By Greg Price
Safety concerns about a homeless man sleeping in Confederation Park last month has its legal and societal issues according to Taber Police Chief Graham Abela, where tackling the issue goes far past the letter of the law.
“It is illegal (sleeping in Confederation Park overnight as residence). That location is not zoned for any type of occupancy in relation to people living there,” said Abela. “The problem is, when you have homeless people, it is a bigger societal issue than just law enforcement in relation to where someone can stay or where they should reside.”
With training in tow with the complex issue, police often come across homeless people, not just in Taber, but in many communities across Canada.
“People are homeless for numerous reasons and with our experience those reasons can be many things like mental illness, addictions, poverty and as a result of that, you have to treat as a responding officer to complaints of that kind of stuff, looking at it from a holistic perspective,” said Abela. “Our plan when we are dealing with people we feel are at risk to themselves is to make a determination if we have the services in this community to assist people who find themselves in this situation.”
Abela added they have encountered people who want to be homeless.
“You have a full continuum of issues. I have personally dealt with people who have said they choose this lifestyle. They find it more comforting to them. They find the pressures of having a home makes them anxious and a lot of anxiety for them,” said Abela.
“Sometimes they feel safer because they feel like they have more control. I have others who have been absolutely down and out losing jobs, losing family and they just couldn’t take it (mentally) in their suffering. You can’t look at homeless, and use the same brush to paint that whole complex situation the same colour.”
Taber Police Service had many interactions with the homeless person in question and attempted on numerous occasions to provide transportation to resources and inform him of the information to resources to help his homeless situation in southern Alberta.
“We were getting a lack of co-operation. Perceptions of safety are important to us and we want as a police service for people to feel safe in this community,” said Abela. “I think what happens is when there is an exposure occuring to something that is different, it brings about an uneasy feeling in people, a feeling of trepidation or perhaps even a fear for one’s personal safety. It is our job to dispel that if it is untrue, but it’s also our job to make sure people feel safe.”
With the Taber Police Service’s multiple interactions with the homeless person in question, Abela confirmed they did not view the person as a threat.
“I can tell you from our perspective, we do not perceive anyone in our community in that situation as a threat at this time. But we had numerous calls and people were concerned,” said Abela.
“We knew people were dropping off food or dropping off money. Some business owners have complained about homeless people being unlawfully on their premises or building shelters near their premise or in their yards. We have had numerous calls for service and we understand that and each of them is dealt with professionally by our officers. It is a complex situation and is not as simple as displacement.”
Abela tipped his hat to the efforts of Medicine Hat in a housing-first strategy that began years ago with the Homeless and Housing Development Department of the Medicine Hat Community Housing Society.
Developed nearly 25 years ago by a Canadian in New York by which anyone identified as homeless is offered a home without preconditions for sobriety and other self-improvement that keep many people on the street elsewhere.
The theory is that only after people are in stable housing can they begin to address their other challenges.
The strategy has been widely adopted in Europe and Australia according to a Feb. 23, 2017 New York Times article. In the United States, it has found success in reducing homelessness among military veterans in cities like New Orleans, Salt Lake City and Phoenix.
It is said to be most effective in smaller-sized cities where social workers know the names of almost everyone who is down and out.
In the article, it says studies have been cited that says the average homeless person costs Canadian taxpayers $120,000 a year, or $91,600 in services, while it costs just $18,000 a year, or $13,740 to house someone and provide the necessary retention support.
That kind of evidence persuaded the conservative government of former Prime Minister Stephen Harper to pursue housing first as a national policy. Under Canada’s subsequent Homeless Partnering Strategy, the federal government now distributes about 176 million Canadian dollars a year, or about $134 million, among 61 communities to fund services for the homeless. About 40 percent of that money must be spent on housing first interventions.
Medicine Hat has declared themselves homeless-free for the last two years in implementing the program.
“They have wrap-around services for people who find themselves in that situation (on top of the housing initiative). We don’t have those services here. We are small community. We have some services, but not to the level or extent,” said Abela.
“Part of that is we really don’t have a (homeless) problem here. Over the years since I’ve been here, we have had a few people who have been more transient in nature who come and stop for awhile, are treated with hospitality given we are a giving community wanting to help, and then they move on eventually.”
While the Taber Police Service can do law enforcement options in dealing with laws the homeless may break, they are not equipped to deal with the whole spectrum Abela referred to earlier in the complex issue that make up the homeless.
“The police are not responsible for housing specifically. The police are not responsible for mental health. It is not illegal to be mentally ill,” said Abela.
“We are responsible for public safety, but at the same time we understand we play a part in the well being of the community and we will proactively attempt to assist the public at large and the homeless individual in helping to provide service if he wants them.