Moving Red Deer’s shelter out of downtown core will not solve problems of homelessness

This column is an opinion from Dr. S. Monty Ghosh, an addiction and internal medicine specialist. For more information about CBC’s Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

Recently, Red Deer’s city council voted to move the city’s main shelter for individuals experiencing homelessness — Safe Harbour — into an industrial area far away from the core.

This week, after hearing from city administration that finding a replacement facility for Safe Harbour in time to meet the city’s deadline was impossible, council began the process of granting the shelter a one-year reprieve, pending another public hearing on May 25. But this temporary reversal doesn’t change the thinking behind council’s original decision to move the shelter, and many of us who work in the homeless sector are concerned that the issues the city hopes to address will not be solved by this move. In fact, they will be worsened.

The city justified its original decision based on community concerns of safety and the viability of downtown businesses, however, moving the shelter will only lead to more visible homelessness and substance use. Sadly, moving homeless shelters is a Canadian trend that has never been effective, often leading to tent cities replacing the displaced shelter.

Our homeless populations are not tethered to a shelter. Rather, the population is tethered to the downtown core.

If one was to examine almost every city in North America, they would notice that those who are experiencing homelessness congregate in the city’s downtown. The reasons for this are numerous. For instance, there is a higher density of housing in the downtown core where many who have entered homelessness once resided. When they leave their homes, they try their best to maintain a connection with their community.

There is also a larger concentration of social services in the core, which cater not only to the homeless, but countless low-income individuals, families, and groups who require further assistance.

Core closer to businesses and services

Additionally, the core is close to businesses, where many still work even though they experience homelessness, as they try to save up to exit this state. With transportation costs adding up day after day, many choose to live where the majority of work is available.

Lastly, the downtown hosts many of the key health services required to serve this population.

Health and homelessness are intricately connected. The current location of the Red Deer shelter is near both physical and mental health care supports, such as the Street Clinic, the Canadian Mental Health Association, and the Red Deer Primary Care Network. These organizations not only help reduce the overutilization of emergency departments and acute care services, but they are also conducive to ending homelessness for this population.

Without adequate substance use and mental health supports, this population would not receive the care or support required to exit homelessness, especially during a pandemic.

Additionally, moving the shelter away from its proximity to the Overdose Prevention Site may lead to more public use of substances, as well as increased substance-related debris.

The disruption of holistic care for this population by moving them would be detrimental to their overall wellbeing.

A makeshift camp in downtown Red Deer. Homeless populations are not tethered to a shelter, they are tethered to the downtown core, says Dr. S. Monty Ghosh. (Heather Marcoux/CBC News )

While there are concerns about the visibility of homelessness, many homeless individuals spend their time within the shelter. Without the shelter nearby, the visibility of homelessness would be much more apparent, as this population will still migrate to the core, occupying public spaces.

Some patrons of the core have raised concerns about substance use, as well as the behaviours associated with it in the inner city, and believe that by moving clients out of the core, they would fall less victim to drug dealers. Substance use and addiction are quite powerful, and the substance-using population would still congregate where substances are most abundant. That will continue to be the core.

There is a solution. The key is to establish more housing supports for this population. 

Ending homelessness with housing and added services, such as social supports and mental health supports, will help ensure those who are housed don’t slip back into homelessness.

The support services to manage complex behaviours and addiction would be incorporated into their housing, along with other supports for social, emotional, and physical wellbeing.

Known as the principle of Housing First, access to permanent housing has been demonstrated to reduce substance use, improve health outcomes, decrease acute care utilization, and improve mental health. It is also the most cost-effective solution to homelessness, and has the longest lasting efficacy overall.

Red Deer could be example

Establishing more spaces to permanently house our vulnerable population would be in direct alignment with the goals of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness, as well as A Plan for Alberta. Housing would protect this vulnerable population from the risks of COVID-19, as those who experience homelessness are 20 times more likely to be hospitalized for COVID-related illness, 10 times more likely to use intensive care units, and five times more likely to die because of COVID.

Those of us who work in this sector can unequivocally state that moving the shelter from downtown to the suburbs won’t shuffle the population out of the downtown core. 

Most of our clients have their communities, basic needs, and work in the inner city. As such they would only gravitate back there. We have seen this in other jurisdictions in Canada, and history will only repeat itself.

The solution would be to create permanent sustainable housing for this vulnerable population and this can be done.

Red Deer has the opportunity to make its mark in Canada and end homelessness, a pledge both Calgary and Edmonton have made but have yet to keep. Red Deer could be the first city in Alberta to reach this pinnacle, and become a shining example to everyone in our province.

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