La Ronge will be without a homeless shelter this winter unless a funding solution is found soon. That’s according to Kikinahk Friendship Centre Executive Director Ron Woytowich — who said the shelter saved lives and demand is higher now than ever because of the pandemic.
“Quite frankly, every year until we started opening the shelter, we had at least one person who froze to death or died sometime between the middle of November and March,” Woytowich said.
“While we were operating it there were no deaths — not one. I honestly believe that because we were running that shelter, we saved people’s lives.”
Woytowich has been running an overnight winter shelter alongside the Scattered Site Outreach Program on La Ronge Avenue by the skin of his teeth. The outreach program is daytime only, exclusively serving people who are both without housing and also have mental health or addictions needs.
Woytowich tried to secure a new location when he was mayor of La Ronge, that would have allowed for a year-round shelter in the downtown core, but his council voted down the proposal amid objections from local business owners.
The building that houses the outreach program can no longer host clients overnight because of insurance rules and the shelter had to operate out of Drifter’s Motel last winter. When the motel filled up a second location was provided by the Lac La Ronge Indian Band. The pandemic complicated things further as demand for shelter increased.
“We had to double the staff because of (COVID-19) rules and we were suddenly looking after two places and transporting (clients) for food. That’s why it cost us so much,” Woytowich said.
“It was a combination of everything and COVID is the big one. Everything that went with it suddenly caused a lot more problems. For us and for everybody else.”
Keeping the shelter afloat has always depended on yearly funding renewals. Woytowich said federal funding through Métis housing no longer applies because only one client is now Métis according to his latest survey. Clients who were Métis later qualified for First Nations status because of amendments to the Indian Act. He said only one client is non-Indigenous.
Out of roughly 200 total clients he said around 40 have First Nations status with the Lac La Ronge Indian Band, but most either belong to other First Nations or are unaffiliated. That leaves the shelter in a kind of jurisdictional limbo where no one will fund it, he said.
“The bottom line is when I originally applied for the funding there were quite a few (clients) who were Métis. Over the last couple of years, they’ve all got treaty status,” Woytowich said.
“The only funding we still get is for Scattered Site, that’s from provincial health. But that’s for people who are homeless with mental health and addictions problems. That’s the total reason for that facility. The province does not fund the other part at all and we’re just basically out of luck now for the federal part of it.”
La Ronge Mayor Colin Ratushniak said he’s looking for a solution but hasn’t found one yet. He blames Woytowich and the friendship centre for giving the impression last winter that funding would be renewed — and then not delivering.
“We were essentially promised that this shelter was not going to close and that it was going to continue. So that’s the frustrating part. We were let down by the executive director and his false promises,” Ratushniak said.
“We have to move on because the reality is that we’re probably less than 90 days away from minus temperatures again. So now we’re left scrambling. And I never like to be left scrambling, because I’m a person who likes to think ahead, and I like to plan.”
The mayor expressed the same sentiments in April when federal funding expired for the shelter spaces and was renewed by the province for the outreach program.
Ratushniak said Woytowich, who preceded him as mayor of La Ronge, should have reached out to keep both programs afloat before it got to that point.
“We had all the players at the table, and we wanted to come up with a plan. Now we have to play catch up,” he said in April. “I’m trying to figure out what the plan is.”
Woytowich said at the time that it would be “fantastic” if the new mayor could find a solution.
“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,” Woytowich said in April. “This is the same problem every year.”
Ratushniak now says a local donor has set aside $1-million to help solve the problem — but he’s personally aiming for more stability.
“I’m going to try to figure out a solution and work with as many partners and other volunteers that want to do it as well. We want to start a long-term solution,” Ratushniak said.
“It’s frustrating on so many levels. Is it something that’s just going to get swept under the rug? Absolutely not. It’s on the forefront of my thoughts every single day and I know that it’s on the forefront of the other community leaders as well.”
Ratushniak said the municipality might need to partner with a not-for-profit organization such as the YMCA or set up a separate agency to run the shelter, but he’s not opposed to hiring Kikinahk’s employees to do the job.
“The one thing I can really say about some of the workers that are providing the current Scattered Site location is I think that they do a phenomenal job. They’re absolute angels. They care, they work beyond the number of hours that they’re required to, and they’re fairly underpaid for what they deserve to be paid,” Ratushniak said.
“If there’s a way of incorporating the work ethic and the work that they’ve provided, then I would absolutely love to see that. But I also know that those workers are burnt out. It’s going to require some leadership and some support so that these workers aren’t in a position where they constantly feel like their jobs (might not) be there the next day.”
For his part Woytowich said he’d be glad for a solution wherever it comes from and is willing to work with the Town of La Ronge to make it happen.
“As a friendship centre, I’ve talked with my own board. We basically said, ‘we’ll offer you all the help we can, the only thing we can’t do is provide the money,’” Woytowich said.
“We’re used to running it and we have the staff… Government funding will only pay $15 an hour. The government has been paying $15 an hour to everybody.”
Woytowich said he has “looked all over the place” for funding with help from some Kikinahk board members and even the provincial office, so far to no avail. “Putting it bluntly, everybody says it’s a federal responsibility because our clients are all Treaty. We have a really good relationship with the feds but it’s just not something that we can get anymore.”