Wetaskiwin closes emergency shelter earlier than planned after abuse, threats, assaults

Wetaskiwin City Council has voted to close its emergency shelter earlier than originally planned after complaints of abuse, threats and assaults.

In November, council approved $65,000 in funding to open an emergency shelter at the civic building this winter. The financial commitment was approved to cover the shelter’s operational costs until March 31.

However, the mayor said the city has received numerous complaints from residents, businesses and other downtown visitors that abuse, threats and assaults have increased since the shelter opened. Shelter staff, volunteers and city have received threats from shelter users as well, Tyler Gandam said.

“The shelter was a Band-Aid for the real issue in our community,” Gandam told Global News. “Like many other municipalities, Wetaskiwin is struggling with mental health and addictions.

“Without the opportunity for treatment, shelter guests weren’t getting the help they needed.”

A special council meeting was held on Thursday to address the situation, during which people spoke out both for and against the shelter. Ultimately, the decision was made to close the shelter.

A closure date has not been set, but Gandam said the city will work with the shelter to find a date that works for everyone.

Council has also asked administration to secure funding for a permanent, full-time shelter that would “offer the support services of counselling for the shelter guests.”

“We will hopefully have support from the provincial government as well as the four bands of Maskwacis.”

The city had a working emergency shelter for three months from February to May 2019. During that time, the city said it experienced a large decrease in the number of calls for service by the RCMP, as well as a drop in the number of hospital visits.

Before that, the city set up livestock shelters in hopes of curbing the homeless problem. In September 2018, the city said the shelters were put up as a place for vulnerable people to get out of the elements.

While the city admitted it was not the final solution, it said homelessness has been a long-standing challenge in Wetaskiwin, with people camping out in bushes and parking lots.

The temporary shelters were met with mixed reviews by local residents. They were destroyed by fire in October 2018.

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