Corbella: Don't let province cut Drop-In funding

Hundreds face living on Calgary streets

About 200 more people might be living on Calgary's streets April 1 if the provincial government carries through with a plan to slash $575,000 from the Calgary Drop-In and Rehab Centre's budget.

Talk about April Fools. This news comes after the province cut funding to the Drop-In, Canada's largest homeless shelter, by $250,000 last year. That adds up to $825,000 - $45,000 less than the $870,000 cost of paying MLAs from all parties for being on a committee that hasn't met for four years. For those who have argued that the money-for-nothing committee is pocket change for the Alberta government, consider just how far that money goes in the hands of the good people who run the Drop-In Centre.

The Drop-In's executive director, Debbie Newman, decided to keep quiet about last year's $250,000 cut so as not to offend the province's bigwigs. But silence certainly wasn't golden for the poorest of Calgary's poor.

Perhaps screaming from the sixth floor of the Drop-In will be. If the province thinks it will be saving money by slashing funding to the shelter, it should think again. Such a move will prove to be penny-wise and millions of dollars foolish.

Newman says the effects won't just be felt by the 10 staff she will have to fire and the 200 people who will no longer find a bed at the Drop-In, but by society as a whole in increased policing, court, emergency services and hospital resources when destitute people don't have a place to sleep at night and hang out during the day.

"If the cuts come, then it means I've got security issues," explains a deflated Newman, who will be meeting with the province's Ministry of Human Services on March 28.

"People become desperate when they can't access services and don't have a place to sleep.

I've had several meetings with the people who will be selling the condos in the East Village, to be a good neighbour. It will have a huge impact on the community," says Newman.

"I've warned the police out of courtesy," she adds. "If I get a cut, they need to know what they're up against. I'm going to need security at the door and they'll need to take on more of the inebriates," says Newman, who points out that she is housing 300 inebriated people a night, and during the day keeping them off the streets.

Calgary Police Chief Rick Hanson said police view the Drop-In Centre and other similar agencies as partners in crime prevention.

"If some of the chronically homeless wind up back on the street, then it will fall on the police service to find an alternative arrangement. It will likely mean arresting them and putting them in the drunk tank, which we know is not an effective way to deal with this very complex issue," Hanson explains.

The chief says tri-morbid people (homeless people with severe addictions, resulting in multiple health issues) are at a high risk of dying, which also increases the risk to police and ups the cost to society.

"If a tri-morbid person dies in police custody in the drunk tank, there's a huge investigation, there must be a fatality inquiry, there's enormous risks to us looking after them because sometimes even though we have folks continuously doing checks, they are at a higher risk of dying," adds the chief. "But if they're looked after at the Drop-In Centre and they pass away there, there's much less finger pointing, less allegations all around."

Since partnering more closely with the Drop-In Centre and Alpha House as well as other agen-cies that deal with inebriates, the police have saved thousands of hours of their time.

Supt. Richard Hinse said police figures show that as a result of partnering with the Drop-In and Alpha House, since 2006 the number of intoxicated people arrested and placed in the drunk tank has decreased from 1,701 to just 451 in 2011.

"So far this year we are housing less than one inebriate per day. We're getting down to the last drunk and we can thank our community partners for that," exclaims Supt. Hinse.

Between 2010 and 2011 alone, 70,000 staff hours were saved in arrest time and processing in the court services section, which means 20,000 more police hours on the street.

The Drop-In not only provides a bed for 1,060 people per night on average, but it also serves up 3,500 meals every day with just three paid staff co-ordinating corporate, community and church volunteers. It provides career counselling, carpentry courses, computer labs, clothing, furniture, nursing care, laundry facilities, showers and compassion.

The Drop-In is the only shelter that provides a space for inebriates to sleep during the day and night, keeping them off park benches and out of police drunk tanks.

Alberta's Minister of Human Services, Dave Hancock, says while no decision has been made to cut funding to the Drop-In, the government is moving toward funding more long-term housing solutions and away from shelter programs.

"Part of this," explains Hancock, who was reached in Edmonton Tuesday, "is that we're a victim of our own success. More than 3,500 formerly homeless people in Calgary have permanent housing now, so there's been a decrease in the demand for shelter beds."

Indeed, the budget for housing has increased $15 million over last year, adds Hanson, it's just the focus is changing as to where that money goes.

Newman agrees that their shelter numbers are down from highs of more than 1,200 people per night during the peak of the boom. But while fewer people sleep in a bed every night, she says 200 to 300 more people, who are one paycheque away from homelessness, come in daily to eat and access other services the Drop-In Centre provides.

"Once people get a permanent home, the need for our services doesn't just stop," Newman says. "These proposed cuts would be a disaster for so many."

Now that the news is public, will the Tory government risk looking like heartless April Fools?

Calgarians can ensure the right thing is done.

Calgary Herald, Wed Mar 21 2012
Byline: Licia Corbella

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