Packed shelters, systemic barriers: Homelessness continues to rise in Saskatoon
Ride-along with Saskatoon Fire Department shows scope of problem
Homelessness is on the rise in Saskatoon, as inflation and rising costs of living push already vulnerable populations further into poverty.
On Jan. 27, CBC rode along with the Saskatoon Fire Department's Assistant Chief Yvonne Raymer as she checked in on people who were outdoors around the city. The mercury lingered between –20 C and –25 C on that day, with the wind chill making it feel as cold as –31.
"Fifty-six of our 66 neighbourhoods have unhoused individuals we have interacted with. It's across the city," Raymer said.
She said the fire department uses a "proactive approach," regularly checking in with the inadequately housed to learn their reasons for not being in a shelter or permanent housing. Raymer said her officers had around 600 such interactions in December alone.
Some people refuse to go to shelters, she said.
"There are multitudes of reasons, but often it is that they are so deep into their addictions, the thought of going to shelters where they can't use [drugs], is daunting," Raymer said.
The Saskatchewan Coroners Service reported 55 deaths from suspected overdoses last month — six more people than in January 2022, according to the justice ministry.
Other barriers people often face include anxiety and mental health issues, Raymer said. Lost identification is another common problem.
"Another barrier we have identified is the concentration of government services downtown," she said. "I hear them say that they don't want to go downtown among people in business suits, and that they'll get judged or feel embarrassed."
On top of assessing wellness, Raymer said the fire department's in-person check-ins help prevent fires, such as the one in 2021 that started when an unhoused person used a barbecue for warmth. No one was injured, but a garage was destroyed.
Raymer said these fires can occur when someone is in a house with no utilities hooked up and uses fire to try to warm up.
'The definition of housing is different for folks'
As night fell, the shelters Raymer showed CBC developed lineups, with many people waiting outside in the brisk air for seats to become available. Some shelters had people nearby pushing their belongings in carts.
Raymer and her team did a lap around St. Paul's Hospital. She said unsheltered people often try to warm up in areas such as the hospital loading dock and the rear service entrance.
A woman clad in a light blue jacket with no gloves sat under a steam exhaust along the icy pavement of the hospital, multiple bags surrounding her. The fire crew offered her help, but she told them she would couch-surf.
"The definition of housing is different for folks," Raymer said.
Late at night in a downtown alley behind The Lighthouse Supported Living, an encampment made of blue plastic sheets was next to an open junction box in the corner of the contractor parking lot. The officers were told it had housed six people the previous night.
During interactions with Lighthouse staff, Raymer was told that the shelter was at capacity.
"I'm never going to encourage living in these kinds of conditions. It's not safe when it's supposed to go till –40," she told the staff.
WATCH| Ride-along with Saskatoon Fire Department shows scope of homelessness in city:
Saskatchewan Income Support program adds to problems
Len Usiskin, executive director of Quint Development Corporation, said the homelessness crisis is still deepening across the city, even though new shelters have opened up.
One facility, the new emergency wellness center in the city's Fairhaven neighborhood, has been at capacity since it opened.
Usiskin said the warm-up location at Station 20 West had more than 80 people use it during a recent weekend.
"The desperation people are experiencing when they come here is quite unbelievable. We wonder when we close our doors, where do those people go? Many don't have any place to go during the day," he said.
Usiskin said income assistance has not increased proportionally to keep up with inflation in food prices, rent and utilities.
Referring to a recent Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation report, Usiskin said the average rent of a two-bedroom purpose-built rental unit in Saskatoon is $1,243 — a 3.4 per cent increase from 2021.
"Many low-income renters are struggling to find affordable housing and can only afford seven per cent of rentals in Saskatoon," he said. "People are one mistake away from being evicted or homeless."
Usiskin said there has been a dramatic increase in people who are in bad debt and moving out of their places since the introduction of the Saskatchewan Income Support program, as the government stopped making direct payments of rent and utilities to landlords and utility companies.
"All of this is creating a perfect homelessness storm in our city. It's tragic," he said. "This year is so much worse and unprecedented."
Usiskin said the lack of investment in affordable housing and the income support program's structure are driving evictions and homelessness.
The Office of Residential Tenancies, which adjudicates hearings between landlords and tenants on evictions, received 4,037 applications from landlords seeking an eviction between April 1, 2022, and Jan. 31, 2023. Almost 50 per cent of those, 1,984, resulted in a writ of possession being granted.
In December 2022 alone, it issued 172 writs of possession, 58 of which led to the sheriff's office enforcing an eviction.
As of Jan. 27, 2023, 145 writs of possession had been issued since the start of the year.
So far this year, there have been more than 320 evictions in Saskatchewan, according to Canadian Legal Information Institute (CLII) records.
Rent arrears drive evictions
Sarah Buhler, an associate professor at the University of Saskatchewan's college of law, has been reading eviction decisions from 2020 and 2021.
"Landlords win in a vast majority of cases when it comes to evictions. The most common ground for evictions in Saskatchewan is arrears of rent or nonpayment of rent," she said.
She said in 2020 decisions, the tenant did not attend more than 60 per cent of the hearings, something she said is caused by a lack of accessible technology and transportation.
Research in other jurisdictions shows members from racialized communities, youth and women are more likely to experience evictions than others, Buhler said.
"Women are being evicted at higher rates than men in Saskatchewan," she said.
"It's actually contrary to the international human rights law to evict someone into homelessness, and I think that should be brought into our local laws. Evictions leave long-term impacts on people's economic and social well-being."
She said "the justice and equity" of evicting tenants should be considered. She cited one case she found where a tenant was evicted when they were only $5 behind on their rent.
"Evictions in Saskatchewan have a lot to do with affordable housing. That should change."