by Mimi Williams, Communications Staff
This past Valentine’s Day, Premier Jason Kenney held a press conference in downtown Edmonton to announce $4 million in government funding towards the Hope Mission’s expansion of the faith-based Herb Jamieson Centre.
He praised the faith-based organization for providing “loving care” to “human beings possessed with the inviolable dignity created in the image in the likeness of God” for over nine decades.
That the premier would invoke the name of God at a political announcement wasn’t a huge surprise; he does not shy away from his faith, nor should he. That a government that professes to be fiscally conservative would spend this kind of money to expand a shelter that rarely filled the beds it already had did, however, raise a few eyebrows.
What ever happened to that direct line of accountability? When was the last time you heard about ministerial responsibility?
It’s not that struggling Albertans aren’t in desperate need of better services and supports. The last homeless count in the city, taken in August 2019, showed 1,600 Edmontonians lacked safe, affordable housing.
“The problem for many is that the Hope Mission seems to use religion as currency,” says AUPE Vice-President Kevin Barry, who chairs the union’s Anti-privatization Committee.
“Its model pushes the religious mission part of their services a lot more aggressively than other similar organizations in the vicinity, which alienates a lot of people.”
Andre and Mary, who are currently “sleeping rough” know this firsthand.
The pair emerges from a ravine just a few blocks from the Hope Mission after a late June night of steady rain when they stop to talk. They say they’re happier – and safer – in their little tent under the trees than they would ever feel at a Hope Mission shelter.
“I’d rather sleep outside. Between the Bible-thumping and the corona, I don’t know what’s worse,” Andre says with a hearty laugh. “But, seriously, we don’t feel safe there at the best of times. For a place with so much preaching going on, there’s a lot of stealing and fighting going on, too.”
“And judging,” Mary adds.
The pair says they took shelter at Al Rashid Mosque last winter and did not experience similar problems and they frequently visit the nearby Mustard Seed Church for meals. Andre says he has no problems with religion; he just doesn’t appreciate being woken up with someone reading scripture at him loudly or calling him a sinner as they ask him to leave.
Was he left out there, sick and in a T-shirt, after staff talked to him at 3? Was he invited in and refused? Was he really sick enough to be dead within an hour or two, yet had no symptoms? Did they actually even check on him at all?
Not a lot of people know that until 1992, the provincial government operated what was then known as the Edmonton Single Men’s Hostel downtown. It was the last publicly operated shelter in the country. But Guy Smith does. He’s the President of AUPE, and back then he was Vice-Chair of AUPE’s Anti-privatization Committee.
He recalls AUPE being informed just weeks before the contracting-out of the shelter. He and other members of the committee hauled a barbecue to the hostel and hosted a rally in a last-ditch effort to save the publicly-run shelter, sharing food in solidarity with the hostel’s clients.
“At the time, AUPE’s conflict wasn’t really with Hope Mission or any other faith-based non-profit,” Smith says. “It still isn’t.”
At the time, AUPE’s Anti-privatization Committee had a copy of a 1989 report on the future of the shelter, prepared for the regional director of Social Services. Maintaining the shelter as a government operation “helps to ensure that basic, minimum needs continue to be met, because there is a direct line of responsibility from the needy client to the minister who is responsible,” the report read, in part.
Smith remembers that, “Members were angry with the government for abandoning its responsibilities to Albertans and removing an important measure of accountability,” and adds, “We believed then and still do now that the direct line between a Minister and the services they are responsible to deliver needs to be clear.”
AUPE VP Barry agrees, and asks, “What ever happened to that direct line of accountability? When was the last time you heard about ministerial responsibility?”
He argues that this loss of accountability is one of the major failings of privatization and contracting-out, and says that the suggestion that AUPE would agree to contract-out the livelihoods of our members was as ludicrous then as it is now.
Neighbouring organizations, including the local community league and the elected city councillor, pushed back against the Herb Jamieson Centre expansion. They argued that smaller shelters dispersed across the city would better serve the needs of Edmontonians in need of housing.
Kenney’s government, however, slashed the overall affordable housing budget for capital projects in half, from $1.2 billion to $612 million for the next four years. According to the Calgary Homeless Foundation, it costs about $35,000 annually to provide supportive housing per person while it costs taxpayers about $95,000 a year to cover emergency services for one homeless individual.
Referring to Kenney’s government, Edmonton City Councillor Scott McKeen told The Star Edmonton, “I would suggest there is some hypocrisy in their messaging.”
You’ve got to question the political motivation for spending millions on expanding a facility that rarely reached capacity and handing it to an organization that is completely unaccountable to the public
Quoted in the same story, Matthew Deveau, who worked for Hope Mission from 2013 to 2018, described the attitude of many of the staff: “‘Well, the reason people here are experiencing homelessness, addiction and poverty is because they’re sinners and they’re not repenting sinners.’”
Deveau also spoke out about the shelter’s discrimination against LGBTQ folks. He recalled one two-spirited woman who was repeatedly forced to stay on the men’s side because staff refused to recognize her gender.
The same article recounted the disturbing death of Randy Legarde, found lifeless in front of the Herb Jamieson by Edmonton police in the winter of 2018. Police told Randy’s wife, Heather, that shelter staff spoke with Legarde at about 3 a.m., a few hours before officers found him dead in front of the shelter’s locked doors.
“Was he left out there, sick and in a T-shirt, after staff talked to him at 3? Was he invited in and refused? Was he really sick enough to be dead within an hour or two, yet had no symptoms? Did they actually even check on him at all?” Heather asked.
She will likely never know the answers.
“Slashing funding for affordable housing shows how little this government cares about combatting the causes of homelessness, and other inequities in this province, which are only going to increase in these uncertain times of pandemic and recession,” says Kevin Barry.
AUPE members deliver public services to all Albertans in need, regardless of their faith. Barry says this is what public services delivered by and for the community should look like.
“You’ve got to question the political motivation for spending millions on expanding a facility that rarely reached capacity and handing it to an organization that is completely unaccountable to the public,” he says.
“That people would rather sleep outside in the rain tells me there’s something seriously wrong with this model. And the UCP need to wake up, before more Albertans are left out in the cold.”