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City, advocates working on solution for Grande Prairie's tent city population

Five months after the closure of a daytime drop-in program for the homeless in Grande Prairie the Saint Lawrence Centre will re-open Wednesday. The head of the program is hopeful it will help reduce the number of people living in a tent city near city hall.

'Not having the daytime services I feel was a huge driver in all this'

Some of the tents set up near Rotary House in Grande Prairie. (Glory Przekop)

A tent city housing about 70 people has popped up in Grande Prairie.

It's grown over the summer following the closure of a popular drop-in program for the city's homeless population.

Now officials are hoping that re-opening the Saint Lawrence Centre (SLC) could be a part of the solution.

The centre's doors were closed this spring due to funding concerns. Shortly after that, the tents started to pop up, SLC project lead Jared Gossen told CBC.

Previously the SLC was located inside Rotary House — Grande Prairie's main shelter, which offers short- and long-term supportive accommodation programs. 

It also houses people overnight through the mat program, which is specifically meant for individuals under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Gossen said the mat program was operating over capacity for some time.

"The shelter was supporting over 90 people some nights in a space that was only designed for 37," Gossen said. "In April, Rotary House was faced with making some hard decisions and basically we had to get back under that capacity." 

Jared Gossen founded the St. Lawrence Centre for homeless people in Grande Prairie in 2014. (Zoe Todd/CBC)

Gossen said tenting in the summer is something people have chosen in the past, but not to this extent.

"Not having the daytime services I feel was a huge driver in all this," he said. "We've seen a number of people choosing to stay outside in the summer overnight but generally a lot of folks did take their tents down during the day because we did have our daytime program over the last summer."

The SLC reopening after five months is welcome news but Gossen said this is only temporary. 

Provincial funding for the shelter is meant for emergency overnight accommodations and professional support services, not a drop-in program, he said.

Gossen hopes to see another 40 mats open come October now that the city has put out a request for applicants for two different program initiatives — a daytime warming centre and an overflow mat program. 

On the doorstep of city hall

The camp located near Rotary House is also only a short distance away from city hall. During a count last week city staff estimated about 37 tents were housing 66 people. 

Grande Prairie city councillor Dylan Bressey walks by the encampments almost every day and recently used his blog to talk about the issue.

"A lot of people are very concerned about a potential lack of services for these people that's causing them to need to live in tents," Bressey said. "And from a compassionate level, they are thinking that our community and our province should do better by these people." 

Grande Prairie Coun. Dylan Bressey wants to see the city and province work together to find long-term solutions to address mental health and addictions. (Zoe Todd/CBC)

Bressey added this isn't a problem the city can solve by itself. 

"We're really focusing on advocacy with the province," he said. "This really is caused by mental health and addictions problems and it's the province that's able to solve those problems. The municipality isn't able to."

The tent city in Grande Prairie is housing about 66 people in 37 tents according to a count done by city staff last week. (Glory Przekop)

Bressey said he also wants to see a long term solution, which includes supportive housing for people who come out of treatment. 

"I think it's figuring out how can we help these people become healthier long-term both for their own sake and so they can be better contributors to the community around them."

About the Author

Tricia Kindleman

Reporter/Producer

Tricia Kindleman has spent her life in Alberta. She grew up in Edmonton and attended Mount Royal College, now university, in Calgary. She has worked in newsrooms in Edmonton and Grande Prairie.