In Saskatoon, few pieces of real estate have stirred as much controversy and debate as the Lighthouse.
The building, located on the corner of Saskatoon’s 20th St E and 2nd Avenue, was constructed in 1905 as the Empire Hotel, then changed hands in the 1960s, when the original brick exterior was renovated with the tile and marble it’s known for. It became the Capri Hotel in the 1970s, owned by a Saskatchewan guy named Pius Pfeiffer (also of North Battleford’s Tropicana Hotel fame) finally shuttering its hotel doors in the early 90s.
At this point Pius, a man as generous as he is wealthy (and a tad religious, as the name might have tipped you off), donated the land and building to a local group calling themselves the ‘Voyageur Club’, which planned on converting the building into a hostel and low-income housing for seniors.
That vision didn’t pan out and the building sat virtually unused for fifteen years. In 2007 the Voyageur Club changed its name to The Lighthouse Supported Living Inc (LSLI), with a new focus on aiding Saskatoon’s most vulnerable and at risk individuals. That same year the LSLI opened 68 assisted-living rental units in the Capri building (herein known as the Old Building) for people with physical and intellectual challenges.
In 2008 the LSLI added 37 emergency shelter beds to the Old Building – 17 for women and 20 for men. That same year, Calgary developer Stoneset Equities Ltd emerged from the woodwork, armed with a plan to expand the Lighthouse’s mandate.
Stoneset CEO Tony Argento proposed a 28-storey, 250 unit condo project on the corner of 4th Avenue and 23rd Street – the parking lot of the old Saskatoon Police station. Argento promised that 120 of those units on the first six floors of the building would be deemed “affordable”, for use and operation by the Lighthouse. The remaining 22 storeys would be market (aka for-profit) condos.
Yes, that’s right. In a city where many residents can’t stand the sight of Lighthouse residents walking up 2nd Avenue, we were going to construct a building for everyone to all live together.
In fact, at the time, Argento told the Calgary Herald that Mayor Don Atchison asked him to build a mixed-use high rise in downtown Saskatoon.
The City of Saskatoon and Saskatchewan Housing Corp (yes, the province was in on this too) struck a deal in summer of 2008 stating the property would be sold for a buck to Saskatchewan Housing Corp, who would then organize the transfer to Stoneset when development was further along.
By November 2008, however, Argento had managed to persuade City Council that the property should be sold, for a dollar, directly to him.
(Seems legit. Hashtag sarcasm.)
“Council’s original resolution provided for the City to transfer the land to the Saskatchewan Housing Corporation (SHC) who would then transfer title to the eventual developer (Stoneset Equities) upon certain construction requirements being met,” reads the Saskatoon City Council minutes from that month. “Subsequently, the parties have met to discuss implementation of the resolution. As a result of these meetings, the parties have agreed that the best process for all involved is for the City to transfer the land directly to Stoneset, subject to the same construction requirements.”
What was the City going to get for its dollar? One hundred parking stalls for Saskatoon City Police (who were planning on moving out of the neighborhood, but whatever) in Argento’s building’s parkade.
“While it prepares to move ahead construction in Saskatoon, Stoneset is also continuing development of a recreation property in Invermere, BC,” continued that Calgary Herald story in 2008.
Well then, they must be the real deal. Stoneset even opened a Saskatoon office, on Airport Drive.
2 years later…
Cost overruns, cited the provincial government, which claimed that Argento and Stoneset jacked up the price tag from $11.5 million to $25 million. Argento argued that was nonsense, claiming the province imposed a “wish list” on the development which drove up the price.
“The only thing that stalled the project was their disinterest,” said Argento. “You can’t string (us) along and then say ‘we just changed our minds’.”
Well, thank god they did, and that downtown lot was never transferred to Stoneset, because a year later Stoneset Equities was delisted from the Canadian National stock exchange for failing to disclose its connections to a Ponzi scheme that fleeced Canadian investors out of $65 million dollars.
And that project in Invermere? Yeah. Not happening.
By November 2011, Stoneset Equities had shut down its offices, phone lines and website. A website, stonesetequitiesscam.com was setup by furious investors, some of whom claimed to have lost their life savings. Others, in comments left as recently as early 2016, say they were scammed through the Saskatoon office:
“I have been scammed $31,000 of my RRSP…They closed their office in Saskatoon and disappeared with the money…”
“We have not heard any thing by mail, and can not get any one to answer questions as to what is happening. This was all done out of the Saskatoon office. Thanks to Stoneset for taking our retirement money!!”
