Scope of rural homelessness revealed

The Western Producer, Jeremy Simes, May 22, 2019.

Photo by Chuck Szmurl

An Alberta survey could help communities gain access to more resources to help people find stable housing

STONY PLAIN, Alta. — Sharida Csillag recalls an incident during a volunteer park cleanup in Stony Plain when a child found a duffel bag in a forested area.

Csillag said she instructed the child to return the bag — it wasn’t garbage; it was someone’s home.

“I told them the bag was full of clothes and personal items and that someone was going to come back, so we went with the child to put it back,” said Csillag, a community development co-ordinator with Stony Plain Family and Community Support Services (FCSS).

“The awareness just became present, knowing that homelessness exists here.”

Workers with FCSS and other outreach organizations are on the front lines, helping people who are homeless or at risk of being homeless in rural communities.

The problem, though, is many people aren’t aware of homelessness in their towns, making it difficult for organizations to access more funding to tackle the issue.

However, that is changing.

A first-of-its kind survey has provided a glimpse of rural homelessness in Alberta.

The survey, spearheaded by the Alberta Rural Development Network (ARDN), found there were nearly 3,000 people in 20 communities, or one percent of the population, facing unstable housing.

The conservative estimates suggest about 15,500 people in rural Alberta are potentially living in unstable housing conditions, meaning people are experiencing high housing costs, poor home quality and overcrowding or are homeless.

“As suspected, the problem is way bigger than anyone thought and it’s something we need to do something about,” said Dee Ann Benard, executive director of ARDN.

“Imagine, if there is nothing in a rural community for 15,000-plus people, where are they going to go for help? They’re going to go to the cities.”

In rural communities, homelessness looks different.

Benard said people might be couch-surfing, or living in a tent, camper trailer or abandoned house.

Homes could be extremely overcrowded (12 people in a three-bedroom house, for example), and they might be without heat or water, or they could be crumbling.

“You don’t see people on a street corner, although that occasionally happens,” she said. “It’s really that unstable or inappropriate housing conditions people are living in.”

People who are homeless face similar housing challenges in the Stony Plain and Spruce Grove region.

“They might be unsheltered, living in a car, garage, out in the trees, or be in interim housing, like a hotel or space they could get evicted in one day,” said Lynne Bossmann, an integrated supports co-ordinator with FCSS Spruce Grove, who works closely with Csillag in Stony Plain.

“We don’t have set places in rural communities where people who are homeless can gather and be housed in emergency situations, but we have service providers that deal with people in that situation.”

Spruce Grove and Stony Plain participated in the ARDN survey, receiving 260 completed surveys.

They found 219 adults and 221 children were at risk of homelessness in the region.

As well, there were 10 adults unsheltered.

Unstable housing

The 20 communities participating have a total population of 291,531 (Statistics Canada);

  • including children and adults living in unstable housing, which represents 1.03 percent of the population
  • a rate of 1.03 percent extrapolated to 1.5 million rural people equals 15,450 potential housing-unstable individuals in rural Alberta

Source: Alberta Rural Development Network

Bossmann said the sample size was small (only a month of survey data was recorded), but she believes there are more people at risk of homelessness in the region.

“This is a very small segment of our population and this doesn’t represent the true numbers of what is happening in our region,” she said. “But even though it’s a small sample size, the numbers aren’t good.”

Bossmann said many services can be accessed, but often times people are unaware of what’s available.

As well, every situation is unique, Csillag added, so it’s difficult to pin down why people are in certain situations.

“There are very vulnerable people at risk,” Bossmann said. “If they knew how to get out of a situation, they would be out of it. They need support and assistance.”

Bossmann and Csillag say more funding is needed for affordable and supportive housing in rural communities.

They also want communities to be able to adopt the housing-first model.

The model ensures people who are homeless are housed, and that they get a support worker to help them with other issues that could be contributing to their homelessness.

“It gives them support they couldn’t do on their own, so they can be resilient in the future,” Bossmann said, noting the model has a high success rate.

As well, they want organizations and municipalities to better collaborate with one another to reduce the chance of duplicating resources, getting to the root problem of homelessness so people don’t end up there in the first place.

“We want to move beyond Band-Aid solutions,” Csillag said. “We need to get to the root problem so people don’t end up homeless.”

Benard said communities can now use the survey results to show all levels of government that the issue is important.

The federal government has initiated a helpful program to stem rural homelessness, she added, but more could always be done.

“We estimate if governments spent $1 solving rural homelessness, they would be able to save $10 in the city,” she said. “More money spent on rural homelessness could do a lot more and really start stemming those costs for cities.”

As for the survey, Benard encourages other communities across Canada to take part.

There is interest in British Columbia, Ontario and the Maritimes, she said, adding the communities in Alberta will re-take the survey in two years to see how the results change.

“This is a free guide and we are working with communities across Canada to start doing it,” she said. “The more data we have, the better we can fully understand this issue.”