Lethbridge making inroads on the issue of homelessness, but more work needed


Lethbridge News Now, Aaron Mahoney, March 08, 2019.

LETHBRIDGE, AB – Experts and regional representatives from communities around Southwestern Alberta convened at Casa in Lethbridge on Friday, Mar. 8, for the Social Housing in Action’s Regional Housing Forum.

The forum was held as an opportunity for residents, leaders, partner agencies and those who have lived experience to network and share their ideas and perspectives.

One of the presenters was Dr. Alina Turner, a Public Policy Fellow at the University of Calgary, whose presentation looked at moving towards a regionalized, integrated approach to housing and homelessness in Southwest Alberta.

“I really talked about the need for innovation and the need for regional responses to homelessness. The fact is we’re not going to make much of an impact without working together in a new direction. I talked a lot about the movement of people from smaller rural areas to larger urban centres, and that’s a trend happening globally.

“This region is no exception to that larger worldwide trend. We are also seeing significant evidence showing us that the larger the population is, and the more economic growth is happening in a region, the likelier the homeless number is going to go up as well. That’s telling us that economic growth and social infrastructure planning need to go hand-in-hand. We can’t be surprised when we have these challenges emerge when we are investing significantly in growth in these centres.”

Among the topics Turner covered was building synergies between different agencies because the older way of doing the work is still very consistent.

“Which is that we tend to divide the person by their presenting condition,” Turner continued. “So, you might see somebody coming through the door that is experiencing some mental health challenges, might be experiencing domestic violence, they’re homeless and there might be a whole host of other issues.”

What tends to happen at that point, is that person is then sent to a different service provider for each problem.

“Everybody has become so niche and specialized, that the client in need has to navigate this huge maze of services to get what they need. Meanwhile, we’re not looking at them holistically and putting things together from a wellbeing perspective to address those needs in a synergistic way,” Turner stated.

So, what can Lethbridge do to combat this? Well, according to Turner, Lethbridge is already doing some great work in this direction.

“The work the City of Lethbridge has been spearheading about wellbeing and starting to integrate various service providers to work on things as a collective is a huge step. I think seeing the system partners, health and justice, coming to the table to look at innovative ideas is another piece. Things like this, the regional lens, is huge to have that kind of perspective in the room,” Turner said, adding she’s excited to see what they come up with and whether the ideas will resonate with them at all.

Turner further broke down how Lethbridge is doing into two parts.

“In terms of innovation, creativity and this idea of integrated systems planning, Lethbridge is absolutely leading the way. There’re enough calls to find out what they’re up to that would see that verified. Where Lethbridge is struggling is the actual challenges that are coming from the population needing assistance and not enough social infrastructure to meet that need.”

From that perspective, are we able to ensure that everybody who needs assistance gets it?

“I would say no, and there’s more work to be done there. The way forward and what they’ve paved for themselves as a community is absolutely promising and it is leading edge. Lethbridge is not the only community facing these challenges across the country, I talked in my presentation about Toronto and Vancouver but there’s certainly enough smaller centres across Canada that don’t even have a conversation about system planning either,” Turner said.

Turner’s excited to see where the partners are going to take this forward because she thinks everybody in the country is watching to see what comes next from this community.

Jody Francis was one of the regional partners in attendance on Friday. She’s a Housing Liaison Worker in Fort Macleod and says it’s important to be able to come together and actually share their knowledge about the issue.

“Especially with my position, rural homelessness is quite different than the urban centres. Within rural areas, homelessness is quite invisible and hidden so there’s a real lack of awareness about what rural homelessness is. Being able to come together and work together can help us to find solutions,” Francis said.

Her job involves working with individuals who are experiencing homelessness or are at risk of losing their housing. “The issue in rural areas is we lack housing, and we also lack access to resources and services. It’s important that we have to be innovative and creative to be able to meet their needs. We don’t have an Alberta works office as, an example, so we have to be able to work within the systems and help them maneuver those systems. There are a lot of barriers and challenges like transportation and housing, so it takes creativity to help them stay in the community.”

Collaboration can help find solutions, but Francis admits it is a challenge.

“It’s one of the goals of today – to be able to come together and help our partners realize what our challenges are. We’re hoping that we can partner more creatively in the rural communities. I have a grant position through the Alberta Rural Development Network, my position has been there for five years, and I have built relationships with income support so I’m able to work with them to get support for our people to help them stay in Fort Macleod.”

Francis says she’s been told by some people in the past when working with individuals that if they want the services, why don’t they move to the urban centres, but she’s continued advocating for them.

“This is their home, they have a sense of belonging, and they’re entitled to stay in their community,” Francis continued. “So, let’s bring the services to where they are because that’s their home and they deserve to stay where they are living.”