Blood Tribe joins survey to estimate homelessness in rural Alberta

By Lethbridge News Now, October 10, 2018. Patrick Burles

BLOOD RESERVE – While the issue of homelessness and how to address it has received significant attention and study in cities across Alberta and Canada, the same isn’t necessarily true for rural areas.

That’s the driving force behind the Rural Homelessness Estimation Survey, which is being conducted throughout the month of October in 21 communities throughout the province – including the Blood Reserve.

“It's not well known that homelessness is an issue in rural communities. And we've been working to address that but what's really lacking is the numbers,” said Dee Ann Benard, Executive Director of the Alberta Rural Development Network, the organization leading the initiative.

She explained that a survey on this scale hasn’t really been conducted before for rural areas anywhere in the world, unlike initiatives like 7 Cities for urban centres. In the 2018 study for 7 Cities – Lethbridge, Medicine Hat, Red Deer, Calgary, Edmonton, Grande Prairie, and the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo – they found 5,735 people experiencing homelessness in the point-in-time count.

When it comes to looking at rural areas though, Benard said the point-in-time count doesn’t work as homelessness is more of a hidden problem, saying you are less likely to see people sleeping on the street or park benches in small communities.

The answer, she says, is to get help from community service providers in gathering data.

“When people go in to access services, the service providers will conduct the survey to basically figure if people or homeless or at risk of becoming homeless,” explained Benard. “We think it's probably pretty similar to what it is in the cities, and when you think that there's about 1.3 million people living outside the larger cities in Alberta, that could be a lot of homeless people – tens of thousands of people.”

“Once we crunch all the data… we're going to use that information to inform governments – and that's municipal, provincial, and federal – about the issue, in order to better position services where they're needed, the types of services that are needed,” continued Benard.

“We don't want all the rural homeless people to keep migrating to the cities, that's not the solution, the cities don't need to have people coming. So, we want to be able to address the problem in the communities where it's happening. It'll be much cheaper and more effective in the long run.”

Bruce Iron Shirt, Director of the Blood Tribe Family Community Support Services (BT FCSS), also spoke with Lethbridge News NOW, and agreed with Benard’s statement rural homelessness can be harder to track. He pointed out that while the Moses Lake Shelter typically assists 20-25 people, he is aware that in some cases there are multiple families forced to live in a single home – a problem he says is increasing.

“I think the basis of this is just to get a number so that we have some baseline… and just kind of end up with more of a community profile,” said Iron Shirt. “That will identify gaps within our community resources and then also identify the needs of the community members.

“To get funding, you need a baseline in terms of a rational justification for our leadership to move forward,” he added. “You need to justify and rationalize your proposal for funding – especially here on the reserves, you need that baseline. I think that's what we're trying to do, is establish the need by way of doing this survey.”