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Saskatoon councillors approve new complex needs shelter for 18 months

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Saskatoon city councillors approved the opening of a 15-bed complex needs shelter on Idylwyld Drive North on Wednesday, amid pointed questions for the province from businesses and residents.

After more than six hours of discussion and passionate pleas from residents and business owners, councillors voted to allow the temporary shelter to open for 18 months.

"Get the answers please before you do this," resident Wesley Stefaniuk said prior to council voting to approve the shelter.

"Because once this facility starts, the government of Saskatchewan will never let it stop."

This shelter would be unlike other shelters operating in the city. It would provide emergency shelter for up to 15 people with complex needs. The facility will have on-site health care personnel and offer a safe place for people to stabilize while being monitored for up to 24 hours.

Users wouldn't be able to self-refer — they would be brought to the centre by Saskatoon police. It’s being proposed as a safer and alternative to the current practice of using the police detention cells as the detox of last resort.

"What we can guarantee is that every effort will be made in what I'm going to call basically an unprecedented manner to ensure people are given every opportunity to access services," said Louise Michaud, the president and CEO of the Saskatchewan Housing Corporation.

"By just telling the public: 'It will be different. Trust us' — is not good enough," another concerned resident Josh Penner said.

For much of the meeting, representatives from the provincial ministries responsible for choosing the site and running the new shelter were put on the hot seat, answering questions from council and explaining the province's plan for addictions and homelessness — however, their answers didn't suffice for many people in council chambers.

The main question circulating Wednesday was: what happens to people refusing supports when their 24 hours expires?

"We cannot of course guarantee where people will go after the 24 hours. I don't want to make a guarantee that is not legitimate," Michaud said.

Many people who live and work near the shelter were concerned that people experiencing acute mental health issues like psychosis will be wandering the neighbourhood day and night.

"This is a drunk tank," nearby resident Erin Neufeld said. "It is a place where people are being brought to sober up. It is not to help address homelessness, because people are not being able to go there to avoid being unhoused."

There were audible jeers from the crowd gathered at the meeting when councillors learned they weren't able to reject the application in any way.

The city amended a zoning bylaw in 2022 to allow an emergency shelter at an approved location for up to 18 months. Since the province owns the former liquor store building at 1701 Idylwyld Drive North and it is in an approved zone, councillors could only vote on the length of time the shelter can be located at that address.

"It's not proposed. Proposed is defined as something different," said Tony Badger, who owns Churchill's British Cafe across the street from the incoming shelter.

Badger said council's decision would hurt his business. He feels he will eventually have to hire more staff and suffer business because of safety concerns and homeless people trying to enter his shop.

Being given less than one week notice about Wednesday's meeting, he felt residents were left out of the decision.

"I fear that the only thing that's really going to bring attention and change to any of this is when there's a critical incident," he said.

The city added an amendment, voting to have the province provide updates on the shelter at six and 12 months.

The province hasn't identified the third-party running daily operations at the shelter, but said they're working closely with a national organization that has offered these services in other cities.

The province believes it is very close to finalizing a contract.

This shelter would be the first of its kind in Saskatchewan, and it's expected to open in early 2024.  

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