No shelter from the cold

Athabasca’s homeless population has nowhere local to sleep. This is how nearby communities provide respite.

Hannah Lawson, Athabasca Advocate

November 28, 2017

The dim florescent lights flicker faintly above the woman, battered and worn by a series of unfortunate events that led her to this small house on a frigid November night.

Snoring softly rises and falls from behind the room divider, where eight blue mats give people a place to shut their eyes briefly. In the living room and kitchen area, the television is tuned to a Wild West movie.

Colleen Anderson (right) and Shawn McKay (left) are staying temporarily at the shelter while they work on finding a more permanent housing situation.

Colleen Anderson (right) and Shawn McKay (left) are staying temporarily at the shelter while they work on finding a more permanent housing situation. (Photo by Hannah Lawson)

Patty, 48, tells her tale softly, taking a moment to glow about her daughter, now in college, who graduated on the honour roll and received a scholarship to attend post-secondary school.

She continues, saying no, she could have never predicted she would end up on the street.

“My husband has always been able to find a job. (We have) always been able to find a place to live. This time, it just didn’t work out,” she said.

Patty says she is from “all over,” having grown up in Medicine Hat before bumping around southern Alberta throughout her life. About four years ago, she came to Lac La Biche with her family, where her husband found work.

After Patty fell down a flight of stairs and broke her hip, her husband lost his job when he took a few days off to care for his recovering wife.

“Just to go to the bathroom I needed his help. His boss didn’t see it that way, and subsequently he lost his job,” she said. Since then, Patty has been dealing with a series of infections in her feet and amputated toes, keeping her from working.


Lakeland Out of the Elements Shelter user

“I think a lot of people think we want to be here, we want to stay in the shelter and live for free, but we don’t want to,” she said. “The rent prices in this town are ridiculous, even when welfare was helping us with that. We couldn’t afford rent, not those prices.”

If it were not for the Lakeland Out of the Elements Shelter in Lac La Biche, where Patty and her husband are temporarily sleeping while he looks for work, Patty says she would be “out in the cold.”

Spotting the issue closer to home

Shelter co-ordinator Wendy Morrisseau said their homeless visitors often come from other communities, including Athabasca.

“Those other small communities want to get rid of their homeless people, so they would sooner send them out of the community then it’s not their problem anymore,” she said.

Laureen Houle, executive director of the Athabasca Native Friendship Centre, said even though homelessness is harder to spot in small towns, the issue does exist in Athabasca.

“They probably don’t see it. It is a small town and unless … I guess unless you’re looking for it you may not see it, but there is definitely homeless people in Athabasca,” she said.

In any given month, Houle said about 15 people who identify themselves as homeless access services at the friendship centre. She added the centre does not see everyone, though.

“We only see the people that are comfortable coming here, that come here looking for help in some way,” she said. “But I’m sure there’s a lot of people that don’t utilize our services that might use others.”

She added with Athabasca lacking a homeless shelter, there is “no specific help for the homeless.”

Rural homelessness is unique from urban homelessness in that it is much more hidden, said Dee Ann Benard, executive director of the Alberta Rural Development Network (ARDN).

“You rarely see that visibility in rural communities; it’s much more hidden,” she said. “It’s people sleeping in a bush, in a tent or a trailer. It’s people sleeping in abandoned buildings, sleeping in their vehicles or couch surfing.”

Wendy Morrisseau, Lakeland Out of the Elements Shelter co-ordinator, prepares for the shelter's evening shift by setting out matts for their homeless visitors to sleep on.

Wendy Morrisseau, Lakeland Out of the Elements Shelter co-ordinator, prepares for the shelter's evening shift by setting out matts for their homeless visitors to sleep on. (Photo by Hannah Lawson)

The ARDN is the official community entity for rural and remote homelessness in Alberta, and they manage the federal Homelessness Partnering Strategy (HPS) funds. With nearly $980,000 in federal dollars annually, the ARDN funds projects across the province that deal with homelessness in rural communities.

Jonn Kmech, ARDN project manager for the HPS, said the reasons people become homeless in rural areas do not vary much from in cities – family conflict, medical issues, mental health and addictions issues – but the level of resources available in rural areas “isn’t there.”

“Also, everyone knows who you are in rural areas,” he said. “There’s a lot less sleeping rough, except maybe in the bush, but there’s fewer people who are in downtowns of towns on the street because of the shame factor.”

Benard said the ARDN has not found one rural community without homeless people, and they estimate the percentage varies from one to 10 per cent of rural communities' populations are homeless.

She added the first step for municipalities looking to address homelessness is bringing the right stakeholders together and acknowledging there is a homelessness problem.

“Usually, a lot of small communities have a problem with people even realizing there is a problem, or admitting there is a problem,” Benard said.

Acknowledging the problem

Athabasca United Church minister Monica Rosborough said tackling homelessness in Athabasca is “a twinkle” in the church’s eye.

She said homelessness is something Christians are called to deal with, and quoted Matthew 25:35-40, when Jesus speaks about being given help in a time of need.

“When I was homeless, were you helping me – so how do we live out that question of supporting the homeless?” she said.

Rosborough added beyond Christian philosophy, Athabasca should be inspired to help the homeless because of the economic benefit – that “hidden homelessness” can cause various financial impacts on the municipality.

“The reality is it is in our backyard. We may deny it, but we don’t where the tent is in the forest. It may be right behind us. It may already be impacting our businesses, our property values, our long-term income; if there’s problems with graffiti and arson it does impact everyone. It does impact the town budget, bottom line,” she said. “We need to have this conversation.”

