Taken from The Calgary Herald.
Homelessness is pervasive even outside of Alberta’s urban centres, according to a new study into the scope of the problem in the province’s rural communities.
The report is touted by the Alberta Rural Development Network (ARDN) as the largest co-ordinated count of homelessness and housing instability ever completed in rural Alberta, and was completed in co-ordination with local service agencies operating in 20 communities.
It found that approximately 0.37 per cent of Alberta’s rural population is experiencing homelessness or housing instability, a number that increases to one per cent when counting other affected adults and children who share the unstable housing.
“We’re looking at about one per cent of people in rural Alberta that are existing in a state of very unstable housing,” said ARDN executive director Dee Ann Benard.
Okotoks was one community that participated in the study, surveying locals about their housing security in that community as well as nearby Black Diamond, Turner Valley, High River and Foothills County. There, 72 respondents, many of whom had lived Okotoks their whole lives, said they were without a home or facing unstable housing for more than a year.
Debbie Posey, the community wellness manager with the Town of Okotoks, said that while some may be surprised to learn there is a homeless population in the city, she wasn’t surprised by the numbers.
“Okotoks is a bedroom community, we’re a very safe community. I think we’re seen to be a fairly affluent community,” Posey said. “But we do have deep pockets of poverty . . . we know that we have significant social needs, the same as anywhere else.”
Benard says homelessness in rural communities is often less visible than in cities such as Calgary and Edmonton, where those experiencing homelessness can often be seen sleeping rough or in tent cities.
“That’s much harder to do in a rural community, because it wouldn’t be accepted in the community and if you lived in the community you wouldn’t really want people to see you, so it’s a hidden crisis,” she said. “It’s people living in their cars, living out in bushes in a tent, in an abandoned building . . . it’s a much greater stigma in a smaller community.”
In urban areas, the largest reasons for homelessness are struggles with mental health or addictions. However, in rural Alberta, the study found that more than half of respondents with housing instability cited low income, with domestic violence and job loss following closely behind.
Because the study was conducted in 2018, it doesn’t reflect the COVID-19 pandemic. But Benard says the virus is worsening rural homelessness.
“They’re afraid to go to the few shelters and programs that are available because they’re not comfortable with what’s in place with physical distancing or they’re scared of getting sick,” she said.
Benard says ARDN is looking to complete a followup study and is recruiting rural Alberta communities to participate online at ardn.ca.