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Canmore reassessing Safe Park Program as homelessness on the rise

"With the ever-changing circumstances and the currently unknown impacts on our community, we are going to continue to do our best to provide the community with safe options."

CANMORE – The Town of Canmore said the future of the Safe Park Program is uncertain as the municipality battles the COVID-19 pandemic. 

While originally set to launch this May with 50 parking stalls dispersed across privately and municipally owned lots between 8 p.m. to 9 a.m. for a $10 a night fee – the Safe Park pilot program is now up in the air, as all levels of government are making daily changes to combat the pandemic that is sweeping the country. 

“We recognize we may have to rethink the entire program to factor in community needs, criteria for participation, the number and location of stalls, and possibly the whole program will need to be reconsidered,” Robyn Dinnadge, communication manager for the Town explained in an email.

In February, council approved Safe Park Program as the municipality's solution to what is commonly known as Vanmore. 

After gathering data last summer about the make-shift community where people live out of their vehicles behind the Save-On-Foods store and adjacent to the parking area for Elevation Place, the Safe Park Program was proposed. 

The pilot program was designed to provide a safe place to park overnight for individuals who are employed in the Bow Valley and dwelling in their vehicles. But after the provincial government announced a state of public health emergency last week and restricted public gatherings to a maximum of 50 people – the local tourism industry took a big hit. 

With reports of thousands of people losing their jobs and incomes as restaurants, pubs, cafés, and local ski hills shut down, and no commitment from the provincial government yet to put a temporary ban on evictions, local housing advocate Cindy Heisler, said there are more people than ever facing homelessness in the valley.

"Part of the problem with people getting kicked out of staff accommodations [or through private rental] is they lose their job and with no notice, they are being kicked out but they can't just go away – they can't fly out and there is no public transportation into Calgary anymore. They are absolutely homeless," Heisler said.

Last Friday (March 20), Premier Jason Kenny said the province was not looking to block evictions, even temporarily, but was hopeful landlords would "show flexibility" instead. 

“Let me say that I believe any good landlord is going to show flexibility to their tenants now," Kenney said during a press conference.

"It would make absolutely no sense for a landlord to threaten to evict somebody who has no money to pay rent in the weeks to come because who is going to take that space.”  

Kenney also pointed to the provincial emergency financial aid one-time payment, of $1,146 to help bridge the gap until federal emergency payments can start in April. 

"There is always ... the problem of bad tenants who might be involved in illegal activity or vandalism, or things like that and the landlord must be able to deal with truly problematic tenants,” Kenney said.

Meanwhile, Heisler, who runs the 20,000 member Bow Valley Home Finder Facebook page as a volunteer, said she has already heard of stories from Canmore and Banff tenants who say they have been removed from staff accommodations, or private housing with zero notice.

Heisler said one woman shared the story of returning home to find her locks changed.

On Tuesday (March 24), NDP opposition leader and former premier Rachel Notley called on the provincial government to take action to protect renters. 

"This isn’t about who is a bad landlord or who is a bad tenant – this is about making sure not a single person is asked to vacate their homes while being asked to stay home and self isolate. Kicking people out into the cold during a global health pandemic is unconscionable … you can’t stay home during a global health emergency if you don’t have a home to stay in,” Notley said during a press conference.

Heisler agreed there should be a temporary eviction ban, but also suggested the Town reassess the Safe Park program on a month-to-month basis given the ever-changing status of the current pandemic. 

"[Hopefully] they assess the situation to see what they really need, maybe employers will be ready to hire back in a few weeks – everything is dependant on something else ... but if you shut down Vanmore, for the people who manage to own a vehicle and live out of that, there is literally nowhere for them to go," Heisler said.

In the meantime, the housing advocate is encouraging tenants to reach out to their landlords for interim solutions. 

"If all of these people [facing homelessness] end up in the public somehow, they'll end up exposing twice as many people. If they could at least stay at home, they are staying put and not affecting other people," she said.

The Town said they are going to do their best to provide safe options. 

“With the ever-changing circumstances and the currently unknown impacts on our community, we are going to continue to do our best to provide the community with safe options,” Dinnadge wrote. 

“As things unfold, we will do our best to respond in a fitting, compassionate and safe way.”

The Safe Park Program will be up for discussion at the next Canmore council meeting, scheduled for April 7. 

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