Long-awaited homeless shelter opens in Wetaskiwin, still in search of a permanent home

·4 min read

A long-awaited homeless shelter finally opened in Wetaskiwin last November, but the facility is still looking for a permanent location to call home.

The Integrated Response Hub opened eight weeks ago to respond to a long-standing need in the city for an overnight shelter. The hub offers around-the-clock intake and a variety of support programs. Since opening, 195 different people have used the shelter.

But its downtown location inside the Wetaskiwin Civic Building is still a problem for business owners in the area, city government and even for the agency operating the shelter.

"Everyone's hands are tied, and we're all saying the same thing," said Jessica Hutton, executive director of the Open Door Association, which operates the shelter. "This is not a good location, we don't want to be here, we want to find somewhere to go as quickly as possible.

"But for right now, it's the best we can do."

After securing funding for the shelter last fall, Open Door found property on the city's south side it wanted to purchase for the hub. But just weeks before they were set to open, residents, businesses and a nearby church successfully challenged whether the spot was zoned to hold a homeless shelter.

Open Door and the city government soon discovered there is no property in Wetaskiwin zoned to allow a homeless shelter. The city had to declare a state of local emergency to allow the shelter to open on schedule in the Civic Building.

The Civic Building is suitable for now, Hutton said. But even moving just outside downtown would help, she added, to allow them more space for the number of clients they're taking in.

'50 years to get to this point'

Eight weeks in, mayor Tyler Gandam said he's happy with the hub's work. Wetaskiwin, about 70 kilometres south of Edmonton, has never before had a 24-hour shelter with integrated mental health and addictions supports, Gandam said. But the current city government wanted to make it a priority.

"Having the ability to have something in place now where the supports are available is a huge first step," Gandam said. "While it's taken us 50 years to get to this point, we're a long way away from seeing the fruits of the labour that's being done."

The Civic Building was used for emergency shelters the last two years. But after complaints of harassment and fighting closed the shelter early last year, Gandam said at the time he didn't want to use the building again as a shelter, preferring a location away from the city's downtown.

Gandam said some residents and businesses in the area are now upset the Civic Building is being used as a shelter for the third winter in a row.

Public response

Dalbert Okeymow has been using the shelter for roughly three weeks now. He said he thinks the building is also a little old and small. He said he hopes a new location will have more showers and bathrooms, and more personal space for clients.

But Okeymow also said the shelter has been awesome so far with staff that look after the clients and make sure they're safe, as the homeless population has often been overlooked in Wetaskiwin in the past.

"This is exactly what the city needs, a place like this for people to come and figure out their situation," Okeymow said.

CBC/Travis McEwan
CBC/Travis McEwan

The hub's clients have been happy to have this site for security and community, Hutton said, but there has been strong opposition from some Wetaskiwin residents and not always about the location.

Some don't believe the hub should exist at all. Hutton said her staff receives calls to their help line using racist language about the hub's clients, and she hears from clients every day about run ins with the community.

But Hutton said the hub has also received positive community support. One recent example came on Saturday, when positive signs of love and support for the hub's clients were made by community members and placed in front of the hub.

"There was just this level of humanity," Hutton said. "That is such a change and such a shift from what they have had to experience."

As long as the state of local emergency is in place, Hutton said they won't have to leave their temporary home. Open Door and the city are working together to plan to repurpose or build a new facility.

Gandam said he's sure some would have opposed the hub no matter where it opened. He's already heard complaints about public intoxication and people feeling harassed or threatened near the site. While he understands some of the complaints, Gandam said he hopes the community will support the shelter's work.

"It's going to take a long time before we start seeing the benefits of the services and the hub's supports," he said. "I just ask, while we go through some of the growing pains that we're going to experience, that the community works with both us and the Open Door, and helps to be a part of the solution."

With files from Travis McEwan