By Lethbridge Herald on September 22, 2020.
The City has been dealing with a noticeable increase in illegal encampments and “rough sleeping” since the COVID-19 pandemic began in March.
“We have been dealing with encampments for a couple of years now, and we have seen a spike over the last four months since COVID-19,” confirms City of Lethbridge Urban Revitalization manager Andrew Malcolm. “We have been tracking them to see if there is any reason why. We believe it’s largely attributed to the fact the places they may have been staying before now have additional restrictions in place, and this may deter them as another barrier. But also, like for you and me, space is very important, and the fact we have had nice weather, has just given the vulnerable population more reasons to stay and sleep outside.”
Malcolm says the City has responded by allocating more funds from money set aside to fund programs within the budget of the Downtown Clean and Safe Strategy to deal with the rise in encampments, and has removed about 100 temporary structures since March.
“And it’s not just encampments,” he says. “That’s typically what we refer to as structured living. We are seeing lots of rough sleeping, which is basically someone sleeping in a sleeping bag or just laying on the ground. Often we get calls for encampments, and it is really just someone who is rough sleeping.”
With encampments, the City has something it can remove. With rough sleeping it’s a different story, Malcolm says.
“Within our encampment program, that’s a place to take down structures so we don’t end up with a tent city-type of situation in Lethbridge,” he explains.
“But rough sleeping is really difficult because there is nothing to take away — it’s just their personal belongings. So we are using a combination of outreach and physical cleaning up and movement in trying to deal with that dynamic.”
The process right now, says Malcolm, is when someone calls into the Safe Community Call Centre to report an encampment a Diversion Outreach Team (DOT) is dispatched to investigate the situation and tries to render assistance to the person they find to offer them transport to the City’s homeless shelter or to have them move on from where they are. If there is a structure, DOT then calls in either a local contractor to deal with it, or the Clean Sweep Team to clean up debris left behind during rough sleeping.
“Really our encampment program and our Diversion Outreach Team isn’t even a Band-Aid solution; it is just a Band-Aid program,” states Malcolm. “We are just trying to stay on top of it, and the first thing we want to do is give these people the services that they need. And the second thing is we want to try to avoid having a tent city, because as we have seen at municipalities across Canada and the U.S., is these things kind of build up their own steam getting too big and unmanageable. They actually then create a living condition that is very poor — both for those living in the encampment as well as the business community and our public that have to be around it.”
With winter coming on the problem of encampments and rough sleeping will likely lessen, says Malcolm, but that does not mean there will not be other problems to watch out for when the cold weather arrives. Noting that Alpha House has imposed enhanced screening and strong social distancing rules at the Lethbridge Homeless Shelter which some in the local homeless community do not like, Malcolm says Lethbridge law enforcement and City officials are expecting an increase in break-ins into vacant buildings this winter as the rough sleepers seek out alternative shelter options.
“We want to try to get ahead of that and think about solutions,” he says. “Landowners and business owners who have vacant buildings should be checking on them regularly. That is, unfortunately, just one of the many things we have to deal with in our community right now until we get those (housing) supports in place.”
Malcolm says the only real long-term solution to the problem is more supportive housing in the city. Marty Thomson, the City’s manager of Community and Social Development, agrees.
“For the most part, the people who are in encampments are homeless people,” Thomson explains. “But it’s not just that they are homeless; the vast majority of them have mental illness, addictions, physical illness and cognitive issues such as FASD and other forms of brain damage. So we need to house them, but with supports. In other words, permanent supportive housing. It’s not just as easy as putting them into an apartment. We need special facilities.”
The Safe Community Call Centre number is 403-382-0545.
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