Less than a month after taking office, during a radio show appearance, Saskatchewan’s new Minister of Social Services announced plans to cut funding for the permanent shelter in downtown Saskatoon.
“I’ve heard from my fellow MPs, you know, people from Saskatoon talking about the situation around the (Supported Living) lighthouse,” Gene Makowsky said in an interview with CKOM personality John Gormley.
“I became concerned about the model they have at the lighthouse with so many services concentrated in one area of downtown Saskatoon. So for those reasons what I and the government have decided to do is to move those services out of the lighthouse,” Makowsky said.
The minister said the Lighthouse’s independent living support services will be among the programs that will be moved.
He said funding for his department, as well as the province’s health department, would end.
Makowsky said the province is “considering” the Saskatoon Tribal Council (STC) shelter model as an alternative.
The STC opened its temporary wellness center late last year and plans to open a permanent location on West 20th Street.
Makowsky said the transition would not happen “overnight”.
“We have to get it right. We have to make a sensible transition going forward,” Makowsky said.
His statements follow the public disclosure of an investigation involving Lighthouse executive director Don Windels that largely focused on his use of shelter funds for personal loans.
Windels is currently on furlough and awaiting the outcome of an appeal after a judge ordered him removed from duty in December.
Since being furloughed earlier this year, two board members, Jerome Hepfner and Twila Reddekopp, have overseen the day-to-day operations of the shelter.
In a statement sent to media on Thursday afternoon, Hepfner said Makowsky’s announcement came as a surprise.
“We have had no warning and expect to discuss with the Departments of Social Services and Health what services will remain available at The Lighthouse and the way forward,” Hepfner said.
“Our concern is with the homeless people of Saskatoon, and we will work with our partners and the Saskatoon Tribal Council or any other organization where services may be moved, to ensure that homeless shelter services are maintained and that the transition is as smooth as possible,” says Hepfner.
In response to a request for more details about the plan, the Saskatchewan government provided a statement via email.
“The Lighthouse faces challenges such as governance, management and financial controls, as well as security issues due to the concentration of services in one location,” the statement said.
“In light of these concerns, the Government of Saskatchewan will transfer services to other partners,” the statement said.
ALL GOVERNMENT FUNDED SERVICES WILL BE MOVED
In a follow-up statement sent later in the day, Hepfner said he was told Thursday afternoon that all government-funded services provided by The Lighthouse would be transferred to other providers.
“So far we have been in close contact with social services for over a year,” Hepfner said.
“They were aware of every decision we made before we acted and were aware of every detail from day one.”
Hepfner reiterated that the announcement was “a complete surprise with no prior communication or indication that it was something that was being considered.”
He said the Lighthouse received a call from the Department of Social Services at 10 a.m. advising of a decision relating only to accommodation services.
“There was no indication on this call that other services would be affected,” Hepfner said.
“I understand that this call took place immediately before or even during the time the Minister was broadcast live.”
Minister Makowsky informed me of this announcement this morning. At this time, I don’t have a timeline or details on what this transition will look like.
Mayor Charlie Clark said he was made aware of Makowsky’s announcement Thursday morning.
“We have a growing homelessness, addiction and mental health crisis in our community,” Clark said in a statement.
“We are going through a period of fragility. Any transition must result in a marked improvement in services and supports for those who need them, as well as in the safety and well-being of our community. I pointed this out to Minister Makowsky,” Clark said.
He said that over the years he had “consistently raised my concerns about an over-concentration of services and people in one location at the lighthouse”.
“The city has stepped up in many ways to address the challenges people are facing. We will continue to participate in and support coordinated efforts to strengthen everyone’s safety and well-being,” Clark said.