Anyway, needless to say Saskatoon wasn’t getting its new, much-lauded by both the municipal and provincial governments, Lighthouse. And now it’s the beginning of 2011, and it’s clear the need for affordable, supported housing is still through the roof. Three years have been wasted on Stoneset.
As for the Lighthouse, it’s spent the last two years making temporary, band-aid repairs on the crumbling Old Building, because they thought they were getting ready to move out anyway.
July 2011: in a fawning, self-congratulatory media release, the Saskatchewan government pats itself on the back for funding the construction, already underway, of a brand new Lighthouse tower (herein referred to as the New Building) – attached to the existing Old Building.
The money had to be put into the New Building, because the province desperately needed to add doors to its rental inventory, in a city that didn’t have any at the time. Essentially, the Lighthouse, on its current location, doubled in physical size and capacity – slapping a brand New Building onto an Old Building that was falling down.
“The province remains strongly committed to providing families and individuals with safe, adequate and affordable housing based on their needs,” said Social Services Minister June Draude. “(The New Building) will provide independent living opportunities and access to needed supports for clients transitioning from (the Old Building). We are proud to have contributed to this project and, most importantly, to helping Saskatchewan individuals in need of this type of housing.”
“The City of Saskatoon is proud to be a part of the Lighthouse project by providing a capital grant and tax abatement,” said Saskatoon mayor Don Atchison. “This crucial expansion will provide a full spectrum of housing needs and ensure that the most vulnerable people in our community have a roof over their heads and regular meals.”
“…crucial expansion…the most vulnerable people…roof over their heads and regular meals.”
The New Building, essentially an apartment building, was constructed with 58 affordable living units, “to address the housing needs of some of the most vulnerable Canadians in Saskatoon”, according to this Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) promo sheet.
Literally every level of government, including the CMHC, used the New Building to promote their generosity, social conscience and general awesomeness.
In the meantime, another 20 emergency dry shelter beds were added to the original inventory of 37.
In 2011 the Saskatoon Health Region gave the Lighthouse some money to renovate nine of the suites in the Old Building for tenants with ongoing mental health issues, which made it difficult for them to have secured housing in the past.
In July of 2013, the Lighthouse opened a 20-bed Stabilization Emergency Shelter, designed to serve men and women who need a place to stay while under the influence of drugs and alcohol.
Plans for the Stabilization unit were drawn up, in part, in response to three deaths in Saskatoon police cells in under a year, between 2009 and 2010. Two of those men had been arrested and placed into custody for public intoxication.
“It could mean up to two or three-thousand fewer people coming into our detention cells at the Saskatoon Police Service,” said Saskatoon Police Chief Clive Weighill at the opening of the Stabilization unit in the summer of 2013. “We’ve had people that we’ve housed 80, 90 times within a year.”
The following spring, April 2014, the Saskatchewan government, again with much fanfare, announced they were putting $1.5 million of funding into the Lighthouse. Part of the provincial money was to renovate the remaining 59 units in the Old Building (again, the first nine were done by the Saskatoon Health Region).
The rest of the money went “to support an innovative emergency shelter and wellness centre” to provide “an alternative shelter option for individuals not able to access other shelter services because they are intoxicated.” In other words, 17 more beds were added to the Stabilization unit.
“We are pleased to work with the Lighthouse to ensure vulnerable individuals are safe,” said June Draude, then Social Services Minister and Minister responsible for Saskatchewan Housing Corporation.
“We believe (the Lighthouse’s Stabilization unit) will take pressure off of existing detox facilities, hospitals and police cells, while keeping people safe, especially in our brutally cold winters.” – June Draude, Saskatchewan Social Services Minister, April 2014
“We want to ensure that individuals with mental health and addictions issues have a safe place to stay,” Health Minister Dustin Duncan said.
“This investment is very important for our most vulnerable citizens and their families.” – Saskatchewan Health Minister Dustin Duncan, April 2014
Just a few days later in an April 17, 2014 meeting of the Human Services Committee, Health Minister Dustin Duncan pointed to the Lighthouse’s Stabilization unit as one of the provincial government’s initiatives intended to reduce emergency room wait times at Saskatoon’s notorious Royal University Hospital.
“…initiatives like the Lighthouse where we are funding some additional spots in that facility specifically for intoxicated people that don’t necessarily need the emergency room, don’t necessarily need the police services. They’re not a harm to themselves or to others. So this is also an opportunity that we’ve taken to partner with a community organization.”
