'No warning': On talk radio, Sask. minister announces Lighthouse funding will end

Less than a month after stepping into the role, during an appearance on a talk radio show, Saskatchewan's new social services minister announced plans to cut funding to Saskatoon's permanent downtown shelter.

"I've been hearing from my fellow MLAs you know, folks up in Saskatoon about the situation around the Lighthouse (Supported Living)," Gene Makowsky said during an interview with CKOM personality John Gormley.

"I've become concerned about the model that they have at the Lighthouse with having so many services concentrated in one area in downtown Saskatoon. So, for those reasons, what I and the government have decided to do is to move those services out of the Lighthouse," Makowsky said.

The minister said the Lighthouse's supported independent living services will be among the programs that will be moved.

He said funding from his ministry, as well as the province's health ministry, will end.

Makowsky said the province is "looking at" the Saskatoon Tribal Council's (STC) shelter model as an alternative.

The STC opened its temporary wellness centre late last year and has plans to open a permanent location on 20th Street West.

Makowsky said the transition will not be an "overnight thing."

"We have to get this right. We have to do a reasonable transition going forward," Makowsky said.

His statements come following the public disclosure of an investigation involving Lighthouse Executive Director Don Windels, largely focused on his use of shelter funds for personal loans.

Windels is currently on leave and is awaiting the outcome of a court appeal after a judge ordered him removed from his role in December.

Since he was placed on leave earlier this year, two board members, Jerome Hepfner and Twila Reddekopp, have been overseeing day-to-day operations at the shelter.

In a statement sent to media Thursday afternoon, Hepfner said Makowsky's announcement came as a surprise.

"We had no warning and are expecting to discuss with the ministries of social service and health, the services that will remain available at the Lighthouse and the path forward," Hepfner said.

"Our concern is for Saskatoon’s homeless people, and we will work with our partners and the Saskatoon Tribal Council or any other organization where services might be moved, to ensure that homeless shelter services are maintained and that the transition is as smooth as possible," Hepfner said. 

In response to a request for more details concerning the plan, the Saskatchewan government provided an emailed statement.

"The Lighthouse faces challenges including governance, management, and financial controls along with safety concerns due to the concentration of services in one location," the statement said.

"In consideration of these concerns, the Government of Saskatchewan will transition services to other partners," the statement said.

ALL GOVERNMENT-FUNDED SERVICES WILL BE MOVED

In a follow-up satement sent later in the day, Hepfner said he was told Thursday afternoon that all government-funded services that are provided by the Lighthouse will be moved to alternate providers.

"Up until this point, we have been in close contact with social services for more than one year," Hepfner said.

"They were aware of every decision we made before we took action and have been inside of every detail from day one."

Hepfner reiterated the announcement came as a "complete surprise with no prior communication or indication this was something being contemplated."

He said the Lighthouse received a call from the social services ministry at 10 a.m. informing it of a decision related only to shelter services.

"There was no indication during this call that other services would be impacted," Hepfner said.

"It is my understanding that this call was immediately prior to or even during the time when the minister went live on the air."

Minister Makowsky informed me of this announcement this morning. At this time, I don’t have any timelines or details of what this transition will look like.

MAYOR'S RESPONSE

Mayor Charlie Clark said he was informed of Makowsky's announcement Thursday morning.

"We have an escalating crisis of homelessness, addictions and mental health in our community," Clark said in a statement.

"We are in a fragile moment. Any transition needs to result in a net improvement of services and supports to people who need them, as well as the overall safety and well-being of our community. I emphasized this to Minister Makowsky," Clark said.

He said over the years he has "consistently raised my concerns about an overconcentration of services and people in one place at the Lighthouse."

"The city has been stepping up in numerous ways to address the challenges we see people facing. We will continue to participate and support coordinated efforts to build safety and well being for everyone," Clark said.