The executive director of Lighthouse Supported Living said he got the news the province would no longer fund the shelter’s unit for intoxicated people shortly before it hit the media.
Don Windels said he’s spent a lot of time trying to sort out what comes next for the stabilization unit ever since.
“That’s a question that I should have asked right away. I was a little bit in shock,” he said.
Windels said he’s since been assured people who qualify for Social Services funding will continue having stays in the stabilization unit paid for. He said the rub comes with who qualifies for that funding.
According to the province, a 2015 report from the provincial auditor showed widespread double-dipping — Social Services was being billed for emergency shelter visits for people whose housing costs were being covered elsewhere. As a result, the province stopped allowing the Lighthouse to charge for those costs.
“A lot changed in the fact that the number of people that (Social Services) were now approving drastically dropped,” Windels said, noting the move led them to cut the stabilization unit’s hours from 24-hours-a-day to 4 p.m. to 8 a.m. earlier this year.
The province then announced this week that a funding review determined that because the Lighthouse stabilization unit wasn’t serving enough qualified applicants, it wasn’t worthwhile to have Social Services help pay to run it.
Windels said he watched the results of these decisions play out on Wednesday night, as at least 20 people were turned away while several shelter beds sat empty.
“Last night we made the decision to follow the province’s policy. No one that was not funded according to their policy was allowed to stay here. My understanding is that the police cells were full, detox was full and there were people still on the streets,” he said.
Windels explained that while it’s all well and good to say someone isn’t homeless because they have rent paid for them somewhere, reality can be more complex than lines on a ledger.
“Some people live in sober housing. So they can’t go there when they’re intoxicated. So they show up and they’re intoxicated, they cannot stay there. So, literally, for that night they’re homeless,” he said.
In other cases, Windels said people aren’t safe in their homes. He acknowledged that others may give Social Services a dummy address for the purpose of gaming the system.
“They get a little bit more money by saying they have an address – so they’ll use either Aunt Suzy, or they’ll use somebody. And other people, they’ll cash their cheques. They’ll say: ‘can you cash my cheque, and say that I’m living here?– use your address.’ Because they get a little bit of a higher living allowance if they have an address outside of here,” he said.
Windels said these were just a few reasons people turn up at the stabilization unit despite having homes paid for by Social Services. Windels said the reality is that whatever brings them there, intoxicated people who can’t stay at the Lighthouse generally have to hope they’re lucky enough to secure one of 12 beds at the Saskatoon Health Region’s Brief Detox Unit. If that doesn’t pan out, they end up in police cells or out in the streets for the night.
Windels said he doesn’t think anyone is coming to the Lighthouse who doesn’t need to.
“We try to make it as comfortable as a shelter can be, but it’s not the Ritz. It’s not a hotel. So wherever they’re staying, it must be worse,” he said.
With winter approaching, Windels said the Lighthouse may have to look for other ways to fund people. He said one possibility could be adopting a system he witnessed in Portland, Ore. Where a shelter collected private donations to fund shelter spaces for a night, then drew names in a raffle to determine who would get the places.
“They had 75 beds. The first 75 names to be pulled out of a hat had a place to stay. It’s sad, but we may have to do that,” he said.
In releases issued about the funding decision, the province has reiterated that it remains contracted to pay per diem costs of housing qualified people at the Lighthouse, noting the shelter received about $1.15 million last year. The decision doesn’t affect money that flows to the shelter throughout the Saskatoon Health Region.