“…we are funding…opportunity we’ve taken to partner…”
In February 2015, the Lighthouse announced another partnership, this time with Saskatoon’s MD Ambulance. The pilot program included the implementation of one onsite paramedic at the Lighthouse, 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, as well as increasing the Stabilization unit to a 24 hour per day operating basis.
In May 2015, in answer to a question in the Legislature from then-Opposition Leader Cam Broten on emergency room overcrowding, Duncan points to the paramedic program at the Lighthouse as one of the steps being taken by the government to manage the issue.
“I can tell members in the first six months of the (Lighthouse paramedic and Stabilization) program, there were almost 250 patient contacts with less than half of those requiring an emergency room visit. Mr. Speaker, I think in the past that nearly all of those visits would have seen patients inappropriately going to the emergency department. So we need to better utilize the capacity that we do have in the system.”
In November 2015 – aka six months before the Saskatchewan election – the provincial government congratulated themselves a second time on their participation in the Lighthouse’s Stabilization unit, holding a freaking ribbon-cutting, complete with a Government of Saskatchewan ribbon.
“The stabilization unit in the Lighthouse has been operating for two years and staff estimate they’ve provided shelter to more than 1000 people,” reads the Star Phoenix story.
Three days later, in Question Period at the Saskatchewan Legislature, Duncan again dangles the Lighthouse’s Stabilization unit as evidence of his government’s commitment to reducing ER wait times:
“We know that we are also working, doing some important work outside of the emergency department because we know that it will help flow within the emergency department.
So for example, we had a major announcement of the expansion of the Lighthouse in Saskatoon that will take pressure off of the emergency department.”
Yet, at almost the exact the same time as those words were falling out of the Health Minister’s mouth, and Social Services’ Minister Donna Harpauer was wielding those giant scissors at the ribbon cutting, the latter was also threatening to cutback the Stabilization unit’s funding.
A few weeks later, in December 2015, the Provincial Auditor released Volume 2 of her 2015 Annual Report.
You know, the one that revealed that the Ministry of Social Services needed to get a grip on its employees’ absenteeism, which averaged 10.7 days per year in 2014-15, at a cost to the taxpayer of $6.5 million?
Yeah, that one.
Anyway, deep inside the 2015 report was a handful of lines following up on a recommendation the auditor made to Social Services in June of 2001:
“We recommended that the Ministry of Social Services follow its established processes that ensure only eligible clients receive assistance and that they receive the correct amount of assistance.” – Saskatchewan Provincial Auditor, 2001
The 2015 report indicated that recommendation was Partially Implemented, citing issues they found the previous year such as “9 out of 15 files with home repair expenses did not include adequate documentation (e.g., invoices, estimates)”, or “6 out of 14 files with funeral expenses did not include adequate documentation (e.g., support for transportation costs)”.
It also found that “3 out of 36 files had assistance payments that were not appropriately approved in accordance with policy”.
3 out of 36. That’s 8 per cent.
Four months later, in the middle of a frigid February 2016, the Lighthouse announces that its going to have to significantly reduce the Stabilization unit’s hours, closing altogether during the day, remaining open only at night.
This is a big setback for the city,” said police Chief Clive Weighill in the Star Phoenix. “The Lighthouse is predominantly the main place for people to go who need assistance, and without this open during the daytime, it’s going to leave a big gap of service here in the city.”
That gap got even wider last week, when news broke that the Ministry of Social Services was essentially halting Stabilization unit funding altogether.
From the CBC story:
“The government of Saskatchewan says the Lighthouse’s 38-bed emergency stabilization unit in Saskatoon is not producing results. Officials said only five people who sought refuge at the Lighthouse last year were able to transition to stable housing.”
Let’s start with that – when the f**k, in the last two years of extolling their own virtues for supporting the Stabilization unit, did the government say anything about using it as a gateway to transitional housing??
Allow me to quote June Draude, one more time, at the 2014 opening of the Stabilization unit (emphasis mine):
“We believe (the Lighthouse’s Stabilization unit) will take pressure off of existing detox facilities, hospitals and police cells, while keeping people safe, especially in our brutally cold winters.”
Notice how she didn’t say, “We believe the Lighthouse’s Stabilization unit will cure addicts of their disease and result in possession of their own home.”
Because that would be ridiculous.
Anyway, back to the CBC story.
“Citing the provincial auditor’s report last December, officials in a news release today said a recent review showed “many individuals were receiving shelter services through multiple avenues.””
