'This is what happens to us': Wetaskiwin shuts down emergency shelter early

In the three months since Wetaskiwin’s temporary emergency shelter reopened, some clients have come to consider it home, says operator Vinjelu Muyaba.

Clients’ artwork brightened the walls in the old civic building at 4904 51st St., while others voluntarily scrubbed toilets and folded laundry.

But when the 30 or so people who use the shelter each night walk out of the facility Saturday morning, it will be for the last time.

In a split decision on Feb 20, city council voted to shut down the shelter a month earlier than expected.

“They are frustrated and some of them have been outright angry,” Muyaba said of the shelter’s clients. “But then there’s also the attitude of ‘Well, you know, this is what happens to us.’ “

In an interview Friday, Muyaba said on one hand he understands the decision made by Mayor Tyler Gandum and two other councillors. Two councillors voted against the closure and another two were absent.

But in a statement posted to Facebook, Muyaba noted that the money was there to keep the shelter open until April 1, which would cost taxpayers less for policing and emergency and court services.

“We believe that regardless of an individual’s choice to be sober, go to rehab, or to stay in their addiction, shelter is a human right — particularly when weather can drop to -30 C, and especially when the means exist to provide for this right,” he wrote.

The shelter hosted up to 30 people a night. (Wetaskiwin emergency shelter)

‘Band-aid solution’

In a news release, city spokesperson Ren Goode said complaints about shelter users harassing people and even causing physical harm prompted a special council meeting, where councillors heard from 21 people for and against.

Councillors unanimously supported a motion by the mayor asking administration to identify funding to open a permanent shelter before December. The shelter would operate outside the downtown core and provide mental health and addiction services.

“Council recognizes that the emergency shelter was a Band-Aid solution, and that we still need to — and absolutely will — pursue funding to set up a permanent shelter that addresses our community’s severe mental health and addictions issues,” Gandam said in the news release.

 “We do, however, have a responsibility in ensuring the safety and well-being of all our citizens, which was being seriously jeopardized due to both the location of the shelter as well as the lack of adjoining counselling and treatment supports.”

Muyaba acknowledged the chance of escalation has been high since the majority of shelter users struggle with addictions and the public doesn’t always know how to handle the situation.

But he wants to know if there was any effort to look at how the altercations transpired or whether complaints led to charges, noting most clients are Indigenous.

“They’ve suffered a lot of trauma,” Muyaba said. “So when somebody’s maybe treating them a certain way or saying ‘go back to your reserve’ or whatever it is, that’s going to spark something.”

RCMP said there have been a total of 39 occurrences at the shelter’s address since it opened Dec 1.

Police responded to 22 complaints of disturbing the peace, three assault complaints and the remainder were for violating the liquor act, trespassing, mischief and petty theft.

RCMP could not determine by deadline if any of the complaints resulted in charges.

The mayor and council were not available to speak to CBC News Friday 

The closure is the latest chapters in the city’s ongoing struggle to find a long-term solution for its homeless population that included the controversial move to use animal sheds until they burned down.

It once again leaves homeless residents with nowhere to go apart from a soup kitchen and Muyaba’s Justice Cafe, which provides coffee and dry, clean clothes.

“They’re going to revert back to sleeping in banks and things like that if they are allowed to, and staying at McDonald’s for as long as possible, Muyaba said.

We are sad that they have to go back out on the streets– Vinjelu Muyaba

It was difficult to convince people to use the shelter in the first place, he said, because of ongoing feelings of distrust. Muyaba said he will be there Saturday morning as his friends head out, to offer some words of comfort and hope.

“I would say to them that this is a taste of what’s hopefully to come on a permanent basis, that they were aware that it was not going to be permanent but we are sad that they have to go back out on the streets.”

In a split vote, Wetaskiwin city council voted to shut down the temporary emergency shelter early. (Ren Goode)

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