Many Lethbridge residents expressed concern at the city’s handling of people experiencing homelessness after they were removed from the Civic Centre field and fences were put up on Oct. 26. Mike Fox, director of community services, spoke at a Southern Alberta Council on Public Affairs event on Oct. 27 to share the complexities of the situation and what the city is doing about it. Passionate residents lined up to question him and provide alternative ideas.
“I am actually speechless about [the talk] because there were a lot of questions and no answers — just excuses or ‘this takes time’ — well, some of us out here don’t have time,” said Leanne Michelle Crow Eagle, who lived at the encampment before it was disbursed. “Because they shut down tent city, doesn’t mean the problem will go away — it’s just going to escalate and make people want to fight back because they were angry. That is all we had.”
She said she found a sense of community staying with other people who helped each other, she added it felt like home for her because she no longer has one. “We didn’t choose this lifestyle, it happens, life happens and some people are fortunate and some people aren’t. All you can do is just pull together like a community and try and help each other the best we can and that’s what tent city was supposed to be.”
The City of Lethbridge said administration decided to fence the area because of a heightened risk to people living there and in the neighbourhood. “Everyone has the right to shelter overnight but based on city bylaws and other legislation, they must pack up and move on each morning. This encampment has been entrenched for quite some time, meaning individuals were not moving each day and the site was becoming increasingly unsafe for those living there and for the public,” the statement reads.
Preliminary data from a point-in-time count done in September shows about 400 people without a home in the city — city administration said in an Oct. 13 meeting there is currently shelter space for about 100 people.
Residents asked Fox why the city cannot allocate funds to buying an empty building, such as the old Save on Foods on the north side, to renovate and create more shelter space. He said administration is working to reduce barriers to new service providers coming to the city. He adds most sites that could be used are privately owned and would have to go through a process, but it is possible.
A concern that came up multiple times from residents at the meeting was the handling of people’s property when encampments are disbursed.
“Debris is not someone’s worldly possessions and I know that in those black garbage bags which the Clean Sweep people were loading into the dumpsters, those were people’s lives. They probably didn’t have a grocery cart to put that bag in,” said Barb Phillips. Another resident mentioned that people donate things like clothing, which gets thrown away.
“I don’t have a simple answer for that and yes, the cleanups, they do go into the garbage and there are other clothing and necessities needed,” Fox said. He was also questioned on how people without homes can survive when it seems like their existence is illegal and the things they have are taken away from them.
“The system isn’t working and does need change and believe all levels of government are realizing that with what is happening across the country,” Fox said. “There is no easy solution, but all I can say is I will continue trying to work on it and trying to change policy to help people.”
“One thing I like to say to everybody is we are all a paycheque away from being homeless so let’s have compassion, let’s have understanding and let’s try and understand how each individual got to where they are. What we have to do is meet individuals where they are and see how we can help them. There isn’t a one-stop solution for everyone.”
Crow Eagle said many people want to get off the streets, but there is not enough support in the city. “The authorities and leadership in this city, I don’t think they actually know the real meaning of compassion,” she said. “It’s the people that are out here that support us, they come and they do drop off food and cloths, blankets.”
City council will deliberate its budget for the next year in November, which includes items sponsored by Councillor Belinda Crowson to work to create more social housing in the city. It also includes an initiative from Councillor Nick Paladino to create drinking fountains from fire hydrants so residents can have easy and free access to potable water.
The city has proposed an interim sober shelter at the Civic Centre curling rink, which is pending approval and funding.