Wetaskiwin City Council has voted to close its emergency shelter earlier than originally planned after complaints of abuse, threats and assaults.
In November, council approved $65,000 in funding to open an emergency shelter at the civic building this winter. The financial commitment was approved to cover the shelter’s operational costs until March 31.
However, the mayor said the city has received numerous complaints from residents, businesses and other downtown visitors that abuse, threats and assaults have increased since the shelter opened. Shelter staff, volunteers and city staff have received threats from shelter users as well, Tyler Gandam said.
“The shelter was a Band-Aid for the real issue in our community,” Gandam told Global News. “Like many other municipalities, Wetaskiwin is struggling with mental health and addictions.
“Without the opportunity for treatment, shelter guests weren’t getting the help they needed.”
A special council meeting was held on Thursday to address the situation, during which people spoke out both for and against the shelter. Ultimately, the decision was made to close the shelter.
Three councillors voted in favour of shutting down the shelter, while two voted to keep it open. Two councillors were absent from the meeting.
A closure date has not been set, but Gandam said the city will work with the shelter to find a date that works for everyone.
The lead pastor of Lighthouse Church, which has been running the emergency shelter, said he is greatly disappointed with the decision to close the shelter.
“We believe that regardless of an individual’s choice to be sober, go to rehab, or to stay in their addiction, shelter is a human right — particularly when weather can drop to -30 C,” Vinjelu Muyaba said.
“We do not believe that a shelter should be offered only if people are ready to change.”
He said the decision will force the city’s homeless back onto the streets and lead to more disorder.
“The costs for the already heavily taxed citizen will be diverted in various ‘non-visible’ ways to deal with homelessness. Let us not be fooled, homelessness will be dealt with by the RCMP picking up people to prevent them from freezing to death, and by Wetaskiwin Hospital emergency department that will have to deal with an influx of people who simply need a warm place to sleep.”
Muyaba said while he doesn’t condone the violence or assaults, they’re not a result of the shelter.
“They are a result of people with serious dysfunction colliding with a society that doesn’t know how to handle such levels of brokenness,” he said.
“We, as Lighthouse Church, would like to continue joining hands with our community of Wetaskiwin in finding creative ways to ensure that no one in our city sleeps out in the cold.”
The city had a working emergency shelter for three months from February to May 2019. During that time, the city said it experienced a large decrease in the number of calls for service by the RCMP, as well as a drop in the number of hospital visits.
Before that, the city set up livestock shelters in hopes of curbing the homeless problem. In September 2018, the city said the shelters were put up as a place for vulnerable people to get out of the elements.
While the city admitted it was not the final solution, it said homelessness has been a long-standing challenge in Wetaskiwin, with people camping out in bushes and parking lots.
The temporary shelters were met with mixed reviews by local residents. They were destroyed by fire in October 2018.
Council has also asked administration to secure funding for a permanent, full-time shelter that would “offer the support services of counselling for the shelter guests.”
“We will hopefully have support from the provincial government as well as the four bands of Maskwacis,” Gandam said.
“We remain in this together and will continue to find a way forward as a community.”
Wetaskiwin is location about 60 kilometres south of Edmonton.