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'We're the only ones who can do it': Smith dismisses criticism over navigation centre for the homeless

A province-run support centre for encampment residents in Edmonton. (CTV News Edmonton) A province-run support centre for encampment residents in Edmonton. (CTV News Edmonton)

The province is preparing to open a navigation support centre for the homeless in Calgary modelled after one launched in Edmonton earlier this year, but advocates for the homeless say the money could be better spent elsewhere.

The centre in Edmonton launched in January, and provides multiple services for people, such as financial, health care and addictions support, ID card services, and Indigenous cultural support and liaisons under one roof.

Since the centre was launched it has been accessed by more than 1,850 people.

While there has been a lot of praise for the centre, those who work with homeless Edmontonians say it is unnecessary.

"The navigation centre here has been a waste of money," homeless advocate Jim Gurnett told CTV News Edmonton on Wednesday. "It's an absolutely unnecessary addition. The funding would have been better used to enhance the services of organizations that already know the people and are already working with them."

"What we need is to have the funding so that there's not a day-long lineup of people at places like Bissell waiting to see somebody that can work with them in a much more effective way."

It's a sentiment shared by Sam Mason of the Coalition for Justice and Human Rights.

"Why are we not leaning on the expertise of these organizations, these institutions in Edmonton who have been doing this work? Who clearly have the relationships, clearly know what they're doing?"

Mason says she's heard services like ID cards are expedited at the centre because government services are on site.

"Could we not have put those resources … into the institutions that people were already frequenting and already accessing, like Boyle Street and Bissell?"

Premier Danielle Smith dismissed the criticism at a news conference on Wednesday afternoon.

"We can't go back to making those who are most vulnerable wander around to nine or 10 different agencies to get all the services that they need. We can't have them waiting six weeks to get ID before they can go and get medical care," she said.

"I just quite frankly think we're the only ones who can do it. We're the only ones who can navigate between multiple different jurisdictions, partnerships with Nations, as well as the multitude of different departments at the provincial level that need to be navigated."

The minister of seniors, community and social services says the centre has already made significant progress in minimizing encampments in the city.

"When this process started in early January, there were 700 plus encampments in the city of Edmonton where people were losing their lives," Jason Nixon said.

"Take a walk in the Ice District in Edmonton right now as we watch the Stanley Cup playoffs, or down Jasper Avenue where you'll see that there has been a significant difference in the city. It's much safer for individuals utilizing the city, and we've been able to get the individuals from those encampments to compassionate real services that provide them things like long-term housing."

The City of Edmonton says 2,191 encampments have been closed since Jan. 17.

The new navigation centre in Calgary is scheduled to open in July.

With files from CTV News Edmonton's Miriam Valdes-Carletti Top Stories

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