In the early days of the provincial election campaign in 2016, the Saskatchewan government made national headlines for sending two young, homeless, Indigenous men out of North Battleford on one-way bus tickets to Vancouver. In response, a Vancouver city councillor called the Saskatchewan government’s behaviour “callous” and “inhumane.” After witnessing the Saskatchewan government’s approach to issues surrounding homelessness and poverty since 2016, that incident was just a sign of what was coming.
Since 2016, we have seen fundamental changes to programs like assured income for people with disabilities, cuts to the rental housing supplement, changes to social housing and rental support programs, and even – at one point – degrading cuts to funeral assistance for people on income support. All of these changes have brought us to where we are now, during a global pandemic that has further impacted housing stability and income security for many of Saskatchewan’s most vulnerable people.
The Lighthouse Serving the Battlefords has announced its closure on April 1st, 2021. Twenty-two full and part-time employees have been given termination notices. Although many people are eager to point the finger at either the federal or provincial government for the funding changes, remember that the Saskatchewan government cut core provincial funding to the Lighthouse in 2016 by 90 per cent, just a year after it opened. This funding was never restored, so the Provincial Métis Housing Corporation (PMHC) filled the void and provided the bulk of core funding through the federal “Reaching Home” program. The PMHC funding is now being reallocated, because it makes little logical sense for a provincial Métis housing organization to be responsible for an emergency homeless shelter serving the public in the Battlefords. It is within the provincial jurisdiction. The Lighthouse is now left where it was back in 2016 without significant provincial funding.
Saskatchewan is an outlier in how emergency homelessness shelters are funded. In other provinces, shelters are funded using a core funding model where the government will fund a certain number of full and part-time positions, or will fund a core operational budget based on the previous year’s expenses for a shelter. Here in Saskatchewan, emergency shelters still use an outdated per diem model of funding. When an individual is housed in a shelter like The Lighthouse, the Saskatchewan government assesses their eligibility for emergency housing based on factors such as whether they are receiving income assistance, or whether they receive funding for housing through another program or level of government. If they receive funding elsewhere, the government takes the position that the person is not eligible for provincial funding for emergency shelter and will not provide the per diem payment to the shelter for that person’s stay.
One of the jobs of government is to provide public services. These services include the roads we drive on, the hospitals we visit, policing services and recreational spaces like hockey rinks we all enjoy. The Battlefords are communities that deal with high rates of poverty and addictions. Many folks experience ongoing mental health challenges as the result of colonization and the inter-generational effects of government policies that economically, politically and socially cut off First Nations communities. The Lighthouse is an example of a public service in our community that has kept people out of RCMP cells, has provided people with addictions or mental health challenges with a safe place to sleep, and that has connected vulnerable people with resources and a sense of community here in the Battlefords. I could fill another column discussing the economic benefits about the comparative costs of community members using The Lighthouse rather than the policing or healthcare system, and another column explaining the benefits to downtown businesses in ensuring that people experiencing homelessness in the Battlefords have somewhere safe to use the washroom, have a meal, and sleep out of the cold.
But for now, I’ll leave it at this: put politics aside. Our communities are stronger when we take care of those who need help. I urge everyone in the Battlefords to contact your elected officials and work to ensure that our Lighthouse receives the funding it needs to keep the lights on.