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Council hears update on encampments, downtown safety concerns

Lethbridge police provided an update on the city’s new encampment strategy to city council this week. The city adopted a new strategy that involves many agencies in May and it lays out a tiered response for dealing with encampments. The first tier involves the Clean Sweep program and city administration, the second includes social services and outreach and the third tier involves police as well.  

Deputy police chief Gerald Grobmeier said downtown patrol units, Clean Sweep and Streets Alive have been doing encampment enforcement and cleanup every week so far since the strategy was adopted. 

“We are finding significant success in that model in that the encampments aren’t becoming entrenched and we haven’t seen any large-scale encampments yet, what we saw last year,” he said, adding many people voluntarily move along during the cleanups. “Every week we are also throwing out a significant amount of garbage that these people are leaving behind.” 

BACKGROUND: City approves new encampment response strategy 

According to police, there have been 12 encampment cleanup operations this year where 81 different structures were removed. LPS inspector Jason Doberstien said there have been 343 charges laid in the downtown core since this time last year, many connected to encampment with charges such as trespassing and littering. 

“As it stands right now the encampment strategy is working for us. The city has got the right people in place — the Clean Sweep is there, we are educating, we are helping and I think we are doing our best to try and keep certain areas from being entrenched.” 

During the meeting, Mayor Blaine Hyggen invited members of the public to comment. Executive Director of the Downtown Business Revitalization Zone Sarah Amies said she is concerned about communication about crime in and around Galt Gardens specifically. 

“I hear from police officers that every single one of these folks is carrying a weapon. We found a cache of chopped up guns recently — the Clean Sweep Program brought them in so I am just wondering how much information we are providing the public because if this is the case and folks are carrying guns, or rather knives, and we are seeing more and more guns, the public needs to know this — that downtown is becoming a warzone,” Amies said. 

Hyggen asked Amies for clarification on her comment and pointed to concern people will be deterred from going downtown. 

“It is becoming very very dangerous downtown. Many of the unhoused are carrying weapons because they need to protect themselves against one another,” Amies said. “Of course I want to encourage everybody to come to a safe and engaged and vibrant downtown but is it really safe…. nobody hears about the two or three or four bodies that get dragged out of Galt Gardens on a weekly basis. I am not sure that the public is aware of the desperate nature, the absolute desperate nature of what is going on in the downtown. All the downtown businesses certainly know about it.” 

Grobmeier said though many people do carry weapons, stranger-to-stranger violent crimes are not common. 

“We do have the assaults and some of the smaller robberies — for the most part, they are known to each other and they are not actively doing this to a stranger walking through the downtown,” he said. 

A couple business owners commented that when encampments are taken down people spread out around the downtown and cause issues such as littering blocking doorways. 

“We have noticed that in the last year to two years, that the situation is just getting unbelievably worse and the police officers say they break up the encampments, they shoo them along, they shoo them to our property,” said Ron Hust, who owns a building downtown. He said his business cleans up garbage regularly left behind by people and he is considering fencing off his parking lot. “I don’t know what the solution is. I think it was better when the encampments were there because there was a place where they could go, I hate to say that but now the encampments aren’t there and they are everywhere.” 

After the discussion, councillor Belinda Crowson brought forward a motion to invite members of the Downtown BRZ, the Chamber of Commerce and other groups to an advocacy committee meeting to plan how to advocate to the province for housing and support. The motion carried unanimously and the conversation is set to come to the June 23 advocacy meeting. 

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