Tents, tarps and other makeshift shelters are taking up much of the space outside the Lethbridge Shelter and Resource Centre, lining fences and other open spaces on either side of the road.
According to Alpha House, which runs the facility, the encampment raises several safety concerns, including medical response for overdoses.
“It’s definitely not safe for the individuals in the camps. It’s not necessarily safe for staff to try to crawl into find somebody who’s been using (drugs),” explained communications manager Shaundra Bruvall.
“We’re seeing 20 to 30 camps at a time, and that’s where you’re getting those safety concerns.”
At the end of May, provincial funding for the organization’s transitional housing expired, Bruvall explained. That facility was able to assist around 30 individuals, but now don’t have that option.
The organization said it doesn’t turn anyone away. Those using tents may be doing so during the day as a place to keep their belongings, while still accessing the shelter’s services.
Global News requested an interview with the City of Lethbridge regarding the encampment and potential take-down efforts, but was told no one was available for interview on Wednesday.
“The City of Lethbridge continues advocate for the resources we know our community needs in the areas of transitional housing, shelter space and permanent housing,” the city said in a statement.
“We are working to come up with collaborative solutions with key stakeholders so we can assist the most vulnerable members of our community.”
The Lethbridge Police Service’s role during encampment removals “is to stand by and keep the peace and deal with any issues of criminality if they arise.”
Bruvall said Alpha House partnered with the city and other organizations for a “compassionate takedown” on June 1, which entails more than just removing the tents.
“Connecting with clients to ensure that they have other options when their camps are being removed, making sure that they’re able to keep all of their belongings,” she said.
Encampment continues to grow, concerning businesses
Despite those efforts, the encampment quickly returned.
“Usually within a couple of days (of a takedown), it’s back. It starts with one or two, then quickly grows,” said Bill Ginther, executive director of the adjacent Lethbridge Soup Kitchen.
“From my experience, it’s at its peak right now.”
The soup kitchen was forced to put up a metal fence around its parking lot after Ginther said their vehicles were vandalized and tents tried to set up right next to the doors.
“Our volunteers felt uncomfortable coming in,” he explained.
For businesses located nearby, the growing encampment has taken a toll.
“In the last two months it’s become a lot worse,” Ron Hall admitted.
Hall, who manages the El Dorado R.V. across from the shelter, said he’s witnessing an increase in concerning behaviour. So far, the RV company hasn’t experienced any vandalism or break-ins, but has had to call the police.
“We’ve seen sexual activity, we’ve seen drug use, we’ve seen people die,” he said. “I’m worried about the wellbeing of my employees.”
“It hurts my business. It also hurts my heart to know that these people don’t have a place to go.”
Long-term solutions needed
When clients are asked by Alpha House staff what services and supports they need, Bruvall said the answer is almost always the same.
“Ultimately it always comes down to: ‘Well, I have no where else to go. I can access the shelter, but a shelter is not a house,'” said Bruvall.
“The solution is a long-term one and we don’t have that right now.”
“We have lost sight of our concern for the poor,” Ginther added. “We allow this to happen. This shouldn’t happen in a city of 100,000 people.”