Rough sleepers in Red Deer stay on the move as city addresses homeless camps

Behind the former Cannery Row Bingo building in downtown Red Deer, Ramona Deschamps and her partner break down their makeshift tent and pack their belongings into shopping carts.

As Red Deer waits for a permanent homeless shelter, unhoused people are setting up temporary camps.

Ramona Deschamps has been spending her nights at this campsite near Red Deer's temporary homeless shelter in the former Cannery Row Bingo building. (Heather Marcoux/CBC News )

CBC Edmonton and CBC Calgary have teamed up to launch a pop-up Red Deer bureau to help us tell your stories from central Alberta. Reporter Heather Marcoux will bring you the news from Red Deer and the surrounding area. Story ideas and tips can be sent to heather.marcoux@cbc.ca.

Behind the former Cannery Row Bingo building in downtown Red Deer, Ramona Deschamps and her partner break down their makeshift tent and pack their belongings into shopping carts.

They've been in the area for about four weeks, first setting up camp on the property of the old bingo hall that has served as Red Deer's temporary homeless shelter since March 2020. 

When they were asked to move, they hauled their things to the other side of the fencing separating the shelter property from a parking lot. 

"Usually it happens every two, three days," Deschamps says. "We get told that we can't be in a certain area." 

They like to stay near the Cannery Row shelter because Deschamps' diabetes makes her vulnerable to medical problems. 

A makeshift tent at Deschamps urban camp in downtown Red Deer. (Heather Marcoux/CBC News )

Deschamps has been without housing for the last year and prefers to sleep outdoors so she can stay next to her partner of 23 years. 

"The first part of being outside here was freezing," Deschamps says. "We were burning up probably a propane tank a night to stay warm." 

After speaking with CBC News, the couple continue packing, preparing to move to a new campsite they've heard about, one the police and the parks department don't yet know about. 

Sleeping rough 

Deschamps and her partner are among an unknown number of people sleeping outdoors in Red Deer.  

Due to COVID-19, Red Deer's point-in-time homeless count for 2020 was postponed until next month. While people sleeping rough went uncounted last year, their camps did not. 

Between December 2019 and December 2020, the city removed about 318 urban camps, said John Eastwood, the city's park superintendent. The year before, 376 camps were cleared, up from 234 in 2018. 

The city's 2020 budget set aside $400,000 for camp clearing. 

"It's definitely become a focal point of the city," Eastwood said. "Our council has deemed that a major priority within our framework of operations. So we have dedicated a crew to cleanup of camps.

"We've seen camps from where it's just been debris, to full-fledged structures, to fairly significant-sized camps.

"From a parks perspective, our mandate is to help ensure that we have safe spaces for people to enjoy and that's what we do." 

Staying safe

Staying safe is also a priority for Deschamps and other rough sleepers in Red Deer. 

Deschamps prefers to stay close to the overdose prevention site and the temporary shelter, where she can be as safe as possible while in active addiction. 

During Red Deer's 2016 homeless count, addiction and substance use was not in the top five reasons people gave for being homelessness.

In 2018, the most recent count, it was number one. 

Stephanie McDonald, housing manager at Safe Harbour Society, oversees a program called coordinated entry while collaborating with Canadian Mental Health, the YMCA, Red Deer Native Friendship Centre, the Outreach Centre and McMan Youth, Family and Community Services Association. 

"All those places have housing programs, and essentially what the intake worker will do is connect with these individuals, to the assessment and find the appropriate program for them," McDonald said.

The list to get into programs can get long, she said, with about 120 people in line at one point last year. 

Complex needs 

According to a 2019 City of Red Deer report on homelessness, the city is seeing clients with more severe and more acute issues fostering a need for more housing options for people with addictions and other complex needs. 

"Some of us can't even fill out an application; I honestly can't," said Deschamps, who lives with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder and wasn't formally educated beyond Grade 2.

McDonald says more funding for housing-first programs for people with complex needs would help bring Red Deer's urban camp numbers down.

She's also waiting to hear from the province when the permanent, 24-7 emergency shelter, first announced two years, will get off the ground.

The Red Deer Integrated Homeless Shelter project is still in the planning phase, said Rob Williams, spokesperson for the minister of community and social services.

"Work is ongoing to determine the shelter location, design and service delivery model," Williams told CBC in a written statement this week.

Once complete, the permanent shelter will offer "sober and intoxication emergency shelter beds, food preparation and meal service, showers, washrooms, laundry and storage facilities, access to housing, mental health and detox supports," the statement said.