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Saskatoon leaders grapple with how to address 'new level of homelessness'

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SASKATOON -

Saskatoon city officials are working on a plan to accommodate the call from the community to set up temporary emergency shelters in the city, to help house the growing number of homeless people as winter nears.

But before any temporary emergency shelters can be set up, or before empty buildings can be converted into emergency shelters, the city needs to amend zoning bylaws and create a definition for emergency residential shelters.

In a report to the city’s planning, development and community services committee, city administration and the Saskatoon Fire Department looked at zoning bylaw adjustments and development permits to allow for the establishment of temporary emergency shelters.

Planning director Leslie Anderson said administration is still working through details but anticipates not allowing emergency shelters in low-density residential areas.

"But we also have to balance all of this with the fact that there are only certain types of buildings where this is going to be able to be accommodated," Anderson said to the committee. "So we need to try to build a reasonable response that can allow for a facility to be developed. What we don't want to do is put in the restrictions that will make it impossible to achieve this."

The city said it will be bringing forward recommendations to zoning bylaw changes and criteria for emergency shelters, which will need approval by city council at a public hearing later this month.

Cameron Choquette, CEO of the Saskatchewan Landlords’ Association addressed the committee on Monday explaining that the increase in visible homelessness in Saskatoon is in part due to a recent change in how social assistance is handed out to social assistance clients.

At the end of August, Choquette said, the province amalgamated its old social assistance program into one program called Saskatchewan Income Support (SIS), where direct payment to utility and rental providers was eliminated, and security deposits were scaled back to once every two years.

"What we've seen, and I think is important for the committee to consider today is, that the systemic changes are creating a new level of homelessness in Saskatoon and in our province," Choquette said.

He added the changes to income assistance have created a pile of rent arrears for social housing providers, leading to more evictions and more homeless people across Saskatchewan.

"We’ve seen increased encampments and we’ve seen increased homelessness in our city."

Mayor Charlie Clark said the city has a homelessness problem that has been growing for years and has only been exacerbated by the pandemic and the addictions crisis in Saskatoon.

"While we've been trying to put that fire out through a number of different initiatives … it has felt like the changes to the SIS program are really potentially adding fuel to that same fire that we're trying to put out and potentially driving more people into homelessness and it's at a time when it's getting cold," Clark said.

The administration report says that to be in the best position possible to accommodate requests for temporary emergency residential shelters, planning and development will submit a proposal to change the city's zoning rules to include a definition for emergency residential shelters and clear regulations for the application and renewal process to create such shelters.

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