Monica Rosborough

Athabasca United Church minister

Rosborough said it is a complex situation that involves issues of mental health, addiction, community transportation and more, and trying to “slam on simple solutions” will only result in “failure after failure.”

She added a response to homelessness would need to be a community response; it cannot be an individual church’s initiative.

“I think the process will be getting together people who have similar interests to come together at the table and have the beginning conversations,” Rosborough said. “How we treat the least of these is a reflection on our whole community. It’s easy to pretend we don’t have poverty, but the reality is it impacts all of us.”

Working with less to create support

There are far more dollars needed in rural communities to deal with homelessness than are available, Benard said, but often it does not take a lot of money to make a difference.

She added in every rural municipality there are some resources – not a lot – but the real challenge is getting homeless people connected to them, and having someone there to help people navigate the process.

“We all struggle with government bureaucracy, but it’s far worse when you’re in a bad situation,” Benard said.

Lakeland Out of the Elements Shelter co-ordinator Wendy Morrisseau and Rita Morin, staff member, settle in for the night shift at the Lac La Biche homeless shelter Nov. 22. Out of the Elements is donation-run, and Morrisseau said "a lot of time" wages go back into the facility in order to feed their clients.

Lakeland Out of the Elements Shelter co-ordinator Wendy Morrisseau and staff member Rita Morin settle in for the night shift at the Lac La Biche homeless shelter Nov. 22. Out of the Elements is donation-run, and Morrisseau said "a lot of time" wages go back into the facility in order to feed their clients. (Photo by Hannah Lawson)

Often, approved ARDN projects involve funding a full or part time support worker in the community who sets people up in homes, negotiates with landlords and navigates between various community agencies, such as Alberta Works and other job skills training and education programs.

“That’s where we’ve had the best success,” Benard said.

Lac La Biche County has been working with the ARDN since a homeless reduction taskforce was struck in August 2016 upon county council’s direction. On Sept. 26, the task force presented their final report to council and made two recommendations for how the municipality could address homelessness.

“Imagine a community that has the capacity the provide wrap-around supports to transition individuals and families into long-term sustainability, while meeting the diversity of people,” said the Heather Stromquist, chair of the Lac La Biche Homeless Reduction Task Force. “That kind of kicked off our report.”

After over a year of researching the issue locally, the task force’s first recommendation to council was during 2018 budget deliberations to consider hiring a case manager community co-ordinator that would work with community partners in tying resources together.

Secondly, the task force recommended the county develop a communications plan to increase acceptance and improve attitudes towards the homeless, and enroll the ARDN to do an accurate count of homelessness in 2018 and subsequent years.

Stromquist said the council of the day was very supportive of what they heard, but given it was an election year, there are many new faces.

“Hopefully, they support our recommendations, so we can have that champion that will be able to address things and move them forward,” she said.

Wendy Morrisseau

Lakeland Out of the Elements Shelter co-ordinator

In Slave Lake, the Native Friendship Centre experienced some success through a housing-first model, which is now defunct due to lack of funding.

Program co-ordinator Barb Courtorielle said while the project had funding 2014-16, she was able to house “most” of nine homeless families and 18 single people.

“We had huge success,” she said. Courtorielle said the program also saved the RCMP a lot of member-hours by preventing people seeking warmth from breaking into the post office and banks, or rescuing them from freezing to death.

“I’d say we probably saved a few of them from freezing to death,” she said. “To me, that’s success in itself – saving a life.”

The friendship centre also runs a seasonal temporary-mat program in a church basement. Started through a stakeholders committee, the program gives homeless people a mat to sleep on for the night. Courtorielle said community buy-in was positive, and the committee was formed by healthcare practitioners, RCMP members, lawyers and other community members.

Now that government funding has run out, Courtorielle said she keeps the mat program running by crying out to the community for support.

Lack of funding in rural areas

According to Kmech, the amount of money going to rural areas is “not even close to proportional,” considering the percentage of the homeless population in rural areas.

He added one of the ideas the ARDN is trying to convey is that rural and urban homelessness is connected.

Jonn Kmech

ARDN project manager for the federal Homelessness Partnering Strategy

“Right now, there’s a huge focus on the cities, but if you don’t address rural homelessness and housing – and people can’t get services in rural areas – then they’re just going to go into the cities and then they often become homeless in the cities, and then they’re putting strain on city supports and services,” he said.

Benard said agencies in Edmonton estimate nearly 40 per cent of their homeless population originates from rural areas in the province, and dealing with the issue at its root is beneficial for a number of reasons.

“There’s a huge social cost to sending people away from what they know,” she said. “That’s their community; they have supports familiarity and all that. You tend to be able to house people more cheaply. You kind of nib the problem in the butt before it gets really bad.”

Benard added rural homelessness is what she calls an “emerging issue,” and the scope of it is really unknown at this point, which makes it difficult to make policy arguments for funding.

Dee Ann Benard

Executive director of the Alberta Rural Development Network

A small amount of funding, even $50,000, would go a long way to provide some hard data on the issue by funding homeless estimation counts in smaller communities, she added.

“We could actually get some hard data so that policy decisions can be made on evidence rather than people making decisions based on anecdotal evidence,” Benard said.

The ARDN recently published a guide for rural municipalities to estimate their homeless population, which can be found on their website.

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