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Saskatoon fire chief says people are losing fingers and toes as encampments proliferate

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Saskatoon’s fire chief says the number of encampments have tripled this year and shelters in the city are overflowing, as more people continue to experience homelessness.

Chief Morgan Hackl says the warming centre at St. Mary's Church — which was established on a temporary basis for the winter — is routinely overcapacity.

On Tuesday, 143 people spent the night, he says. The shelter was intended for a maximum of 80 people when it opened in December.

"There's an urgency around people having issues with their health, with frostbite, losing extremities," Hackl said.

"I have a contact with a doctor who does a lot of these surgeries — he had one person where they amputated eight of their toes so far this winter. Another person, numerous fingers this winter."

The St. Mary's warm-up location averages 130 people per night, with another 30 people sleeping in the St. Paul's emergency room. Hackl says those numbers don't account for homeless people who are "couch surfing" in the city.

"These people are facing the same thing day in, day out," Hackl said. "Our concern is the cold weather now, but also the longer term effects of being homeless in the community."

Hackl was speaking to councillors during Wednesday's regular business meeting as council mulled over the implications of approving a 30-bed shelter at the former No. 5 fire hall in Sutherland on Central Avenue.

A motion from Councillor Zach Jeffries, which was amended and passed during the meeting, now requires any future shelter to be 250 metres away from a Catholic or public elementary school.

That new criteria means the Sutherland fire hall can't be considered.

"We can't let the perfect be the enemy of the good," Jeffries said. "I think it's important that we could signal proximity matters."

During the many hours of debate Wednesday, councillors were conflicted on getting the process right, listening to concerns of residents while also balancing the urgent need of opening smaller shelters in a timely matter.

"If we're not careful how we do them, we can ruin a neighbourhood," Councillor Randy Donauer said. "I fear that's what happened in Fairhaven."

During the meeting, multiple councillors noted how the city wasn't given a say in opening the Saskatoon Tribal Council Wellness Centre as the Ministry of Social Services contracted the tribal council to open its 106-bed shelter.

"The difference with this one is we do have an opinion. I do not want to have happen to another community what happened in Fairhaven," Donauer said.

In October 2023, the Saskatchewan government announced an action plan to alleviate the homelessness crisis that includes 60 new emergency shelter spaces and 15 complex needs shelter spaces for Saskatoon.

City manager Jeff Jorgenson said administration will now use the new criteria to find two new locations for shelters, but rather than focus on a permanent site, the city will shift its focus to a temporary location of up to 18 months.  

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