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Wetaskiwin opens permanent homeless shelter with 24/7 services this fall

cbc.ca logo cbc.ca 2020-09-19 Andrea Huncar
a man wearing a suit and tie smiling at the camera: Mayor Tyler Gandam says the city is partnering with an organization with the experience and programming to make the shelter work. © CBC News via Google Meet Mayor Tyler Gandam says the city is partnering with an organization with the experience and programming to make the shelter work.

A long-awaited permanent shelter offering 24/7 services in Wetaskiwin, Alta., will open in November.

This week, the city's mayor and council approved up to $90,000 for a hub that will offer round-the-clock intake, 20 to 30 beds, a daytime drop-in centre and multiple programs.

Known as the Integrated Response Hub, the facility will be run by the Open Door, an agency based in nearby Camrose, Alta., which has operations throughout east-central Alberta.

"The city has been committed to making sure that this happened and we weren't going to quit," Mayor Tyler Gandam said in an interview Thursday.

"We needed somebody to come in to be able to champion it with the experience and offer the programming that goes along with having the shelter in place."

He said existing organizations have been working with the city from the start to get the right supports in place, and they'll continue to be involved.

The need for an overnight shelter in the city, located about 70 kilometres southeast of Edmonton, made headlines two years ago when officials set up two wooden dugouts, often used to shelter animals, to help shield homeless residents from the elements.

The sheds burned down a month later.

There have been several temporary emergency shelters opened in recent years as the city looked for a long-term solution, working with the four nearby bands from Maskwacis. Band members frequently travel into Wetaskiwin.

From February and April 2018, a shelter in the Wetaskiwin Civic Building was largely run by unpaid community volunteers, including city staff and city council members.

Between November 2019 and March 2020, Lighthouse Church operated a shelter downtown that was shut down early after some residents raised safety concerns.

It was sheer chance that brought Wetaskiwin together with Open Door and the opportunity for a permanent shelter.

While the city was signing a contract with Open Door on youth programming, it became apparent that the organization was the missing piece. 

Open Door will bring it all together to help provide "those services for individuals that are vulnerable or at risk, or just needing something and maybe don't know where to go or how to get to it," said Jessica Hutton, executive director for Camrose Open Door Association.

"We're excited about the collaboration in Wetaskiwin," she added. "People are very committed and we're really excited about leveraging that."

a person standing in front of a mirror posing for the camera: Jessica Hutton says Open Door is excited to collaborate with existing agencies in the city. © CBC News via Google Meet Jessica Hutton says Open Door is excited to collaborate with existing agencies in the city.

Life skills and addiction recovery are among the programs the new facility will offer. Officials will watch for signs of success, such as a drop in crime and more people being housed.

"You can give them a bed but that doesn't really do anything," Hutton said.

"We need to then go to the next step … and actually support individuals to get to the place where they want to be and actually feel like they're supported and have that wraparound holistic care around them."

'Give it a chance'

Wetaskiwin resident Jessi Hanks, who has been vocal about the need for such a shelter, is delighted.

"This is one of the best investments Wetaskiwin can make," Hanks said. "We have needed this for so long. I hope the residents in Wetaskiwin embrace this new hub and give it a chance."

She's optimistic it will make a difference in the lives of residents without homes and help curb social disorder.

"I'm hopeful a proper team of trained professionals can help ease the need for constantly calling the RCMP," she said.

"The outreach workers can step in to help, giving our amazing officers the much-needed break from moving individuals loitering around businesses with no real solution."

Details, including the shelter's location, still haven't been finalized but the facility will not be located downtown.

In a media release, the city and Open Door acknowledged the community was not in favour of a downtown location due to past disruption of business and safety concerns.

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