'Life comes before property;' The ongoing struggle with homelessness in Saskatoon

NEWS TALK 650- CKOM, Sep 19, 2015- Chris Moyah can remember in vivid detail the two months he spent living under the bridge in Prince Albert.

After an argument, he was thrown out of a friend's home without a backup plan. He found shelter wherever he could, including beneath the bridge.

"It was gross. You're sleeping with bugs. You have no blankets. You wear the same clothes for days on end. No place to shower, nothing," he said.

Moyah's previous living conditions are similar to the roughly 400 individuals in Saskatoon who don't have stable housing. They include up to a dozen people who made camp beneath the condemned Saskatoon traffic bridge. This week, the Saskatoon Fire Department cleaned out the camp, citing safety concerns.

The bridge was closed in 2010 because rust and corrosion had been eating away at the structure, leaving it unsafe to travel on, let alone live under.

"In good conscious we just felt that we couldn't just turn a blind eye to it. We really needed to deal with it because there were enough safety issues that it was important," assistant fire chief Dave Bykowy said.

Fire crews pulled out piles of mattresses, pillows, and blankets along with an old computer monitor, speakers, clothing, broken picture frames, a heater and 96 needles. Bykowy said in his 29 years on the force, this is the first time he's ever had to clear out a camp.

"We actually went into this not even realizing there were issue with refuse. It was completely a safety perspective when we stepped into it," he said. We are aware of and compassionate and have a heart for the homeless. It's gut-wrenching to see this in our city.``

The fire department and police both tried to contact the individuals living under the bridge to warn them of the impending clean up, but they were only able to get in touch with one woman. Bykowy said despite patrols in the area, the individuals might not have wanted to talk to the police or give away where they were staying.

Cst. Derek Chesney knows where many of the city's homeless spend their nights. For four years, he walked the downtown beat around the central, Riversdale and Broadway areas and often came across people sleeping in everything from bushes to doorsteps.

The city's cold weather strategy gives police a tool to use to get people accommodation. There are also policies for intoxicated individuals where officers can help them find a detox shelter, a hospital or - if they were being violent - a holding cell.

On more than one occasion Chesney escorted someone to a shelter, but said he sometimes let them stay where they were.

"I'm there to protect life and property. Life comes before property so if somebody was bedded down in a bank lobby in the night and it was cold out and they weren't causing any issues, I a lot of time just left well enough alone," he said. "At the end of the day I'd sooner have someone safe than out in the cold."

Despite efforts and good intentions from police, fire, and social services, issues of homelessness persist in Saskatoon.

The latest image to surface on social media this week shows a group of people sleeping in the entrance way to the First Nations Bank of Canada. Last November, 42-year-old Jerry Peequaquat was found dead in an abandoned semi truck he had called home for months. The stories renewed calls for more homeless aid.

"People just make due with anything and everything, but that doesn't mean that it's actually survivable where they're staying," Lighthouse Supported Living spokeswoman DeeAnn Mercier said.

Mercier said sometimes people can't stay at shelters due to addictions, pets, behavioural issues and inability to live in a dorm-style setting.

Moyah, for example, said he couldn't meet the Prince Albert shelter sobriety rules due to his drug addictions. The Lighthouse has 20 detox beds but Mercier said the sometimes have to turn away as many as five people every night. She said they are adding 17 new detox beds before winter.

Though it is not an easy or quick solution, Mercier said the best scenario has always been to find permanent, affordable housing and ensure there are supports so people can keep their home.

Saskatoon's vacancy rate is on the rise and currently sits a 4.6 per cent, but Mericer said available apartments and homes are useless when the prices are still unaffordable.

After two months under the bridge, Moyah was fortunate to return to his family on the Poundmaker First Nation. He knows many homeless have no support system behind them but encourages them to keep moving forward.

"Don't give up," he said. "Keep trying and there's always going to be hope. Just get out there and keep searching."

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