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COVID-19 adds new layer of urgency in downtown Saskatoon

The Lighthouse, which provides support to Saskatoon’s homeless and mentally ill, is vital to our...

The Lighthouse, which provides support to Saskatoon’s homeless and mentally ill, is vital to our community but it can’t come at the expense of our vibrant downtown as a whole.

Prior to the global pandemic, Saskatoon’s downtown businesses were already feeling the impact of reduced foot traffic due to safety concerns relating to the Lighthouse.

Now, the reported national statistics for tenant relief requests from the retail sector mirror close to what we’ve seen in Saskatoon.

As a result of the economy shutting down due to COVID-19, on average, 70 per cent of requests have come from retail tenants; only 30 per cent have come from the office and industrial sectors.

A game plan is urgently needed to invigorate Saskatoon’s downtown retail business before it’s too late. It’s time for the city, local businesses and the Lighthouse to examine a Plan B if we hope to save this core neighbourhood.

An issue of security

In recent letters to city council, local businessmen Ken Achs and James Scott have both made valid arguments for an alternative solution to the Lighthouse.

The parties most impacted by this discussion are those suffering from homelessness, mental health, or addiction issues, as well as the local businesses trying to survive.

The solutions do not need to result in one side winning and the other side losing.

As I’ve argued before, leadership is required from provincial, civic and district administrations, with some philanthropy thrown into the mix.

It’s not divide and conquer

Splitting up the Lighthouse into two or three smaller housing facilities is one logical solution that I’ve heard discussed.

This would allow the same client services to take place within different areas, instead of in concentration.

This likely won’t come without an increase in funding, however, which is a less-than-perfect answer.

Saskatoon has many examples of heroic philanthropy and if a collective could be formed to develop a win-win strategy for all, there is no reason the needs of current Lighthouse clients could not still be met.

The definition of community

The Merriam Webster Dictionary defines community as, “an interacting population of various kinds of individuals in a common location.”

My take on that definition provides for a safe gathering spot for a wide, inclusive demographic; a demographic that can include drifters and panhandlers.

My definition of safe does not include aggressive actions that cause residents to think twice about returning to an area. I know that safe is achievable because I’ve personally experienced it in some of the great large cities of the world.

It doesn’t matter who initiates it; aggression bordering on violence is not acceptable. It can destroy a gathering place over time.

In his book Uneasy Peace, sociologist Patrick Sharkey reports on highly data-driven analyses of life in urban neighbourhoods. He has conducted dozens of large-scale studies.

Community groups that send volunteer patrols out walking in alleys and sidewalks to keep an eye on their neighbourhood, are effective in reducing crime significantly – without as much expense or controversy as police.

That is Dr. Sharkey’s grand conclusion: Having an eye on the street, a conscious and concerned presence, results in the community feeling safer.

It is important for all the stakeholders to resume discussions immediately before the vibrant city core that Saskatoon had become known for, is lost.

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