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Saskatoon shelter's move to bar drug users increases chances of 'people dying,' advocate says


Saskatoon harm reduction advocate Kayla DeMong says the Saskatoon Tribal Council’s decision to force high-needs drug users from its shelter increases the odds that people will die outdoors this winter.

On Tuesday, STC Chief Mark Arcand announced it would bar around 30 people with “complex needs” from its emergency shelter starting Oct. 1, saying those who were unable to refrain from using drugs in the facility would no longer be allowed in.

DeMong, whose organization runs the city’s only safe consumption site, says the move will likely make a bad problem worse.

“We know the amount of people sleeping outside this winter is going to be higher, which absolutely increases our chances of people dying,” said DeMong, executive director of Prairie Harm Reduction.

“We are facing the largest homelessness problem that we’ve ever had, and to see a resource shut out the people in our community that currently need the most help is incredibly upsetting,” she said.

“I think it continues to highlight the extreme stigmatization against people that use substances and really highlights the fact that our province and our federal government are not effectively funding programs that properly support people that use substances.”

Both Arcand and DeMong point to the Saskatchewan Income Support program (SIS) as a major barrier to accessing secure housing.

Recent data puts the current living wage for a single person living in Saskatoon at $18.95 an hour, and benefits provided by SIS are equivalent to a wage of about $9 an hour, DeMong says.

“And we’re expecting people to survive on that … and somehow improve their quality of life. When they can't pay their rent, they can't pay their bills and they can't get food. And then we're surprised when they end up on the streets,” she said.

When SIS was introduced in 2019, it marked a departure from previous social assistance programs where money was paid directly to landlords and utilities. Now funds are provided to clients directly.

CTV News contacted Saskatchewan's Social Services ministry for comment following Arcand's announcement and was told the Government of Saskatchewan is “actively working with community partners on this file.”

The ministry said updates would be provided as the work continues.

In August, Saskatoon’s police board sent a letter asking Saskatchewan’s ministers of Health, Mental Health and Addictions, and Social Services to develop new facilities and supports “for individuals with complex needs.”

“Due to a lack of housing and facilities, officers are often left with no place to take people and they are ultimately released back into the community without any form of support,” the letter said.

A September report from Saskatoon’s Community Support Program — tasked with helping resolve social issues in the city’s core — echoes the need for more help.

“Despite our best efforts, we are encountering less, not more, services available to vulnerable people,” Supervisor Rob Garrison wrote after a summer that saw a record number of calls for support.

“If I was the premier, I would be listening to the people who are experts in what they’re doing,” DeMong said. “I would be ashamed that I’m allowing people in my province to be sleeping outside.”

People need to have access to support where they are, “not where we think they should be,” she said.

“When we look at the people who are accessing PHR services and the people that are living in our alleyway, currently, you know, these are people with a lifetime of trauma and who are facing all sorts of barriers, and we just expect them to stop using, and that's just not realistic.”

—With files from Josh Lynn Top Stories

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