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City leaders unwilling to wait to address homelessness

Mayor Clive Tolley won’t pass the buck on homelessness – despite there being a clear separation between the responsibilities of the different levels of government
Homeless man sleeps on a snow-covered bench (Ladanifer- iStock- Getty Images Plus)
Homeless man sleeps on a snow-covered park bench

Mayor Clive Tolley won’t pass the buck on homelessness – despite there being a clear separation between the responsibilities of the different levels of government. 

 “I think our main role, myself as the mayor and the city administration, is we’re trying to provide leadership,” Tolley told “And we realize that while we may not have the budget for this, it’s something we can’t ignore.”

Tolley said that social issues such as homelessness are a provincial responsibility and that there may be federal funding available as well for possible solutions. “We want to lead where necessary, support where we can, and just be part of the solution… Moose Jaw should be a place where everybody is taken care of, everybody has a shelter they can go to at night, and food in their bellies, and clothing on their bodies.”

Community-based organizations (CBOs) such as Square One, Moose Jaw Pride, John Howard Society, and Riverside Mission are most qualified to provide leadership on homelessness in Moose Jaw, Tolley acknowledged. He would like the city’s role to be one of supporting the leadership of those community leaders whose time is fully devoted to the issue.

To that end, a meeting was organized over Zoom on Jan. 6. Councillor Crystal Froese was involved in bringing the various participants together. She worked with Christine Boyczuk, a recognized and respected community leader who also sits on the board of Square One. Froese said they had great attendance, with both MLAs, and representatives from EMS, Mental Health, Social Services, the John Howard Society, Moose Jaw Pride, Transition House, Square One, the Salvation Army, and others.

This first meeting of the so-far-unnamed committee was intended to discover and invite everyone involved, Froese said. CBOs already communicate daily to help specific individuals in danger from the winter cold. However, no organization has so far brought those CBOs together to brainstorm a permanent long-term solution.

Froese said that one of the things she learned during the Jan. 6 meeting was how complex homelessness is.

“It's not a single situation. There's, you know, people that stay in emergency shelters; there's episodically homeless; there's chronically homeless. There are issues around people suffering from addiction, trauma, poverty. Circumstances in their life beyond their control sometimes. So it's a complex issue.”

The committee will be meeting again soon.  Where the first meeting’s purpose was to gather everyone involved and explore their roles, the next meeting will begin to examine possible solutions. Froese hopes the group will hear from representatives of two municipalities who have successfully innovated to address their social crises: Timmins, Ontario, and Medicine Hat, Alberta.

In Timmins, deaths caused by drug overdoses were four times the Ontario average, and twice what Vancouver was seeing – and the numbers were steadily worsening. Led by two local doctors, the healthcare system in Timmins began a new approach. In a recent CBC article, the doctors said they couldn’t wait for outside evidence and direction. Instead, they led their own change based on harm reduction strategies.

Medicine Hat recently achieved an incredible milestone: they are the first city in Canada to reach “functional zero” homelessness. Functional zero means that for three consecutive months, three or fewer individuals were experiencing chronic homelessness. Medicine Hat has demonstrated a system where no one in the city experienced homelessness for more than 10 days in a row before obtaining access to stable housing – and the supports needed to maintain that housing.

Froese said that no one should downplay the work that is already done in Moose Jaw. “We’ve got some exceptional people… I think that’s really important to note, that there’s some very strong collaboration going on in our city, to really care for these people that need our support.”

The problems in Moose Jaw surrounding addiction and homelessness are not unique. Communities across Canada are fighting the same fight. It remains to be seen whether new approaches seen elsewhere will be successfully implemented here.

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