EDMONTON – In central Alberta, the community of Drayton Valley sits just east of the North Saskatchewan River. It’s home to just over 7,000 people, some of whom are homeless.
“Well, in fact, sweeping it under the rug doesn’t help anybody,” Glenn McLean tells Global News. The long-time resident is serving his first term as mayor of the community.
Several years back, city leaders decided to look into what’s normally seen as a big city problem: housing and homelessness.
“What we’ve learned is that homelessness is a range,” explains the mayor.
READ MORE: Homelessness on the rise in rural Alberta
Unlike larger communities, homelessness is not front and centre on Drayton Valley streets, but the reasons people become vulnerable are the same. Some factors include mental health, addiction and job loss.
The central Alberta community, driven by oil and gas and forestry, also faces an affordable housing issue, one of the big reasons some are considered homeless.
“It’s couch surfing. It’s people doubling up,” says Emily Hickman, the homelessness and poverty reduction coordinator in the town. “It’s people living in their cars, in campers that aren’t suitable, that aren’t meant for permanent human habitation.”
Since the implementation of the strategy on homelessness, more than 60 people have been helped through several efforts including a community assistance fund and a volunteer-run mat program housed at a local church. Work continues on more permanent solutions.
“Often times when we try and access the resources that are available here, such as Alberta Works, the solution that we’re given is a bus ticket to the city,” Hickman explains.
“There is not a rural Alberta community that doesn’t have homeless people in it,” says Dee Ann Benard, executive director with the Network.
The town is getting help from the Alberta Rural Development Network (ARDN), which is administering federal funding specifically targeted to dealing with homelessness in rural communities.
“The key thing is really being able to fund more communities,” says Benard.
“Until we have services in many rural communities, the problem is just going to keep transferring to the urban centres.”
The ARDN gets just under half a million in funding; there’s two years left in the program. So far, resources have been directed to projects in 13 communities across Alberta.
“And it’s been really great,” says Benard from her south Edmonton office. “In every community it’s happened in, everybody has stepped up and all of a sudden everybody gets on board.”
“What we need is some longer term solutions,” says McLean.
In his office, Drayton Valley’s mayor talks about the importance of partnerships.
“The other levels of government…they need to be a part of the solution, as well.”
McLean encourages other smaller communities to examine their housing and homelessness issues. He suggests proper information can lead to better advocacy and support.
“We like to take care of our own, just as most communities would want to.”