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City emails reveal how a Saskatoon shelter was relocated and shed light on early concerns

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While Saskatoon Tribal Council (STC) publicly mulled moving its downtown emergency shelter to a location on 20th Street near the city's core, city documents reveal the wellness centre's present Fairhaven area location was heavily favoured early in the process.

More than 200 pages of documents, largely emails and other correspondence between the City of Saskatoon, police, the fire department, the provincial government and the STC, were provided to CTV News by a city resident who obtained them through an access to information request.

Throughout the pages of correspondence, just one message mentions the publicly reported location of an old Ukranian Church on 20th Street between Avenues L and M.

“Chief Arcand reported they are looking at the old Ukranian Church on 20th Street between Avenues L and M for the Wellness Centre; it requires renovations and would take 10-12 months to become operational," reads a memo titled "Record of Decision" dated April 12, 2022.

The STC's temporary Emergency Wellness Centre first opened downtown in November 2021 in a vacant city-owned building. Its lease was set to expire in late April, but it was extended for a year.

However, even with the extra time, there was significant public pressure to relocate the centre.

By summer, the STC had set the wheels in motion to relocate tthe shelter to its present location at 514 Fairmont Drive. A move that wasn't publicly announced until October.

The Fairmont Drive property is mentioned early in the process to relocate the shelter from its temporary downtown location.

The Fairhaven-area location comes up in an "Agreement for Services" for operations of the shelter between the Saskatchewan Housing Corporation (SHC) and the STC. The first page of the agreement says the deal was struck "this 1st day of May, 2022/Amended November 1st 2022”.

The documents show that on June 30, the Saskatoon Tribal Council made an offer to buy the Fairmont Drive property from the Saskatoon Assembly Hall of Johovah’s Witnesses.

The bid was accepted by the seller, subject to a number of conditions including the STC obtaining financing and getting the appropriate inspections.

The STC paid a deposit on the property, but the documents provided to CTV News do not appear to indicate the purchase price.

Two days before STC struck the deal, the records show a June 28 meeting agenda for a joint Saskatoon Police Service/STC working group, where the "Emergency Wellness Centre" is listed as a topic of discussion.

Nearly a month later, on July 27, there was a series of emails between Michelle Beveridge, the chief of staff for Saskatoon mayor Charlie Clark and police chief Troy Cooper, along with Cooper's executive assistant.

In the email chain, Beveridge inquires about setting up a "supper meeting" focused on the emergency wellness centre.

In one email she invites Cooper to attend with STC Tribal Chief Mark Arcand, Saskatoon's fire chief, and Clark " to talk about the EWC permanent plans and what potential partnerships could help get the outcomes we want."

Cooper's assistant said he was unable to attend due to a prior commitment.

“There will definitely be more meetings he can attend. We are trying to meet shortly after the Ministry of Social Services meets with STC to talk about funding and partnerships, so we can follow up with the first steps of a plan for both the Province as well as the community," Beveridge wrote back.

Work was also happening behind the scenes to deal with potential zoning issues that might arise at the Fairmont Drive building the STC was looking to move to.

"The zoning bylaw on shelters leaves lots of room for discretion” reads one mail from a Ministry of Social Services staffer, which points to language about "special care homes."

"We understand that the [STC] is looking to establish a permanent Emergency Wellness Centre at 415 Fairmont Drive that would provide similar services to their temporary facility currently located at 145 1st Ave North," an Aug. 25 message from the city's planning department said.

Clark and Minister of Social Services Gene Makowsky were among those copied on the note which goes on to say the shelter would be considered a “special care home” under zoning bylaws.

If a property must be rezoned, it must be put to a vote at city council.

However, that step wasn't deemed necessary, as city administration believed the shelter could meet the existing special care home definition permitted under Saskatoon's zoning rules.

“The review and approvals of permit applications can all be done administratively, without the need for public engagement or reporting to city council for approval” the August 25 message reads.

12 days later an email is circulated among social services ministry officials about following up “with STC to submit an offer on the Fairmont Drive building”.

Neither David Kirton or Hillary Gough, the city councillors representing the area surrounding the centre, are not mentioned or included in any of the communications provided to CTV News.

Emails and handwritten notes sent between Sept. 6 and 8 show the SHC stepping in to buy the Fairmont Drive property under the terms reached by the STC and seller. The STC's deposit was returned.

Soon after the final deal was reached, another meeting of the police and tribal council's working group occurred. Police Chief Troy Cooper and Tribal Chief Mark Arcand attended.

The notes from the meeting are heavily redacted, except for a few paragraphs. Based on what information is available, there was a discussion about what the police response should be in the event vulnerable people associated with the shelter start setting up tents.

"Arcand added the property is fenced, they will have teepees in the parking lot for overflow people while weather permits," the notes read.

Cooper also asks to be kept informed about the centre's progress "so that we can see what we are going to do as a response … so it looks like we are involved right from the beginning."

"This will show we are connected," the note says.

During the meeting, Arcand appears to have noted a potential spillover safety concern related to the shelter's new location.

"Arcand added we will need to watch that tunnel that goes under Circle Drive," the meeting notes say referring to a pedestrian corridor that connects Fairhaven to the Meadowgreen.

Just days before the SHC's Oct 21 possession date for the property, an SHC executive warned "concerns might start being raised" after the Crown corporation takes control of the building.

"Thanks for getting ahead of the curve on this one," he writes, with the Oct. 28 public announcement on the horizon.

Three days later, police deputy chief Cameron McBride emailed Cooper to discuss the police response, saying that Arcand was asking about what the police response would be once the shelter was fully relocated.

“I told him we did not have a specific plan in place, but that we would be a visible presence, and responsive to any change in the neighbourhood. I’ve been thinking about what our strategy should be, and plan to bring it up at my next patrol inspector meeting," McBride writes.

MAYOR RESPONDS TO DOCUMENTS

Starting in late May, portions of the documents provided to CTV News have been circulated online by those who are critical of the decision to move the shelter to the Fairmont Drive location.

Clark took to Twitter on Monday to respond to some of the criticisms, particularly the gap in time between when the location became a likely candidate and when the public was informed.

"The City of Saskatoon was not part of these negotiations on the sale or identification of the final site," Clark said in a statement.

"That meant I was not in a position to talk publicly about discussions involving a private land sale."

Clark said he knew of "several options for the location of a permanent wellness centre."

"The escalating crises of mental health, addictions and homelessness being seen across our city is tragic," Clark said.

"We are seeing a rise in threatening and violent incidents in homes, schools and businesses. I have been following these developments closely. I know how important it is to feel safe in your homes, yards, businesses, parks and streets," Clark said.

"This is a growing community crisis that is testing all of us. The best way to build safety and well-being for everyone is to work together. This means ensuring a sustainable model for the Emergency Wellness Centre and building badly needed options for people with complex needs."

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