I’d love to know who conducted that review, given the same auditor’s report revealed that few staff at Social Services actually go to work (price tag: $6.5 million). But who cares, when you’ve got homeless addicts double-dipping like entitled… well, Social Services employees. Right?
“Those who cannot afford the overnight fee must prove to the Ministry of Social Services they have nowhere else to go. If officials approve the request, a per diem for $68.50 per night is sent to the Lighthouse.”
Here’s the deal – I’m not an expert on how Social Services works (thank god), but I’ve badgered enough people and read enough to believe I can explain what they’re getting at.
Let’s say “Don” is collecting welfare. He gets a cheque for his needs, and his landlord gets a cheque for his accommodation.
To get this out of the way – do people game that system? Yep. For example, they could claim their grandma is their landlord, and then force grandma to give them the rent money.
Does Social Services ensure they’re not writing a cheque to a slumlord so their client can sleep in a shithole?
So it’s not perfect.
Anyway, Don is a perpetually homeless alcoholic. His addiction means he can’t hold down a job or a place to stay – because he’s an addict. One night Don gets super hammered and ends up passed out downtown. The Saskatoon Police wake him up – he’s got a superficial cut on his head and he doesn’t know where he lives.
The police then have (or had) a few choices:
- put Don one of their cells (aka the Drunk Tank);
- take him to the Emergency Room to get the wound cleaned up and so he can sleep it off;
- or take him to the Lighthouse, where he will be assessed, deemed not in need of emergency medical treatment, cleaned up and left in the Stabilization unit to sober up.
As per what everyone’s been saying is the best option for the last three years, they take him to the Stabilization unit.
The following morning Don wakes up, already in withdrawal and suffering one hell of a hangover. In order for the Lighthouse to get paid for his stay, they first have to convince Don to head up the street to the Social Services office and self-report his stay the night before.
Fine. Let’s say Don, the transient, homeless alcoholic with a killer hangover and even worse withdrawal symptoms, actually takes himself over to Social Services. Even though Social Services has already paid his shelter costs for the month, Social Services will pay a ‘per diem’ rate for Don’s stay – as long as he’s never stayed in the Lighthouse Stabilization unit before.
Problem – Don’s a raging, perpetually homeless alcoholic. After panhandling a few coins, he starts drinking again, and winds up passed out, once again, that night on the street.
The Saskatoon police pick him up and take him back to the Lighthouse. Their cells are full and/or not equipped to handle the medical emergencies that could arise from Don’s condition. Don still doesn’t know where he lives, and by now he’s probably kicked out anyway. The other shelters in Saskatoon are dry, meaning they won’t accept Don in the state he’s in.
So in the back of a police car, back to the Lighthouse again goes Don.
Except now, he’s supposed to know better.
He should be aware of the fact that his shelter costs have been paid by Social Services, and he already got his one free pass the night before, so they’re not going to pay the Lighthouse for this second night. The Lighthouse, seeing him come back through their doors a second time, also know they’re not going to get paid for Don.
The underpaid staff at the desk have to make a choice: take Don anyway, or turn him and the police officers away.
What’s the world to do with Don?
Take him to RUH ER? Yeah, you’re going to love that when you’ve been sitting in the waiting room for the last six hours with your sick grandmother.
Do we put unconscious Don back on the curb? What if it’s 40 below Celcius? Hell, what if it’s 5 below Celcius?
Frozen is frozen.
Yet despite the fact it was her f**king job, Social Services Minister Harpauer doesn’t have the answers either. In fact, she thinks you’re stupid for asking.
Consider this exchange during a provincial Human Services Committee meeting, between Harpauer and NDP MLA Nicole Rancourt, just a few months ago, in June of 2016, on this very issue:
Rancourt: “…it’s clearly obvious that people are using the shelter, and if they’re going to the shelter, they obviously don’t have money …I think we still have an obligation to ensure that they have some type of shelter.”
Harpauer: “So I guess what you’re suggesting is even though someone may have a home but they are intoxicated and decide not to go home that we should pay it?”
Donna, let’s talk about this for a minute. You understand, as Minister of Social Services, that these aren’t a bunch of guys who “decide” to crash at the Lighthouse’s Stabilization unit because they drank too hard at the Canadian Brewhouse after a Rider win and don’t want to go home to face the wife…right?
The discussion continued:
Rancourt: “Well what is your suggestion on what we do with some of these people who are falling through the cracks?”
Harpauer: “But they’re getting money for shelter. Or they have a home…But they’re intoxicated, and they decide to get intoxicated the following night, and they just had a free stay…where do you say, you’re getting funding from two, you’re getting paid double?”
