City greenlights homeless initiative

Herald File Photo

With about 100 people homeless in Prince Albert as of last spring, the City has opted to hire Dr. Chad Nilson to help them find ways to deal with issue. 

At their Nov. 8 regular meeting, council approved $10,500 that will help Nilson to come up with ‘actionable solutions’ and to do them as soon as possible.

“This trend requires action. It doesn’t require discussion. It doesn’t require reports. It requires action and that’s what this initiative is about,” Nilson said in a presentation to council. 

In a refrain echoed by many of the councillors, Nilson said he does not want to have seminars and meetings or write documents that are never looked at again. 

“I’m not interested in pulling together a vast gathering of people in a room where we can point fingers and share empty platitudes of world change. Nor am I interested in writing a voluminous report that sits on a shelf and collects dust,” said Nilson.

He said his job will be to bring together all agencies and groups that work with the homeless and to find what can realistically be done to deal with a growing number of homeless people in the city. 

He said he has seen himself that the amount of homeless people in the city has increased in the last two years.

A point in time count done on March 24, 2021 found 97 homeless people in the city.

Although most were sheltered at night (71), there were 26 people with no shelter at any time. Of the of people surveyed,  the vast majority were Indigenous (97 per cent of sheltered and 85 per cent of unsheltered) and times for being homeless ranged from less than a week to more than a year. 

Homelessness can’t be attributed to any one cause, Nilson said, and solutions will require knowledge of the many reasons people become homeless. 

Recently, advocates across the province have pointed to changes in the provincial social assistance program that has tenants paid their benefits directly rather than forwarding rent payments to landlords as a contributing factor, but Nilson said it is much more than that.

Another recent factor is the ending of the ban on evicting tenants for not paying rent that was put in place as a COVID measure. 

“The dynamics of this condition are everchanging. There are many things at play. It’s not enough for us to come together to lobby the province for more front line workers,” Nilson said. “There are a lot of different moving parts here and for us to get this right, for us to understand what are the contributing roots and causes and of course the consequences of homelessness, we need to engage the right actors.”

Those actors include the City, the Prince Albert Grand Council, band governments from surrounding Indigenous communities, social agencies and the business sector.  

“This conversation of course starts here in Prince Albert in this chamber but it must include the different regional partners we have across Central Saskatchewan,” said Nilson to council. 

All councillors supported the motion to have the initiative go forward except for Tara Lennox-Zepp, who stated that she wanted plans to bring back a warm up shelter for homeless people as well but her motion to that effect was defeated.

Several councillors stated they wanted to have real action on homelessness and also were not interesting in having meetings and reports. 

“Frankly, I am exhausted of setting my hair on fire,” Coun. Ted Zurakowski said. “We need some help. We can’t do it alone. We need to set the table and invite other agencies, other experts into the room and then give them the support to unleash what they do.” 

Before Christmas, Nilson and the partners he plans to work with should have a handle on what the opportunities are for moving ahead. 

However, he cautioned, the final result is dependent on what others bring to the table. 

“As far as moving towards solutions, as I said, this is a complex problem,” he said. 

Some solutions are short-term, such as making sure there is enough beds to meet demand by Nov. 9 when the weather was projected to drop and snow to arrive. 

Short term, there are several organizations offering different types of shelter but in a pinch, they can add beds in some cases, the PAGC has housed people and the police will also have some in the station overnight when it gets really cold. 

The survey found that 36 per cent of homeless people said they had stayed at a friend’s house the night before, 26 per cent had stayed in a shelter and another 21 per cent had slept nowhere, instead walking around the city. 

Short term solutions are one thing and coming up with a better fix will not be simple or easy. 

Not least challenge is what plans homeless people have for themselves. 

Mayor Greg Dionne has stated in the past that some of the homeless people he has talked to have no interest in going to a shelter. 

The point in time survey found that 78.5 per cent of those with no shelter said they had no plan to exit homelessness while 68 per cent of those that have shelter at night or daily (such as the women and children’s shelter) said they do have a plan to leave homelessness. 

“As we start to pull back the different layers, I think that’s when we’re going to realize different opportunities,” Nilson said. 

Along with the funding from the City, Nilson and the Living Skies Centre for Social Inquiry that he represents (which will contribute $5,000 or more) will also have a $25,000 budget from the Community Advisory Board on Homelessness. 

Whether the solutions are for short term emergencies or for a long term approach, Nilson said what he plans to do is not what governments typically see. 

“This is not the conventional ‘OK, let’s do a study and we’ll have the report back in six months with some recommendations,’” he said. “This is a process of building shared community ownership, and dialogue that results in actions and not just empty platitudes.”