The problem of vagrancy in Slave Lake is getting so bad and so big recently, something had to give. After some debate on the matter at its April 2 meeting, town council decided to get rid of the benches at Citizens Park in downtown. It wasn’t unanimous, but the majority agreed with councillor Brice Ferguson’s reasoning.
“We can’t expect changes and not do anything,” he said.
Councillor Joy McGregor was against it.
“It’ll just move them a couple of blocks up the street,” she said. “I think we have a bigger problem than that.”
Nobody disagreed the problem is bigger and wider and deeper and making one spot less hospitable wasn’t going to do much. But it was pointed out Citizens Park is nothing but an eyesore that most people avoid. It was set up back in the 1990s by people with a lot of good intentions, using donated funds. But it has simply been a ‘homeless hangout’ ever since.
“It could be a nice green space,” said Ferguson.
“I don’t think the intent has ever been met,” said councillor Darin Busk.
McGregor predicted it wouldn’t work.
“They’ll sit on the ground,” she said. Or they’ll move up the street and hang out at Rennie Hall Plaza.
“Are we going to knock down Rennie Hall Plaza?” she said.
Mayor Tyler Warman supported Ferguson’s proposal to move the benches out of Citizens Park.
“Part of the plan should be to keep them moving along,” he said.
Warman pointed out that a survey of the so-called ‘homeless’ population found out that most of them aren’t homeless. They simply choose to hang around in public places and drink. Some are not even from the community. It has been suggested they not be encouraged in their lifestyle choices.
“They need to go back to their own party,” was how Warman put it.
Council voted 5 – 2 in favour of the plan to remove the benches, with councillors McGregor and Gramlich opposed.
Earlier in the meeting, McGregor reported on her investigations into the vagrancy problem. She said she’s been getting a lot of complaints about congregations of vagrants on or around the railway bridge near downtown. Attached to the bridge is a pedestrian walkway.
“I did some checking,” McGregor said. “Yesterday a guy was sleeping on the bridge. It looks like people are living under there. Any time of day there’s a group.”
McGregor said people are being intimidated away from using that walkway between downtown and the southeast. She’s worried about the safety of kids.
“I’m wondering what we would do about that,” she said.
The RCMP and town bylaw officers have been hearing about it. Recent reports from both parties show that dealing with complaints about loiterers comprises a big part of their time.
“We touched on it at our homeless (coalition) meeting,” said councillor Rebecca King. “John (Spaans, the RCMP Staff Sgt.) is coming up with a plan of action.”