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'It has saved lives': Saskatoon's only drop-in overnight shelter set to close

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Concern is growing for Saskatoon's homeless population with a core neighbourhood shelter set to close in days.

Since December, St. Mary's Parish hall on 20th Street West has been offering hundreds of people a place to shelter from the elements and stay safe every night, from 10 p.m. until 7 a.m.

Intended as a place to go during the coldest months for those who need it the most, the hall will revert to serving only parishioners again on April 21.

With just a few more days until closure, people concerned where people who have been using the shelter all winter will go now.

"Once the warm-up location is closed, those same numbers are still going to be there, but now on the street," St. Mary's Parish priest Father Kevin McGee said.

"And so my concern for them is where will they go now? And I think that's a question that people in leadership here in the city will need to address, as well as partners in the community."

In recent years, Saskatoon's homeless population has increased exponentially with relatively few spaces in the city able to accept them.

Discussions between the parish and The Salvation Army, which operated the overnight shelter, began over the summer to accommodate up to 80 people on any given night.

At first, less than 100 people were spending the night. Within a few weeks those numbers kept growing with up to 200 people using the shelter, and an overall average of 135 throughout the winter.

"While we're certainly grateful of the opportunity to meet that need, we just maybe didn't realize the scope of that," Salvation Army Executive Director Major Gord Taylor said.

Using last year's numbers, The Salvation Army was prepared to welcome up to 100 people each night. But the growing numbers over the last few months points to a worsening problem for Taylor.

"We are seeing even in the last year a lot of new faces. Just a lot of people who haven't been in that situation or that system before. So there's definitely a trend of increasing numbers — it's scary," Taylor said.

"If there's 100 people there on the 21st overnight, where are they going to be the next night?"

First responders and partnering organizations think they know the answer — encampments.

According to the latest figures from the Saskatoon Fire Department (SFD), there were 1,020 interactions with encampments across the city last year, which nearly doubles the 512 counted in 2022 and is nearly nine times as many as in 2021 when the fire department counted 116.

"What SFD actually saw was a decrease in the number of encampments being reported," assistant fire Chief Yvonne Raymer said about St Mary's impact.

"By June or July we'll know if there's pressures back on boots on the ground."

Interim police Chief Dave Haye echoed Raymer's thoughts, knowing that for many people the shelter provided nightly stability and security.

"Not only the fact that people won't have a place to stay, but people won't have a place to use a washroom or get water," he said. "So we're looking, we're working with the Saskatoon emergency measures on that."

Encampments were reported in 60 of the city's 64 neighbourhoods last year and there's nothing to indicate a decline in 2024. In February, former fire chief Morgan Hackl said encampment numbers were on track to triple in 2024.

"I think part of that though, comes with an opportunity, an opportunity for perhaps other agencies and communities to seek out funding and partnerships and hopefully put something in place," said Myron Rogal, co-ordinator of justice and peace with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Saskatoon.

Rogal said roughly 40 per cent of the people using the shelter over the winter were women, since other spaces in the city aren't able to accept women overnight on a short-term basis.

Being located steps away from Prairie Harm Reduction, where on any given day you can see dozens of people camping out on the sidewalk in the back alley with shopping carts and large tarps, presented an obvious opportunity for McGee and his congregation.

However, getting everyone on board wasn't easy. One young family was initially conflicted by the news the parish hall would be converted to a shelter. McGee said the mother is seen as a leader in the congregation and she didn't want any property destroyed. Her young children eventually persuaded her the shelter was sorely needed.

Within days, she and her children became nightly visitors to offer blankets and baked goods to people lined up outside waiting to get in.

"This has really touched the lives of so many and I believe it has saved lives as well," McGee said. "So that was both a challenge and a gift for us as a parish community."

With thoughts directed toward spring and summer as encampments are expected to increase, Taylor is hoping St. Mary's can be seen as an example to encourage other organizations to lend a helping hand.

"Partnerships are definitely a huge piece of this puzzle, we can all accomplish a lot more working together than we can on our own," Taylor said.  

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