Downtown Lethbridge is the heart of the city and faces challenges with crime and homelessness on a daily basis.
Some are eager to find solutions with the same objective in mind but there are two very different approaches toward overcoming the issues being faced in the city’s core.
Lori Hatfield, with Mom’s Stop The Harm (MSTH), shared the understanding she believes is needed along with the stable housing and support system lacking.
“Understanding each situation because everybody's unique, not having stable housing impacts people tremendously. And it shows us that it's very hard for somebody to stabilize when they don't have the support systems in place,” said Hatfield this week.
City of Lethbridge Deputy Mayor and city councillor John Middleton-Hope has a different point of view on the situation.
He says enabling behaviours is not the solution and experts are needed to overcome the issues.
“What we do is we end up enabling a lot of these behaviours, and we just make it worse. So what we need to be doing is we need to be working with people that have expertisea and experience in working with challenged populations, and criminal populations, because a lot of this, as I've mentioned before, is criminal in nature,” said Middleton-Hope.
Hatfield said addiction is contributing to the situation and talked about the sad stories behind those struggling with addiction.
“There's so much involved with the homeless situation because not everybody was homeless.
Many people on the streets are there not because of addictions, she says.
“There's many people on the streets that aren't, that just don't have a place to live for whatever reasons, and the stories are getting sadder and sadder. I think, from my perspective, that just leads to more people maybe turning to substances as a way of coping with their situation.”
Middleton-Hope shared his concerns about public safety along with the need to utilize available resources and the need for enforcement.
“I'm all about public safety. And public safety sometimes is not just enabling behaviours. A lot of it has to do with changing behaviours. And one of the ways in which you do that is you utilize the resources that you have, and that goes beyond just looking at trying to provide housing and trying to provide social services and so forth.
“A lot of it has to do with employee behaviours. And that's where the police, bylaw enforcement, community peace officers, public security, private security all come in… If we don't, we don't have any accountability, we just continue to throw money at problems and hope that that's going to solve it. And it doesn't.”
Hatfield related her own personal experience with her son having struggled with addiction.
“If somebody finally gets the courage up - because it is a very scary move for them - if they've been using drugs to go to not using drugs, it's very scary for them” to finally want to make that change, says Hatfield.
“They make that first step to go into detox. And that is, by no means, an easy time at all.”
Middleton-Hope says it’s important to hold people accountable for their harmful behaviours that are impacting businesses downtown.
“We have to hold people accountable for their behaviours. The behaviours that are occurring downtown are deplorable. Whether it's because they got themselves hooked on drugs, or somebody got them hooked on drugs, or they're dealing with trans-generational trauma, the reality is the outcome, which is for behaviours that take advantage of everybody downtown. And that's got to stop.”
Hatfield voiced the approach she believes the City should take in assisting with the addiction challenges and the resources acquired.
“If the City wants to see change in the city, they need to have all those things set up. They need to have a detox, enter a transition right into treatment, and transition right into so sober living or transitional housing, something that works for them. They need to have those places, those things all in place, running fundamentally right after the other.”
Middleton-Hope shared statistics of illicit drug overdoses resulting in deaths throughout Lethbridge. The new numbers from the Alberta substance surveillance system concluded in January to the end of April of 2023, show 56 individuals had died due to illicit drug use.
He mentioned most of the deaths take place in Galt Gardens but not exclusively.
He recognizes some associated with Mom’s Stop the Harm have had experiences with family members going through drug addiction but pointed out they are not experts and encourages them not to dictate policies put into place to help with the challenges.
“You know, some of them may have experience with a family member was a drug addict or a family member ended up on the street, or something of that nature. But that doesn't mean that they have expertise in that area. It simply means that they have a warm heart.
“For people that are living on the rough side of the street, that's OK. But the reality is, is don't try and dictate policy, don't try and pre-suppose what the City is doing, what the police service is doing, what council is doing, to try and resolve these problems to have a sustainable impact on these problems.”
Hatfield said some resources are not set up fairly, with intake in some cases taking two weeks to two months to get in. And the requirement for individuals to call at a specific time is unrealistic given the situation of a lot of the individuals living on the street who don’t have cell phones or access to a phone.
“It’s setting people up to fail, that first service that might be helping them. What other places do you have where they turn you away and you start at square one again if you don't check in?. . . Those needs have to be met in a way that is acceptable.”
Middleton-Hope noted Streets Alive provides individuals living on the street access to rides and opportunities on a regular basis. He said there are adequate services, but it is the individual’s choice to utilize those resources.
“The primary goal is to make contacts and to refer people to services and the services are available. The downside is we don't always have the services available at the time when they need them.
“Not all of the services are geared towards every person downtown. But at the end of the day, there are adequate services. If people want the services, then they can access them. The reality is, there are many people downtown who don't want the services.”
Hatfield said the closure of the supervised consumption site pushed more individuals out on the street to use drugs and the provncial government hasn’t helped to address the issues.
“We had a place for people to go use their drugs safely. And they weren't happy about that either. And we told them, once you get rid of the supervised consumption site, you're pushing people back out on the street to use. Where are they going to go? They have nowhere to live, they're going to use on the street. So the community and our and our municipal government have created this mess, as well. Well, maybe not created it, but they haven't helped to aggress to a more positive outcome.”
Middleton-Hope pointed out negatively criticizing the professionals does not solve any problems and invites those interested in wanting to make change to join the efforts.
“Having people who criticize everything that the city is doing, and having people that criticize what council is doing, or people that criticize what the police service are doing, it's not helpful. If you want to come forward and provide expertise in an area, we're all for it.
“If you want to provide research, or if you want to provide help, we're certainly about that. But at the end of the day, your criticisms really don't do a whole lot in terms of solving the problems.”
Hatfield voiced the mechanisms needing to be put into place without implementing personal beliefs.
“We need to put mechanisms in place to support people where they're at now without trying to implement our values and our beliefs on them. And that's what our city council needs to do. They need to start looking at this more with an open mind and a willingness to help people.”
Middleton-Hope described the mental state of some individuals experiencing addiction who are unable to mentally live in a home or apartment setting.
“You think we can give them a home and give them an apartment? No, they wouldn't know what to do with that… These people that are living hard on the street that are drug addicted that have organic brain damage. Do you think we can get them a house?
“Do you think we can get them into services? And the answer to that is we can't. We can't provide treatment for everybody, and not everybody responds to treatment.”
Steffanie Costigan, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Lethbridge Herald