Regina homelessness advocates frustrated as first snow falls

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People walk past as a pair of legs stick out from someone sitting on the concrete. ptrabattoni via Pixabay

There is a tent city, it’s just not in the middle of the park

The first snowfall of the season means it is time to dig out winter clothing, book an appointment to put on the winter tires, and maybe make a snowman with wet, sticky snow before the first snowfall melts. For people on the streets, these are unimaginable ideas. The first snow day never consists of making snow angels or having snowball fights. Instead, it’s figuring out how to secure winter clothes for the season and staying as dry and warm as possible.

Alysia Johnson, an advocate with Rally Around Homelessness, has witnessed the struggles of homelessness in the community. With many barriers in place to access sheltered housing and long-term action plans, Johnson said many people on the street will die.

“[It] is unfortunately worse than last year,” said Johnson, who is seeing more homelessness than ever. “It is a little bit more hidden and harder to detect, but it is certainly not better. I would argue the only things that have made it – and I hate to use the term better – is the fact that so many people died.”

Kelsey Dumont, another advocate with Rally Around Homelessness, said “Band-Aid” resources like donating blankets and clothing are only meant to support people temporarily until they can find them living conditions.

“All I know is that as things stand right now, Regina does not have a 24-hour warm-up centre,” said Dumont, who explained it’s something Downtown and Heritage areas direly need.

When tent city Camp Hope was pitched in Pepsi Park in October of 2021, Johnson and Dumont spent a large portion of time volunteering on the grounds. One in five people who lived at Camp Hope have died. On October 25, the Regina Leader-Post reported a tent city set up outside in a back alley. Dumont said that she recognized many of the people when she went to drop off some supplies.

“It’s the same people, the people who are still alive from Camp Hope last year,” said Dumont. “It’s the same group of people. They’re all just out there. They’re looking out for each other.”

Dumont said that tarps set up for privacy, a few tents, old couches dragged in to sleep on, and a small coal-burning fire is the reality for people who are on the streets. Dumont said that there was lots of planning last year to set up Camp Hope in the park with the City of Regina emergency, police, and fire departments all being consulted. Dumont said after the community was moved to an indoor shelter, the City of Regina let them know that “under no circumstances would they allow tents to be put up again.”

Many people are still out on the streets because they cannot get into shelters at night. Often, the head count for shelters is inaccurate because many people do not have access to shelters. Many people cannot get into or access shelters for the night because they must pass a sobriety-for-service test. Dumont explained these head counts do not account for “rough homelessness.”

“There’s so many people who are homeless,” said Dumont. “There are so many people who experience ‘hidden homelessness.’”

People who are couch surfing or those who slept out on the street make up a large percentage of people who did not make the head count. Johnson said for the first night of sleeting weather, around 150 people spent the night outside.

Johnson works with a well-known Heritage area non-profit organization with many of these people who are considered the most difficult to house. “In the context that I discuss homelessness I’m typically talking about people that are sleeping rough on the streets, getting cold and wet in the snow, right now.”

Shelters can be inaccessible for many people who experience homelessness. These issues are amplified even more for those who struggle with addictions. Johnson explained that addictions are by no means the sole reason why many people experience homelessness, but they do need to address high overdose rates by funding harm reduction. Funding harm reduction would ultimately bring down healthcare costs for many people experiencing homelessness, according to Johnson. “From a cost benefit, it’s absurd not to do.”

Dumont echoes this and explains that she has been dropping off Narcan in the small tent community that has formed. A major benefit of Camp Hope was that there were attending healthcare professionals on standby to administer help with any concerns that may have arisen. Dumont said this did not go unnoticed by emergency responders. “Both the police, EMS, and fire last year had noticed there was a reduction in 911 calls when Camp was up, because we were helping triage and navigate, you know, folks who needed healthcare or when people were overdosing who needed healthcare.”

After writing a proposal in February 2022 and meeting with a member of the City of Regina, Johnson still has not heard an update from anyone if there is going to be developments for a 24-hour warm-up station. “It’s so important because we have neighbors in our community that are losing fingers and toes, and limbs, and hands,” said Johnson. “They are freezing, they are cold, they are wet.” Johnson said many cases of homelessness in the city are people who are “dying needless deaths.” 

“In a city the size of Regina,” said Johnson, “if we had an all hands on deck approach, and we really wanted to tackle this, we shouldn’t have 20 or more people at any given time that can’t find somewhere to go.”

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