Focus shifts to northern shelter as daytime supports reopen in La Ronge

“What this highlights is that we have a homeless population. We’re no different from the big cities," friendship centre director Ron Woytowich

Kikinahk Friendship Centre executive director Ron Woytowich with Scattered Site program director Jackie Ballantyne at the downtown location in La Ronge. Photo by Michael Bramadat-Willcock

Funding for the Scattered Site outreach program in La Ronge has been renewed for another one-year term, bringing some relief to the northern community’s homeless population.

Scattered Sites remained closed for about one week, until the province pulled through with funding two days after announcing this year’s budget. 

The program, which provides meals and addictions counselling for the community’s vulnerable population, had to shutter on March 31. 

It happened that emergency funding ended for short-term winter shelters at  Drifter’s Motel and the Lac La Ronge Indian Band’s Kitsaki Hall on the same day — abruptly leaving people without housing or the services they relied on. 

“Today was a shock. It was a shock to the system. And now I’m trying to figure out what the plan is. We have our vulnerable people sleeping outside and there’s still snow on the ground,” La Ronge Mayor Colin Ratushniak said at the time. 

“The motel operation was rented until March 31. Because we were running it out of three separate buildings and then, of course, when we shut down the shelter they had no place to go,” said Ron Woytowich, who runs both the Scattered Site and shelter programs as executive director at the Kikinahk Friendship Centre.

“It caused a little bit of grief for that week.”

But having those services available again only solves part of the problem. Woytowich pointed out that while funding was renewed for Scattered Site’s services — year-round funding doesn’t exist for a shelter. So clients have to find their own place to sleep at the end of the day.

“It’s not a good situation. There’s nobody who would want to be like that but there’s no other place for them. That’s the best we can do as a small nonprofit,” Woytowich said. 

“I guess we have about five or six months to find a shelter again. I’m looking and hoping and we haven’t given up. But it sure would be nice if either the provincial or federal government committed to longer-term funding.

“This is the same problem every year.” 

In previous years, Scattered Site housed a temporary shelter under a separate funding stream in its downtown location — but that changed when the building had its insurance pulled for overnight stays. Kikinahk wanted to buy the old SaskPower building downtown — but a group of local business owners successfully lobbied town council at the time not to allow the purchase.

As a result, this winter has been especially hard on Woytowich and his staff. They had to find temporary winter shelters last-minute, acquire a bus to transport clients around the community and cook from a separate location all while adhering to COVID-19 guidelines. 

Woytowich estimates the cost was much higher than it would have been with a single dedicated building to work from. 

Ratushniak said Woytowich, who preceded him as mayor of La Ronge, should have reached out to keep both programs afloat before it got to this point. 

“Leadership came to Kikinahk and to the board of directors eight weeks ago to make sure that this would not happen. 

“We asked what support they needed, we asked for whatever they needed to make sure this did not happen and unfortunately it has — which is very frustrating,” Ratushniak said. 

“We had all the players at the table and we wanted to come up with a plan. Now we have to play catch up.”

Ratushniak said there need to be short-term and long-term solutions for the homeless situation in La Ronge. He said the community needs to get away from relying on precarious funding as “a yearly band-aid as it always seems to be.”  

Woytowich responded that if the town is willing and able to take the shelter program and make it work year-round he would be glad about it. 

“That would be fantastic, it really would — and quite frankly, they can have it.  But it could be quite a bit of money,” Woytowich said. 

Woytowich also said that if Ratushniak speculates publicly that the town could afford to build a shelter, that could lead provincial and federal funders to see things the same way and let the town come up with the funds on its own. He’s not sure municipal tax revenue would cover that. 

Kikinahk allocates funds that are exclusive to friendship centres, and could go to other programs, to support temporary shelters in the winter months because they saw the need, Woytowich said. 

Woytowich also isn’t sure how a shelter will be funded next winter. He said they can no longer expect Métis Housing to pitch in since only one client is Métis.

He said business owners who implied the Lac La Ronge Indian Band should fund a shelter on its territory because some clients are Indigenous aren’t being fair either. Many of his clients belong to other bands and communities or don’t have status at all, he said. 

Because of the town’s position as a hub in northern Saskatchewan, people are drawn there from around the north to access healthcare and other services unavailable elsewhere in the region. Some of those people become stranded in La Ronge, Woytowich said.

“We encourage anyone in need of emergency shelter to contact the Ministry of Social Services or visit their local income assistance office,” Jeff Redekop, Executive Director, Income Assistance Service Delivery at the Ministry of Social Services said in a written response. 

“The ministry can provide income assistance benefits for emergency shelter supports for individuals or families who do not have shelter.  This may include motel or hotel resources available in the community.”

Redekop said that after a person has accessed emergency shelter, ministry staff work with them to find stable long-term housing.

“What this highlights is that we have a homeless population. We’re no different from the big cities. That’s because we are the equivalent of a city in the north. We’re the only ones with drug stores and the medical clinic and everything that goes with it,” Woytowich said. 

”It’s expected that people come here and that people be here. If they have any kind of addictions problem in any way or a health problem then this is where they’re going to be. 

“Like any city, there are housing problems, and it’s more as you come further north.”

One solution, Woytowich said, could be to purchase a building to house both programs under one roof, as he tried to last year. But that could again boil down to community support for a shelter in the downtown area. 

“I think people realize that it’s a community problem. The businesses don’t like the homeless people being downtown but that’s exactly where they have to be — they’re going to be where people are and that’s just what’s going to happen. It’ll always be like that.”

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Michael Bramadat-Willcock covers Saskatchewan's north with a focus on natural resources, climate change, mental health, reconciliation and equitable access to health care, education and other services. His work primarily appears in the Northern Advocate. He can be contacted at mbwillcock@paherald.sk.ca. His position was made possible by funding through the Local Journalism Initiative. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada. L’Initiative de journalisme local est financé par le gouvernement du Canada