The Saskatchewan government is investigating after two homeless men who were denied funding to stay at a shelter in that province were instead given one-way bus tickets to British Columbia.
Charles Neil-Curly, 23, and Jeremy Roy, 21, arrived in Vancouver on Wednesday, one day after boarding a Greyhound bus in Saskatchewan – voluntarily – on the province's dime.
The men were both homeless in North Battleford, a small city located about 140 kilometres northwest of Saskatoon. They had stayed at a homeless shelter on and off for some time, but the shelter's manager said the men were recently denied government funding to stay. Instead, they told the shelter manager that the social-services ministry offered them one-way bus tickets to British Columbia.
Donna Harpauer, Saskatchewan's Minister of Social Services, who is currently in the middle of an election campaign, promised to look into what happened.
Mr. Neil-Curly said relocating to Vancouver means he won't "have to sleep in a snow bank," but that, had he been able to secure funding for housing, he probably would have preferred staying in Saskatchewan. Asked what his plans are, Mr. Neil-Curly replied: "Try to get a job and a place for me and Jeremy and have a life, I guess." Mr. Roy has epilepsy and other health issues.
Once a Saskatchewan newspaper reported on the men's journey, their story made it to British Columbia before they did. They were met at the Greyhound bus terminal not far from downtown Vancouver by a crowd of reporters, a local city councillor and a representative from a local shelter.
Jeremy Hunka of the Union Gospel Mission said the men would receive hot meals and shelter immediately, and connections to support networks later on. Mr. Neil-Curly said the two hope to go to Vancouver Island, where his best friend lives.
"We were surprised and we were concerned when we heard they were being put on a bus," Mr. Hunka said. "We knew we needed to step up, because coming to Vancouver without a plan, without a place to stay, and joining the other people who are struggling in the streets is a bad situation."
Caitlin Glencross, manager of the Lighthouse homeless shelter in North Battleford, spoke with both men before they left Saskatchewan. She said Mr. Neil-Curly was "very frustrated" that he could not get the help he needed in his home province.
Mr. Roy has significant mental-health issues and did not seem to understand the gravity of the situation, Ms. Glencross said.
"I just find it shocking," she said. "I have never heard of something like this taking place. We are really concerned about these two individuals. If something were to happen to either one of them – that's a question that's in our minds. Who's responsible then?"
Details of the exchanges between the men and Saskatchewan social services have not been independently confirmed. Ms. Harpauer, the social services minister, could not be reached for an interview but said in a statement that she has discussed the matter with Social Services deputy minister Greg Miller.
"I reaffirmed to the deputy minister that regulations require a case plan be established by workers and clients before transportation be provided," she said. "The deputy minister is also reviewing if case plans were in place for these individuals and he will be reminding front-line workers that clients should have a plan in place before they are given bus tickets for destinations away."
Vancouver city councillor Kerry Jang, who also greeted the two at the Vancouver bus station, called the news "inhumane" and underscored the need for a national program that puts supports in home communities to forestall homelessness in the first place.
"How can anybody treat anybody that way? It's unbelievable," he said. "You can't ship people across the country. You must have a housing-first program, not a Greyhound-first program."
Mr. Jang referenced former Alberta premier Ralph Klein, who infamously offered welfare recipients free one-way bus tickets out of that province. There was a perception at the time that many of those taking advantage of those bus tickets were ending up in British Columbia.
"But this is the first time in my entire career I've seen somebody with mental-health issues, with no support, thrown on a bus and told, 'You're on your own.' That is the height of disrespect, of inhumanity," he said.
B.C. Premier Christy Clark said the province is not going to turn away people who may need help.
"I don't know much about them, but I hope that wherever they are, they are able to get the care that they need and if they decide to come to B.C., we are going to support them in that. We should," Ms. Clark told reporters in Victoria. The Premier did concede that British Columbia needs to do more in providing mental-health services.
B.C. Housing Minister Rich Coleman echoed Ms. Clark's support, adding that it's not unusual for authorities to offer transportation to someone with addictions or mental-health issues to another jurisdiction if they have family support there.
"We've done that both ways in Canada for a long time, to allow people to go back and connect with family," he said. "If that's the case, I have no problem with it."
Because of the Saskatchewan election campaign, Mr. Coleman said he won't try to reach his counterpart in that province for more details. However, he added that one of the men does have family in British Columbia.
"So if they come [here] and they get better results, well, that's how it works," he said.