Old Saskatoon police building might become emergency wellness centre to deal with homelessness crisis

People in need of help in Saskatoon might soon have another place to go to during the winter.

Facility would have 50 beds to help homeless population, says Tribal Council chief

Saskatoon Tribal Chief Mark Arcand stands outside the building in downtown Saskatoon that might become a new temporary emergency wellness centre. (Trevor Bothorel/CBC)

People in need of help in Saskatoon might soon have another place to go to during the winter.

The Saskatoon Tribal Council (STC) announced Thursday that an old Saskatoon police building downtown on 1st Avenue North is on the table for a temporary emergency wellness centre, which the STC hopes to open as soon as possible.

"Through the past months, we have been researching," said Saskatoon Tribal Chief Mark Arcand on Thursday.

"We just could not find a warehouse, anything else in the entire city."

The centre is a response to the cold weather and a spike of homelessness in the city, said the STC in a media release. It would be staffed 24/7 and offer shelter, mental health and addictions services

The centre is only set to operate until the end of March, with the option to extend until April 30 depending on the weather.

"Some people, unfortunately, will say, why downtown?" said Arcand.

"We had no other choice. It's not to disrupt the community, it's not to disrupt the downtown, it's try to help people, to save people's lives."

Having people sleep outside or set up tent cities are not safe options, said the tribal chief. 

The facility will be open to anyone, regardless of ethnicity or age, said Arcand.

Final city approval needed 

While Arcand is hoping that the centre can open its doors around Dec. 8, a Saskatoon city council committee needs to consider a lease agreement first. This would allow the wellness centre to operate from within the building for up to five months at a proposed rental of $10.00, according to the STC.

City council has already approved the zoning requirements, and a report will go to the city's planning, development and community services committee next Tuesday for potential approval, said the STC.

"The hope is that a wellness centre will be at this location," said STC in its media release.

"The centre is not finalized, and planning continues."

The next city council meeting is set for Dec. 20, but Arcand hopes that the mayor and councillors can have an emergency meeting at an earlier date.

"The weather is changing, it's getting cold," said Arcand.

"People are calling it a shelter. I want to call it a wellness centre. We are going to promote wellness here. But in the meantime, we have to follow some steps."

Within the 9,200 square foot space, STC hopes to offer several services to clients, starting off with beds for 50 people.

The STC and its partners plan to run mental health and addictions counselling, as well as life-skills training from within the facility.

"We're even going to look at employing some of these people [who come into the centre]," said Arcand. "We want them to be part of the solution."

The Saskatoon Fire Department and Saskatoon Police Service are two of the partners working with the Tribal Council to make this proposal a reality, according to the STC.

Police have a security and operations plan for the area around the centre, and firefighters are making sure the facility is safe to house people, said the STC.

"Ensuring adequate and safe shelter space is available for winter is an urgent issue," said Fire Chief Morgan Hackl in the media release.

The Sanctum Care Group will provide staff at the facility with training on things like trauma- and violence-informed care ,as well as signs and symptoms of overdose, said the STC.

The centre will have 24-hour security on site, and COVID-19 testing and other safety procedures will be in place, said the STC. 

Clients, including people with children, will have access to showers, laundry facilities, transportation and three meals a day, said Arcand.

"If someone is just coming here to try to get a meal, we can't accommodate that," he said.

"It's for people that are actually going to be staying here, try to get some programs and services."

While STC applied for a federal grant to help cover the cost, the organization relied on its internal funding to start the project, said Arcand.

"If we don't get any funding from anybody, this might only be open for 30 days, 60 days, which is not good enough," said the Tribal Chief.

"We've got to do this together and come together. And I know it's a quick plan and a turnaround. But I think for next year, maybe we get a better facility."

The STC continues to reach out to other organizations as well as the public for support and supplies, according to the media release.