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A southern Alberta city has taken a small step forward in dealing with homeless encampments after council agreed to seek development approval for an interim shelter.

Lethbridge, Alta., has been struggling to permanently remove the camps, most notably a large one of more than 40 tents near the community’s civic centre.

A week ago, using the Petty Trespassing Act, several tents were removed and the site was cleaned up. But nearly all have returned.

Mike Fox, director of community services, said the city will be doing outreach at the encampments every Wednesday.

“We try and get rid of any refuse, biohazards, needles and make the area safe,” he said.

“At the same time, we are doing outreach to try and provide services to the people in the encampment to make sure they have access to shelter, intake services and other items available.”

Council approved a motion to take steps toward applying for development approval for an interim sober shelter to house between 40 and 60 people at the civic centre.

But the decision wasn’t unanimous.

“I believe this will become a ghetto. We use the word interim but I’ve seen many times where the word interim can be two years, three years, four years five years,” said Coun. Ryan Parker.

Parker said he has heard from many residents who want the city to do more.

“Can we as a city go in there and say: ‘You folks are illegally camping on property, which is not allowed. You must leave?’ If they don’t do anything, do we have the legal authority to remove these individuals in a proper manner?” Parker asked.

“When people ask me ‘why can’t you do something?’ I go, ‘well, it’s really complex and complicated.’ And at the end of the day, that doesn’t really cut the cheese in this community.”

City solicitor Brian Loewen said, based on the experience of communities in British Columbia, Lethbridge doesn’t have the authority.

“They’ve encountered many difficulties and have been quite unsuccessful in pursuing removal of encampments and one of the main issues they’ve stumbled upon is Section 7 of the Charter,” Loewen told council.

“Generally speaking, the (Alberta) MGA (Municipal Government Act) does not confer to the municipality the right to detain or to force compliance.”

Mayor Blaine Hyggen supported the motion for an interim shelter, especially one that separates those who are sober and others dealing with addiction issues.

But he said the problem will continue. An update on the plan is to come back to council this fall and its final approval may hinge on support from the public.

“This is a temporary fix. This is a sober shelter, so putting those who are in sobriety and those who are not and struggling with addiction in that same area – we’ve been told a number of times that is not the smart thing to do,” he said.

“I believe there’s an element of safety. It’s not safe. I think this is a great thing. It’s a start.”

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