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‘We can do better’: some residents question handling of homeless encampments

Billy is a Lethbridge resident with no home who spends a lot of time at the Lethbridge Stabilization Centre and Shelter. “I try not to as much as possible — It’s kind of a depressing place to be,” he said. “The way the place is run, I don’t really like.”

After at least two encampments of unhoused people were torn down over the course of a week, he and some other residents are questioning why personal belongings are being what he believes is mishandled, and their owners, mistreated by the City of Lethbridge and Lethbridge Police Services (LPS).

He said police went to every tent on April 29, threatening fines starting at $600 and saying they would throw away people’s belongings if they did not leave. On May 2, workers and officers were back with the same routine, dragging tents and belongings into a garbage disposal truck.

“I don’t think that’s right anyways but I figure it’s better to camp down here than anywhere else in the city, at least we are not bothering anybody down here,” Billy said.

A video of city workers cleaning up the encampment posted on social media caught the attention of a Lethbridge resident named Psy, who took to protesting alone on April 30. He stood on the sidewalk off Stafford Drive, handing out water and chatting with people coming and going from the shelter, holding a sign that read, “destroying tent towns is abuse and theft! These actions traumatize homeless people. We can do better.” 

“There’s lots of reasons why LPS may remove an encampment,” said Mike Fox, director of community services for the City of Lethbridge. “We are working currently with all of our stakeholders… we are working on improving that encampment process and we are hoping to have that in place within the next few months. To have clear communication to the public and also to everyone around how the City of Lethbridge will deal with encampments.”

Psy said he would like Lethbridge residents to be aware of how the city treats unhoused people, adding he wanted to use his voice to speak for those who may not be able to speak up for themselves.

“I would just like to shout out a message of solidarity between all the people of this city to, rather than try and displace one another and further harm and traumatize one another, to maybe lift one another up and help each other so that we can all achieve a better potential,” he said.

A Lethbridge resident, Psy, protests city actions outside a path leading to the Lethbridge homeless shelter on April 30. (Photo by Tyler Hay/My Lethbridge Now)

Alpha House, the organization that runs the Lethbridge Stabilization Centre and Shelter, issued a statement via Twitter on May 3. “There are significant dangers associated with large groupings of encampments concentrated in a single space and we share the safety concerns of Lethbridge Police and the City of Lethbridge for those in camps and the community as a whole.”

The organizations said though reducing displacement is important for working with individuals experiencing homelessness, encampments can reduce staff’s ability to respond to emergencies.

“We support a long-term solution to encampments and we know a large part of the answer is housing. We believe the back and forth of encampments set-up and removal will continue until we, as a community, address the lack of supportive housing options in the city,” the statement said.

Fox said the city periodically removes campers from the boulevard outside the shelter and said the encampment became more of an issue when the overdose prevention site (OPS), run by Alberta Health Services (AHS) opened. He said the proximity of the Lethbridge Soup Kitchen, shelter and OHS make it a place people tend to gather.

“Every municipality across Canada and the United States is dealing with (issues around homelessness) and it’s because there is no easy solution to it,” Fox said. “Can we be better at what we do? Of course, the city strives for continuous improvement and that starts with helping our employees understand things from different people’s point of view and can we work on that? Definitely, we have a responsibility to all residents of the city and we are working to improve that at all times.”

City of Lethbridge employees, accompanied members of the Lethbridge Police Services, clean an encampment of unhoused people on May 2. (Photo by Tyler Hay/My Lethbridge Now)

Fox said the city works with stakeholders, including social service providers and the federal and provincial government to work on more permanent solutions to homelessness.

“We also try to talk to people with lived experience — sometimes it can’t be somebody that’s currently living with mental health and addiction, where sometimes there isn’t a capacity to be able to speak for themselves, so we rely on that advocacy groups and other organizations to speak for them,” he said.

Fox noted the city has shelter capacity, but a big issue is places or people to safely store their belongings while accessing services. He added the city is working with stakeholders and the province on a solution for this.

“It’s not as simple as just saying just let people set up a tent and open up a campground or something like that,” he said. “There are other issues that are more complex that we have to work through and that’s where the city needs the province to be here, we need the federal government, we need other non-profits there and to work through a collective impact approach to make sure that we are giving dignity and time to everybody.”

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