to close the emergency shelter early was passed by a 3 to 2 vote, Gandam, Billingsley and Lonsdale voting in favour, Blatz-Morgan and Nielsen voting against.
Councilors Alan Hilgartner and Joe Branco were absent from the meeting.