City of Lethbridge crews, along with members of the Lethbridge Police Service (LPS), have again displaced members of the unhoused population who were camping outside the Lethbridge Stabilization Centre and Shelter. On the morning of June 1, LPS officers confiscated shopping carts, saying they were stolen property, and told people they had to move.
“Obviously we are all not prepared to go. We have nowhere to go — we have no support,” said Jolene Across The Mountain, who was among the people being removed. “It’s not like we just woke up and decided this is how we are going to live and this is what we are going to do.”
She said the people camping near the shelter need housing and more support. If she had all the money in the world, she said she would open her own housing project and create a team to find the solution to heal addiction and abuse many of the individuals face.
“It’s sad seeing all of this going on — my people that I care about and nobody understands the full story or how far back it goes and what’s been passed on and it’s not fair for other people that don’t know to judge us and to call us down on the streets and to throw things,” she said. “It’s disgusting.”
Shaundra Bruvall, communications manager at Alpha House, the company that runs the stabilization centre and shelter, said though reducing displacement is best for individuals, large encampments pose a safety risk.
“The presence of encampments is a failure of housing policy, not an instance to say shelters should be doing more. It’s not that shelters can’t improve and do things better, but ultimately it is not about making an emergency, temporary shelter better — it’s about supporting people so that they can find stability in housing,” she said.
She said the camp outside the shelter became unsafe for individuals and the community. The shelter wants to give better options to people who are sleeping outside by connecting with them and having them use the space inside or the stabilization program, she said.
“The ultimate goal is housing, as opposed to somebody sleeping rough because maybe they don’t want to stay in the shelter at that time. The ultimate solution is housing and so we would really hope this breeds a conversation about housing,” she said.
The shelter is not lacking capacity, but people choose to stay outside for many reasons, according to Bruvall. “Shelters can be difficult spaces for folks who are maybe anxious in groups or maybe they have a hard time settling, potentially that’s related to mental health challenges or substance use.”
The shelter’s goal is to ensure clients’ safety and Bruvall said many of the people who camp there utilize shelter services also.
“It’s incorrect to assume that we aren’t connected to the folks that are staying in those camps or that they are scared to come inside,” she said. “It’s about trying to understand that maybe if they are not comfortable in the shelter setting, can we access stabilization for them instead?”
Employees at the shelter work to build rapport with the individuals, but Bruvall said it can be challenging when many are used to being let down by community members or social service systems. She said it was important for shelter staff to work with clients at the camp during the cleanup process last week.
“A really important part of that for us was making sure that we could connect with clients on that human level and say, in preparation for this, ‘this is going to happen — the situation has become unsafe, let’s talk about what your options are.’”
For a long-term solution to be reached for people experiencing homelessness in Lethbridge, there must be collaboration between all levels of governments, Bruvall said. Finding a solution is about deciding on priorities and putting funding towards evidence-based solutions, such as supportive housing. “It reduces public spending on other things, like healthcare, like criminal justice, like law enforcement,” she said. “There are definitely interested social service providers who are ready to support those programs.”
Bruvall said Alpha house does not want to point fingers, but rather wants to engage with the community and advocate for clients to find opportunities to collaborate and move things forward.
“We do see it as very likely that this will be a trend that continues until, as a city, we can address the lack of supportive housing availability,” Bruvall said.
Lethbridge Mayor Blaine Hyggen said the biggest challenge with helping people experiencing homelessness in the city is funding.
“We do have a municipal housing strategy… most of it is advocating of course because that funding source does come from other levels of government, but it doesn’t mean that we can’t prepare, have different facilities shovel ready,” he said, adding if the city could also use municipal money to find a solution. “If that is something that the community wants taxation to go towards then that’s something that we as council need to support.”