Council Lobbying for More Funding to Fight Homelessness

Fort McMurray Today, February 13, 2019

Laura Beamish

Council agreed unanimously to ask the provincial and federal governments for extra funding for fighting homelessness after several delegates told councillors current funding levels were not enough. In the letters that will be sent, Mayor Don Scott will also ask for more leeway on how funding can be spent.

“We need to get them to start stepping up,” said Scott.

Councillors Verna Murphy and Sheila Lalonde were absent from the meeting.

The original motion, which also passed unanimously, asked for more than $3.9 million to support four organizations for the 2019-2020 Community Plan on Homelessness. Speaking at Tuesday’s public meeting, Yvonne Ormson, executive director of the Wellness Society, said the funding was not enough for the four organizations to tackle their mandate.

“I am now in the untenable position of having to decide who to unhouse. Which clients do I put back on the street,” she said. “We simply cannot afford to continue to pay their rent supplements without any additional funding.”

The Wood Buffalo region recently saw temperatures drop below -40 degrees Celsius. This caused some organizations, such as the Salvation Army and Marshall House, to extend their hours and use more supplies.

Ormson said only one person has been taken off the streets and moved into housing this past winter, and they have only been able to house new clients from April to November.

The current waitlist sits at 82 people and is projected to rise to 120 by the start of the new fiscal year in April.

“All of our agencies are scrambling to keep our clients warm and safe… and by warm and safe I also mean alive. We are just trying to help them survive another winter on the streets,” she said. “Why? Because our agencies are out of money, because the funding did not last.”

Ormson said this year the organization will be receiving approximately $58,000 less than last year.

“If we couldn’t do it this year, we certainly can’t do it with almost $60,000 less… it’s just not doable,” she said.

The municipality has also seen a 65 per cent decrease in homelessness since the 10-year plan to end homelessness started in 2010.

“It’s not our jurisdiction, but it’s our job to go fight for it,” said Councillor Krista Balsom. “I think we need to be fighting for it and I don’t think we’ve been fighting hard enough.”

Not just an urban issue

The grant funding prioritises housing supports and focuses on the Urban Service Area.

Ron Quintal, president of the Fort McKay Métis, said “it’s frustrating” the hamlet has been denied funding for the second year in a row.

“We are scratching every last cent we possibly can to battle an epidemic that has completely overcome our community,” he said. “We struggle with homelessness just as much as any other Indigenous community in the RMWB and the city of Fort McMurray.

Quintal said that 20 per cent of Fort McKay Métis’ overall population is currently homeless, with 10 per cent more that are at risk.

“It’s not just about getting them someplace warm to sleep… it’s also about assisting them with enhancing the quality of life so they can better cope with struggles that have absolutely crippled them,” he said.

Quintal’s comments follow a report made last month that found 92 Conklin residents lived in inadequate or unstable housing. The report from the Alberta Rural Development Network suggested expanding social services in the hamlet, with special attention paid to employment and adequate housing support.

Balsom said she was disappointed the municipality has not found more solutions to fight rural homelessness and housing problems.

“I think a lot of our urban homelessness issues and concerns stem from the fact that we have a very large issue with homelessness in our rural communities,” she said. “Unless we solve that problem, we’re never going to solve homelessness within our urban areas.”