Saskatoon Star phoenix, March 17, 2016 - These days, Lesley Prefontaine is meeting more and more people on the street who need help.
Prefontaine supervises the Saskatoon police community foot patrol. She says more homeless people are out on the street than ever before.
“Our city is growing and some of the people are getting left behind,” she said.
The Community Support Officer program came in contact with 36 people on the street in the last two months. Most of them are homeless or panhandlers, or are simply having a hard time making ends meet.
“We’ve noticed a large increase of new faces on the streets of Saskatoon,” Prefontaine said.
Her findings come on the heels of a concerted effort by Saskatoon police to make people feel safer downtown. Starting last June, police patrols increased in the downtown. According to police, from June through December last year 408 people were arrested through the downtown patrol and 295 criminal code charges were laid. Police also issued 493 tickets related to public intoxication, spitting or urinating and aggressive panhandling.
“Yes, we are taking this seriously. We have put a lot of resources into our downtown area,” police chief Clive Weighill told a board of police commissioners meeting Thursday.
End-of-year police statistics from 2015 showed an overall five per cent decrease in crimes against persons in the city’s Central Division, which includes downtown and some areas west of Idylwyld Drive. That means fewer homicides, assaults and armed robberies were reported in 2015 compared to 2014.
However, the statistics also show a spike in other crimes like arson and break and enters, thefts, mischief and graffiti. The police data for 2015 show a 12 per cent increase in property-related crimes in the Central Division compared to 2014.
“People who homeless or suffering from addictions tend to gravitate downtown, just like any other city,” Weighill said.
Deeann Mercier, spokeswoman for The Lighthouse Supported Living, said she is glad to see more police and community support officers downtown, but there are still strains on many of the resources for people in need.
“The police are the most downstream solvers of emergency issues. There are lots of ways we can do more proactively,” she said.
The Lighthouse was recently forced to scale back the hours of its stabilization unit for intoxicated people.
Weighill said the Lighthouse has been a “life saver” and he hopes more funding will be devoted to help people with mental health and addictions issues.
Prefontaine said she would like to see better coordination between service agencies. Other levels of government, including the province and the federal government, need to take mental health, addictions and homelessness seriously, she said.
“I think it’s not just Saskatoon’s issue. As a province we are growing, and with growth comes issues.”