And that, friends, is the double-dipping Harpauer keeps talking about.
So what kind of numbers are we talking here?
Well, let’s say that every single one of the 38 beds in the Stabilization unit was used, 365 days per year, by an individual whose shelter needs for that month had already been paid.
Cost to the taxpayer? $950,000.
Cost of employee absenteeism in the Social Services Ministry? $6.5 million.
Cost of lump sum payment to Skip the Dishes, reducing challenging, pizza-ordering obstacles for Saskatchewan residents everywhere? $3 million.
Cost of bogus, botched GTH land deal, that benefited nobody but one guy in Regina? $21 million.
But we’re slamming the door on 38 addicts per night to save $950K.
If we stay with the low number, $1900, the cost to the taxpayer of rerouting the Lighthouse’s Stabilization clients to the ER, to save $950K, would be $23 million dollars.
Let’s pretend that it’s even remotely reasonable or competent to spend millions of dollars to save less than one million dollars. What exactly did Harpauer, in her quest to save $65 a night, think is going to happen to those addicts?
Does she think that if we leave Don in a snowbank, he’ll snap out of his addiction and get clean?
That’ll sure show him. Freezing to death can really turn a guy’s life around.
Anyone who’s ever read a pamphlet in a doctor’s waiting room knows you can’t punish the addiction out of the addict.
And where’s the Health Minister – the one who owned the Stabilization unit and its benefits? If Social Services can’t pay for the intoxicated clients, why wouldn’t the Ministry of Health?
Yeah yeah, Saskatchewan is broke – but it’s not going to save us money putting these folks into the hospital or the healthcare system. And Duncan demonstrated time and again that he understood that.
As for that $762,000 in “base funding” to the Lighthouse that Social Services insists will continue – that’s for those 60-odd dry emergency shelter beds. So there’s that, I guess.
Before we wrap this up, let’s address the issue of the “prime corner”, as wealthy white men living in gated communities like to call the downtown location of the Lighthouse. The premise being, of course, that the property should have been developed as commercial real estate or condos.
In fact, those same people argue for decentralized services – ie the Food Bank or Friendship Inn on one side of the city, Social Services offices on another – just so we don’t have to see a concentration of icky people in any one area of the city.
This is the part where I laugh, because these are the same people who love to brag about how Saskatoon is such a big deal, then turn around and reveal themselves as very, very small town-minded.
Because real cities, big cities, don’t try to create some false utopia for busy business people and retail shoppers by segregating their downtown regions from the realities of homelessness and addictions.
For example, Calgary has the Calgary Drop In and Rehab Centre (known as ‘the DI’) located right at the mouth of that city’s downtown. It is kitty-corner from Bow Valley College, and about a block and a half up the street from the Delta Bow Valley hotel, Eau Clare market, and the general downtown Calgary district.
And get this – the DI serves up to 1100 homeless men and women every day, 24 hours per day. According to their website, the “1st Floor serves men and women who are intoxicated or under the influence. The 2nd Floor serves men who are intoxicated or under the influence. The 3rd Floor serves sober men and women.”
The Lighthouse had 38 beds for intoxicated men and women. The DI in Calgary has two entire floors.
There are ten homeless shelters in downtown Vancouver, including one on the waterfront (how dare they, that’s prime real estate!).
Two in downtown Winnipeg, including one with 110 emergency beds.
You get the picture. Every single major city in Canada has one or more shelters for intoxicated individuals with nowhere to go. And you know what, I’d venture that a whole bunch of those clients are also on welfare (but I’ve written enough here so I’m not going to go research their funding models).
Yet here we are in Saskatchewan, population growing – we’re a Big Deal! – yet we can’t, or more likely won’t, provide potentially life-saving (winter is a thing here) beds for the handful of that population whose
disease doesn’t decisions don’t meet the Saskatchewan Ministry of Social Services standards, apparently.
Let’s be clear – this petty, cold decision by the SaskParty government stinks of, at the least, incompetence, and at the worst, some kind of freakish bullying of super vulnerable Saskatchewan residents. I am so SO sick and tired of it, it’s disgusting.
But, new Social Services Minister Tina Beaudry-Mellor is a good person. A good person who got thrown, without any Ministerial experience,
under the bus into what’s arguably got to be the worst portfolio in the province.
Tina, I sincerely hope that you revisit these draconian cuts, and fire the tone-deaf, bubble-wrapped civil servants who came up with them. Because this is on you now, and you’re better than this.
Saskatchewan is better than this.