January 30, 2016 8:19 pm
Updated: February 1, 2016 1:33 pm

Oil and gas layoffs force rural homelessness to rise

WATCH ABOVE: As Jill Croteau reports, a community east of Calgary is taking the blinders off and doing all it can to find a solution.

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CALGARY – The economic downturn has highlighted a problem in rural Alberta that has traditionally gone unnoticed.

Homeless populations in towns and villages bordering the big cities have grown to concerning levels, according to community leaders.

A community east of Calgary is taking the blinders off and doing all it can to find a solution.

Community leaders in Strathmore are raising awareness and funds to upgrade a church to turn it into a temporary overnight homeless shelter.

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In the meantime, a rural campground in Strathmore that’s typically only reserved for spring and summer occupancy, has no vacancy in the winter months because some its spaces are claimed by people who don’t have a permanent place to call home.

“They don’t have services for water or sewer and that’s common,” said John Hilton-O’Brien, from Strathmore’s overnight shelter.

For the most part, rural Alberta towns have been able to keep the homeless at bay but with the economy and the oil and gas layoffs, it’s a growing concern that’s no longer invisible.

“We have pastors who know people living in their cars because they’re taking meals to people living in their cars.”

“I have been in contact with people who are in danger of losing homes because they’re carrying a big mortgage for a house that sold for a lot during the boom and now they don’t have the big job and can’t afford it,” Hilton-O’Brien said.

The ‘Helping Hand Winter Fair’ in Strathmore is a way to rally community support, and offer free winter clothing to those in need while bringing attention to an issue that has historically been ignored. Especially since the situation is about to get exponentially worse, as Unemployment Insurance cheques stop coming in May for some.

“E.I. payments are running out in May. Around 10,000 people in oil and gas and related industries will be out of E.I. in the summer. If we don’t act now there’s going to be more hardship,” said Richard Rogers, who helped organize the Helping Hands event.

The helping hands winter fair in Strathmore is a way to rally community support, and offer free winter clothing to those in need and bring attention to an issue that has historically been ignored.

“I know a lot of people are struggling and I know a lot of the guys in the pipelines – it was hit hard and they’re out of work. People don’t think about the little towns…the little cities are being hit harder,” said Damon Clark, who is out of work himself.

Organizers of the event also hope to have hope to open the town’s first ever overnight homeless shelter. They want to temporarily set it up in the Harvest Healing Centre church.

“We have to call police because of people sleeping the doorways of ATM’s the local hotels have people crashing on their lobby couches..those are not places you can stay for long if we don’t want to see deaths from exposure. We have to have our shelter,” said Hilton’O’Brien.

There’s a chance the community of Strathmore may have to explore the reality of setting up a permanent shelter.

The shelter project has already been endorsed by the town council, which has offered support by donating $40,000.

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