Clients of the Rotary House and the Saint Lawrence Centre have reported being harrassed by members of the public in recent weeks. SLC Project Lead Jared Gossen says people at the homeless shelter and drop-in have been filmed, assaulted, and in two cases lured into vehicles and accosted.
“The male was offered work in exchange for cash, which is not uncommon here,” Gossen explains. “The fellow hopped in the car and then he was immediately grilled about what kind of illegal activity might be happening at the Rotary House or at the drop-in, what he knew about stolen bikes and other stolen property, and when he looked around he noticed this conversation was being recorded.”
In another incident involving a female client, she was reportedly offered a ride and then subjected to similar treatment. Both were able to get out safely, and the licence plates of any suspicious vehicles around the facility are being turned over to police.
Grande Prairie RCMP have seen a spike in property crimes this summer, and there have been discussions at community meetings and on social media about the shelter being a hub for suspected criminal activity. Gossen says staff understand the frustration, but warns against painting everybody using their services with the same brush.
“We serve upwards of 200 people a day. It’s a very small percentage that are engaged in that unwanted activity,” he stresses. “It’s so complex and I think these videos or the online conversation seeks to simplify it; I think Grande Prairie is smarter than that.”
RCMP Superintendent Don McKenna hasn’t heard the complaints, but says if true they are deeply concerning. Since they’ve been brought to his attention, he plans to have an analyst look into them.
“There’s a lot of people who have either mental health issues; they have drug issues; some people are just down on their luck. Filming them is not helpful and questioning somebody is also not helpful because if there actually was any criminal activity it certainly wouldn’t be useful in court.”
McKenna adds that harassing people, or luring people into a vehicle and holding them against their will could also lead to criminal charges. He urges people concerned about the recent spike in crime to find other ways to get involved.
“Join a Neighbourhood Association. There are also other groups and lots of volunteer opportunities in the town of Grande Prairie where they can come out and they can actually help address the problem. This is just poorly thought out and of no value.”
Gossen echoes that sentiment, saying he and the leadership team at Rotary House are trying to make themselves available to the community for discussions. He hopes more people will understand the difficulties facing residents and the strategies they’re undertaking to help.
“These are people who have been through a lot of crap that has led to them living on the street, and then also as they endure street life there’s trauma after trauma that happens. There just needs to be a more love-filled reaching out and understanding.”
In the meantime, Rotary House and the SLC are encouraging their clients to confirm details before getting into any vehicle, and to take pictures and tell friends their plans. Grande Prairie’s homeless population has increased by 80 per cent since 2016, according to the most recent point-in-time count.