Hidden homelessness: Alberta group calls for more support for rural areas

EDMONTON- The Alberta government should be spending more money on combating homelessness in rural communities, according to a group advocating for smaller communities in the province.

The Alberta Rural Development Network (ARDN) currently manages federal funding for homelessness in rural Alberta but said it is hoping to receive money from the province as well.

“The problem in the rural areas is it tends to be more hidden,” said Dee Ann Bernard, the ARDN’s executive director. “First of all, people don’t want to be out on the streets, they don’t want their neighbours to know. They’re often living in subsistence housing; no heat, no hot water; they’re living in a car, in a tent, in a bush… things like that.”

Bernard said while the group doesn’t have hard numbers yet, it sees homelessness is on the rise in many rural communities.

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Alberta Human Services has allocated nearly $77 million for outreach support services in the seven largest urban centre in the province: Calgary, Edmonton, Fort McMurray, Grande Prairie, Lethbridge, Medicine Hat and Red Deer.

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According to Bernard, not only are smaller communities deserving of more money for homelessness, there is a connection between urban and rural homelessness.

“Often, if people can’t access service in rural Alberta, they get sent to one of the big cities and it increases the population of the homeless there. The reality is you have to be homeless for a year in Edmonton before you can access even the most basic services so what we find is these people either become victims of crime, they become criminals themselves, or sometimes they even die.”

At least one advocate for Edmonton’s homeless population agrees.

“Most likely they (homeless Albertans) come here because we have more to offer,” said Edmonton city councillor Dave Loken. “But if it’s an issue of this being a problem outside the cities, and the solution is to give them a bus ticket to come to the city; it’s not much of a solution.”

ARDN argues that despite demonstrating an ability to spend federal dollars efficiently, the province could do more to help its efforts.

The ARDN says in its first year managing the money, it was able to support nearly 1,500 people in need with less than $500,000 in funding. The organization is now operating in its third year.

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“For the most part, rural homelessness has been overlooked in the past,” conceded Human Services Minister Irfan Sabir.

The province’s current policy on homelessness, dubbed ‘Housing First,’ aims to end homelessness by providing permanent housing. The plan sees money funnelled into community-based organizations in Alberta’s urban centres and a funding model is based on factors including population and shelter usage within a given community.

According to Sabir, money provided to the Family and Community Support Services Association of Alberta (FCSS) benefits 99 per cent of Albertans who need the help but said he’s approached FCSS to see if it can develop more flexible programs in order to address rural homelessness.

Bernard met with Sabir on Monday and asked her group to provide him with a written proposal. She said she is optimistic the NDP government will listen to her group’s concerns.

-with files from Kendra Slugoski

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