Revisiting the issue of homelessness

Robynne Henry, Bonnyville Nouvelle June 18, 2019.

A project is underway to get a better picture of homelessness in the area.

Over the coming months, the Bonnyville and District FCSS will be doing a follow-up to the survey they conducted in 2014/15 that gauged the community perception of homelessness.

FCSS director David Beale said, “Basically, we’ll call those (organizations) that we talked to five years ago and say, ‘what’s changed? What have you seen happen in the last five years? How has this continued downturn effected how you work with those that continue to be unemployed, at risk of losing their home, and those who you are aware of being either rough or on substandard housing?’”

Beale made a presentation to Town of Bonnyville council during their regular meeting on Tuesday, June 11, after they had tasked administration with reaching out to local groups to gather more information on the topic.

FCSS is in the process of applying for financial support in order to address the issue through the Alberta Rural Development Network (ARDN), an organization that helps rural communities grow through research and learning. The ARDN’s Rural and Remote Homelessness Funding program assists projects that are meeting the needs of homeless and at-risk people living in rural and remote areas in the province.

”They’re looking at primarily mitigating factors for the prevention of homelessness, which fits well with the FCSS mandate of social prevention, and they want us to be working with those that have a high risk of becoming homeless,” Beale explained, adding FCSS will be the host committee submitting the application with input from multiple groups in the area.

The survey is being conducted to get updated numbers on homelessness in Bonnyville, and to continue the conversation regarding the issue. Currently, FCSS isn’t looking into developing new social housing infrastructure or publicly-owned and operated shelters.

”FCSS isn’t really a suitable organization to get into a capital building project, so we’re not exploring the contingency of building a shelter or a homeless facility in Bonnyville,” detailed Beale. “We’re not looking at any sort of capital development at this point. If that’s where the town wishes to go, that’s something that we can assist with, but that wouldn’t be what we would take a lead in.”

Out of the 250 responses from the original survey, less than five per cent of those that participated didn’t think homelessness was a problem. The majority of residents saw it as an issue that needed to be addressed.

For Mayor Gene Sobolewski, this number was significant.

”I know in Bonnyville, there’s probably not a person out there that doesn’t know somebody that’s been affected by the downturn, never mind an exhilarated downturn in terms of whether it’s homelessness, or people can no longer afford their homes, foreclosures, and then we start migrating off and things like that.”

Beale said local service providers and agencies had the overwhelming response that they do deal with homeless people, and they’re sometimes difficult to help due to their complex issues.

One notable aspect missing from the initial report was a homeless population estimation.

”We weren’t able to, at least at the time, get even a reasonable head count as to how many people were living rough in our community. It was very difficult, and they chose not to be counted,” noted Beale.

An issue that became apparent during the study was the hidden homeless. This is described as people couch surfing, living in their vehicles, in overcrowded conditions, illegal or unfit dwellings, and those at risk of becoming homeless if they can’t pay their mortgage or rent.

While the downturn in the economy was a mitigating factor, Beale noted the “driving force behind most people’s homeless problem” is psychosocial issues.

”It’s a combination of mental health, diminished mental capacity, and addictions,” he continued. “There’s a variety of issues, and sometimes those are complicated. Sometimes they have addictions and a diminished mental capacity. To address the question, you need to understand what their unique situation is and find ways to address it.”

For people on fixed or low incomes, housing insecurity was a significant issue uncovered in the survey. Beale said this was a particular problem when monthly payments for housing were exceedingly high in the area.

He added, “We did find that rentals, although they did come down a little and for some people they came down a fair bit, but for many people, the rent in Bonnyville is still seen as higher than it is in other towns typical of our size.”

Due to the scope of the problem, Sobolewski noted the possibility of expanding the project.

”I feel like it’s going to be one of these issues that we may want to be looking at as a region and not just as a community,” he stated.

Beale said FCSS is currently reaching out to local groups to set up meetings, and hopes to have all the information gathered by the end of summer. Although the study isn’t open for residents to participate in at this time, it’s a possibility later on.

Once all the information is gathered from the new survey, a presentation will be made to council outlining the results.