Emily Plihal - Local Journalism, Initiative Reporter
Out of the Cold Shelter in Peace River is facing temporary closure if they cannot secure funds to help them keep their services available through summer.
Located at 1010 – 100 Avenue in Peace River at the Sagitawa Friendship Society, the shelter provides a place for people in need to find refuge from outside elements and some warm food to nourish them. Unfortunately, they need to find extra funding or else the program will have to be halted until winter.
“The shelter was created to fill a gap in our community as there was no shelter for our vulnerable population,” explains Sagitawa Friendship Society executive director Marissa Geldart.
“Peace River is the hub of Northern Alberta, and we see many transient people from neighbouring communities, as well as our chronically homeless population that are local to our community. We are also two hours from the closest shelter located in Grande Prairie, over the past three years the shelter has become an essential service in our community,” she adds.
Geldart says that from April 1, 2022, to March 31 of this year, Out of the Cold Shelter had 239 clients access the shelter with 3,560 service visits. She notes this calculates to 9.78 clients per night.
Some of the concerns with the potential closure of the shelter is there will be nowhere for people to escape the excruciating heat of summer, they won’t be able to access safe housing to get off the streets, and they will have to struggle to find ways to access food, water, and shelter.
Geldart and Sagitawa Friendship Society president Krista Park-Stepaniuk say they were fortunate to receive funding through the federal government and the Rural Development Network to keep the shelter open year-round during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“In November 2022, we received funding from the Alberta government and the Rural Development Network to operate the Out of the Cold Shelter for the winter months,” Geldart says, noting those funds have now lapsed, and the shelter is seeking assistance to keep its doors open through summer.
“As outlined in the Action Plan for Homelessness from the Alberta government, funding was provided for winter emergency response rather than year-round funding.”
The shelter is now asking for public donations to try to keep its doors open to help individuals year-round. Initially, they thought they would have to close the shelter on May 1 of this year. Geldart says a very generous donation from Lisa Jebb and Craig McNaughton allowed them to stay open longer than they were anticipating.
“At the shelter we provide a safe place to sleep, two meals a day (breakfast and dinner) and laundry services,” she says.
“Clients also have access to Outreach Services and through our other programming we can provide a wrap-around approach to ensure that clients are receiving the best possible care and support. The goal of the shelter and Outreach Services is to permanently house clients.”
The services provided are vital, individuals who require help with temporary housing, mental health assistance access, or assistance to find rehabilitation services can go to the shelter and provide direction.
Unfortunately, as outlined in the Action Plan for Homelessness from the Alberta government, funding was only provided for winter emergency response, not for year-round funding.
“We are still needing more funding to allow us to stay open for the duration of the summer,” says Geldart.
“Currently, we are seeking donations to allow us to stay open. If the shelter was to close, there would be a number of displaced individuals having to sleep rough or in other unsafe conditions. Peace River is home to the majority of our shelter clients, and they choose to stay in our community rather than going to a shelter in a larger urban area.”
At a recent Peace River town hall meeting, homelessness was one of the biggest concerns addressed by individuals.
The shelter helps reduce the number of people on the street at night, which helps reduce crime associated with desperation to attain basic necessities. It also reduces the number of calls police must attend to, because there are fewer people being put in dangerous situations because they have a safe place to sleep.
“In the fall of 2019, the Town of Peace River requested assistance from the AHS Environmental Public Health Inspector to advise on a small tent town that had been formed in the downtown area,” explains Park-Stepaniuk.
“The inspector formed a committee comprised of the executive directors of the Sagitawa Friendship Society and the Peace River Regional Women’s Shelter, the RCMP community liaison, and representatives of the Icare and Servants Heart Initiative. Most of the residents of the tent town were men and the only shelter open to men was 200 km away.”
Park-Stepaniuk says the committee realized the need and knew that transitional and accessible housing would be best, but the quickest way to help these people was to try to open a wet mat program, allowing men and women a safe place to sleep in cold months.
“While they could enter while under the influence, they would not be able to consume any intoxicants on site,” says Park-Stepaniuk, noting that they opened Jan. 13, 2020, during a -54C windchill evening in donated space with a dedicated group of volunteers.
“Both the Holy Family Catholic School Board and the Peace River United Church kindly donated the use of their space. The community members supported the shelter with many financial, material, and in-kind donations.”
Park-Stepaniuk says the shelter was run by volunteers until the global pandemic was declared, when a grant from the County of Northern lights allowed for the hiring of the first few staff.
“The committee had discussed future plans and determined a larger non-profit would have to form with stable funding for shelter space or another established non-profit could take over the control of the program,” Park-Step- aniuk explains.
“The Sagitawa Friendship Society board of directors, who have been working to support those in need in our community for over 60 years, voted to do just that. They have successfully obtained funding allowing it to run every night since they have opened using grants from the provincial and federal funding.”
Now the shelter requires assistance from the pubic. If individuals are interested in donating to the program to help keep the shelter open through summer, please phone Geldart at (780) 624-2443.
“Shelters provide an essential service to a vulnerable population,” says Geldart.
“The clients rely on the shelter to have their basic needs met and to have a safe place to sleep. Sleeping rough is never a safe option and having shelters in rural communities closing in the summer means that clients are either having to sleep rough or in other unsafe options.”