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Shelter feud dominates Saskatoon council meeting

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Saskatoon city councillors spent a majority of Wednesday's regular business meeting discussing homelessness and issues surrounding emergency shelters.

Coun. Darren Hill tabled a motion asking police to bring back detailed crime statistics pertaining to the immediate area surrounding Saskatoon Tribal Council's Emergency Wellness Centre on Fairmont Drive and what safety efforts and communication channels have been coordinated with the residents of Fairhaven.

"Unfortunately, we're at a point in Fairhaven and the surrounding areas where we've been once bitten, twice shy," said Rob Pearce, the pastor at nearby Fairmont Baptist Church. "And we feel that we have to take a stand that it needs to be closed, that a better solution needs to be found."

Hill said the area has seen a roughly 1,100 per cent increase in crime in the areas surrounding the shelter year over year.

Pearce said there's also plenty of crimes or dangerous situations that go unrecorded. In conversations Pearce has had with staff at the nearby 7 Eleven, he was able to access corporate records of shoplifting, damage to property, nuisance, threats uttered, and robbers, which showed there were 58 cases reported in 2022. That number jumped to 627 cases reported in 2023.

"Before the shelter opened, in my entire life of over 50 years I had to call 911 less times than I can count on my hand, and it was due to real emergencies," Pearce said. "Last summer, I called 911 and the 911 dispatcher recognized my voice because I had called so many times to report people passed out on private property or in parks."

The provincial government has previously announced its intentions to open two new shelters in Saskatoon, but the city administration is to pick the best location possible. Hill's motion was also intended to prepare residents living near future shelter locations.

City councillors have been repeatedly criticized for not consulting with residents in Fairhaven prior to opening the wellness centre or understanding the implications of what it could do to the community.

Councillors mentioned how the city wasn't involved in moving the STC shelter from downtown to Fairhaven and that was negotiated between the tribal council and the province. However, with new shelters expected to open by the spring, the city is fully involved in those discussions.

"I have not had something to hide in this process," Mayor Charlie Clark said, answering to accusations he struck secret deals.

"We are trying to address a complex community challenge."

As councillors debated Hill's motion and added amendments, Coun. Troy Davies wanted to make sure the city's finances were considered as well, hoping the report would include the cost for more officers specifically dedicated to areas where shelters are.

"It's time that we go back and fix Fairhaven," Davies said. "So that when we do drop these shelters anywhere in the city that they're properly funded. If we don't do this our city of Saskatoon shines will be Saskatoon crimes."

The province said it has no intentions of shutting down the shelter or finding a new provider operate it. In a statement, the Ministry of Social Services said $656,000 has been spent on placing a mobile a social services workforce onsite at 24 locations through partnership with 19 different community-based organizations including the wellness centre.

Kirton said in his conversations with Minister of Social Services Gene Makowsky, the minister has indicated the province would like to reduce the 106 beds currently operating at the shelter, but Kirton wasn't given a timeline on when that would happen.

"We are moving toward a model of smaller shelters to avoid the concentration of vulnerable people in one area of a community," the ministry's statement read. "With smaller shelters, service providers also have a greater capacity to connect with individuals and meet their unique needs."

Ultimately, the motion passed with additional amendments to have administration give options for public consultations with residents near the wellness centre and include the province and the STC in those reports.

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