The City of Lethbridge is continuing its process of removing encampments and displacing people experiencing homelessness. Residents staying in tents at Civic Centre Park were given a notice they had 24 hours to vacate on Tuesday and city crews, along with police, were on the site Wednesday to enforce the Petty Trespass Act to evict people.
Mike Fox, director of community services for the city, said the encampment posed a safety risk for both residents in it and the general public. A couple people staying at the park said they actually feel safer in a camp with more people, rather than being spread out on the streets.
“Where are we going to go, where is everybody going to go? Nobody has income. Half of the people here don’t have income to live. All we do is try and get a roof over our heads and food in our fridge,” said Margie Spear Chief, who stayed at Civic Centre Park. “I have been on the street for 15 years. I have been trying to find a place. I don’t have references and a lot of racism — I don’t like to say that — but as soon as they see you are an aboriginal person or a native they just say no.” She said people in the camp know and help each other. “We are like a family here and we do feel safe.”
Glenda Day Chief, another resident, said some people prefer to stay in their own tents, rather than at the shelter. “Here we just want to just be left alone. We are peaceful.”
Day Chief stood beside a tent, which people went to to get haircuts in the camp, and said it was to get rid of lice people say they got from the shelter.
“I know in most encampments they have the same issues, they do have bedbugs usually, lice and different things that can happen there. We also do regularly clean up defecation and other types of biohazards from the encampments — where in a shelter there are facilities where people can get clean and also use the washrooms and stuff like that,” Fox said.
Day Chief said people just want a place that is clean and peaceful.
“We cooperate. We respect the city just as much as anybody,” Day Chief said. “Why should we leave? We are not bugging anyone — less people ( are overdosing). If we shut this down there’s going to be a lot more deaths.”
Fox said the shelter has space and people can go there to get services. He added that through outreach workers at encampments, an estimated 14 people got put into housing programs in the last week. City council allocated $230,000 to what it calls “compassionate cleanups” last month and Fox said the money has allowed the city to continue down that route.
“Nothing really has changed. The city is continuing to do what we have set out to do,” he said. “As we stated several months ago, when an encampment becomes entrenched there is dangerous activity that starts to happen and safety issues that develop in an encampment setting that can be a risk to people in the encampment but also to the general public. So this isn’t the first time we have tried to encourage people to move on.”
Bill Ginther, executive director of the Lethbridge Soup Kitchen does not believe the money is being well spent.
“We are seeing encampments that will keep showing up. People have to be somewhere — they’ve got nowhere so they’ll go to the open spots and they’ll stay there as long as they’re allowed to,” Ginther said. He added the only compassion he sees is the notice workers give before removing people.
The biggest thing needed to solve the issue is housing, according to residents, the city and advocates. Spear Chief said there needs to be places for low income people who have trouble finding jobs and Fox said the city continues to advocate for supportive housing from the province.
In the meantime a funding allocation of $470,000 will come back to a special council meeting this month, which is proposed to be used for other solutions besides displacing people. One potential use of the money is a sanctioned site for people to camp. This is something Ginther is in favour of, but Fox believes will be a challenge.
“I’m not sure if it will work or not. Even if we did that, we would have to have people pack up every once in a while, every 3-4 days, to make sure that we could give the site a thorough clean. So just like an entrenched encampment, those sites a lot of the times will have a crime element enter into them and be unsafe for some of the people using those sites,” Fox said.
Spear Chief said she would like to have a place where people can camp and be left alone. “That’s what we thought would happen here,” she said. “I thought that was going to be something good for everybody and a home base.”
Both advocates like Ginther and residents living in encampments agree people need to be treated with respect and dignity.
“Walk a mile in my moccasins and try this for at least six months, let’s see how you can deal with it — without water and being kicked out, not being able to use the washroom,” Spear Chief said. “It’s just not just not right — I feel like people are being treated like we are nothing, we are animals.”
A date has not yet been set for the special council meeting to discuss the $470,000 allocation publicly, but council is set to discuss encampments in a closed meeting on August 4.