Two Alberta municipalities are tackling rural homelessness in unique ways as the issue becomes more visible, due to issues with housing as well as greater awareness. Funding for homelessness can often focus on urban centres and money from all levels of government is neither consistent nor timely, leaving some rural communities left to fend for themselves, community advocates say.
In Edson, Alta., a town approximately 200 kilometres west of Edmonton, community advocates have fundraised and received money from the town council and the provincial Rural Development Network to open up five shelter pods — small, heated spaces with enough room for a sleeping mat, fire alarm and charging outlets. Each small space roughly 1.5 metres (five feet) by 2.4 metres (eight feet).
The pods, which are only open at night and located at a recycling depot, are meant for individual use, but it isn't unusual to find multiple people inside one. "Most of the time, we have a bulk of probably 20 individuals that are using [all the pods] on a regular basis," said Erica Snook-Pennings, a registered social worker who helped spearhead the project.
The pods, which cost around $105,000 to build, opened in mid-July and this will be the first winter that they will be in use, in an area that sometimes sees temperatures dip below -30 C. Clients who are interested in using the pods line up outside since they are first-come, first-served. At 8 p.m., they press a button that calls a volunteer, who then opens the door remotely. So far, the need already exceeds supply. Edson Mayor Kevin Zahara said economic activity in the area with energy projects means hotel rooms and rentals are no longer as available as they once were, making the homeless more visible to the community.
"We don't have the capacity as they do in the larger centres or the volunteer base to assist in those matters. So it's quite an acute problem and we are just trying to manage the best we can," Zahara said.
About 140 kilometres northeast of Edson, community advocates in the town of Whitecourt, Alta., have converted a motel into transitional housing where clients can live for six months to two years.
Shelagh Watson of the Soaring Eagle Support Society, a non-profit that works with the vulnerable in Whitecourt, said 30 people have lived in the Eagle's Nest motel since it started housing clients in May. A handful have since transitioned into permanent housing. Clients range from 30 to 60 years old, according to Watson. Some have addiction and mental health issues, while others are experiencing financial hardships.
"Housing is what they need more than anything. And so, just to be able to provide that stability so that people can move forward with their lives is encouraging," Watson said.
However, Watson only has enough money, accumulated through grants and donations, to keep the site running until the end of December. She has yet to hear back on whether she will receive federal funding for the project; a decision on that is expected in March. "It frustrates me … It gives me a lot of anxiety," she said. "I have amazing staff that recognize that their jobs are only existent from quarter to quarter as we have funding, and they're very dedicated to what they do."
Jamie Cullins moved into the Eagle's Nest Hotel after living on the streets in Edmonton. "My reaction was, you know, happy because it's a place for people to live that have trouble with living on their own or whatnot," he said.
The facility includes a common area for clients with books and boardrooms, and it also offers workshops and other services to help them get on their feet. During the three months he has been there, Cullins has gone through detox, plans to enter rehab and hopes to find a stable job as a welder. He said that if he had not found the former motel, he would likely still be living on the streets.
His long-term plan now? "What I would like to do is find my own place, eventually an apartment that I can afford," Cullins said.
Organizers of both initiatives say funding to tackle homelessness is hard to come by in rural Canada.
"There's no ongoing core funding that we have access to," said Watson.
Erica Snook-Pennings describes the funding situation as "extremely frustrating."
"I recognize most certainly that the population of unhoused individuals is higher in the cities, but they also have already existing infrastructure to deal with a lot of that. We're flying by the seat of our pants out here," she said.
Justin Marshall, a spokesperson for Alberta Community and Social Services Minister Jason Luan, said the provincial government recognizes homelessness is a growing concern for a number of communities. In November, the province struck a task force to find innovative ways to combat homelessness; at the time, there were no voices from rural Alberta on it.
"That's why Edson will receive up to $150,000 to operate an overnight shelter and daytime supports between now and March 31, 2022," Marshall said in a statement to CBC News.
"We are also adding voices from the Edson community on the rural task force committee and other rural communities will also be included on this task force committee."
A joint statement from Employment and Social Development Canada and Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation said the federal government has committed nearly $100 million from 2019 to 2024 to support rural and remote communities deliver support to those experiencing or at-risk of homelessness.
Through the Rapid Housing Initiative, the federal government said it is providing $2.5 billion in immediate support to municipalities with a high level of renters in severe housing need and through an application-based process.