Fighting rural homelessness

Perception and funding are issues in Alberta

Homelessness is an urban problem. The tiny rural communities scattered across Alberta’s sparsely populated countryside are no place to live without a permanent roof over one’s head or so the story goes.

It was only when the federal government started to hand over responsibility for various homelessness issues to provincial bodies that our understanding of the rural homeless changed.

Dee Ann Bernard is the executive director of the Alberta Rural Development Network (ARDN) which focuses mainly on rural economic issues. She says her organization was surprised when the federal government asked them to take over regional homelessness in 2012 because she didn’t think there was any.

“When we started working in it we really realized this is a huge issue for rural Alberta…. There are 435 communities in Alberta and I bet you almost every single one of them has homeless people in them” Bernard says. “It has probably [always] been there but because it doesn’t look like what we expect it to look like it took a little longer to recognize.”

She says one reason people don’t believe there is a large rural homeless population is because they don’t see it. Many envision the homeless as panhandlers and bottle pickers who congregate on urban streets. However rural communities tend to be more tight-knit so homeless people and those at risk are pressured to hide what they consider to be an embarrassing problem making them less visible. They also find more remote sites to sleep at.

“You don’t want people to know that you’re having a problem — your neighbours or your friends or your family — so people they couch surf which doesn’t seem like you’re homeless. Some people live in their cars in their trucks people live in their travel trailers they live in tents out in the bush they live in abandoned buildings” she says.

Once the ARDN realized there was an issue Bernard says they knew they needed better information. The organization and the Ministry of Human Services partnered to fund a study into the province’s rural homeless which was released on June 12.

Dr. Alina Turner and Dr. Jeanette Waegemakers-Schiff were the principal researchers. They estimate roughly 3000 people are homeless and living in rural Alberta but stress that’s a rough guess because the problem is so poorly monitored that most of the 20 communities they studied keep no formal records.

What they did find is that many rural Albertans fail to see the risk of homelessness because of an attachment to the countryside as an idyllic setting where the resourceful succeed; homelessness is symptomatic of the big city. What the researchers say people don’t notice is that a lack of social services in small communities means many people are funnelled from the country to the city where structured help is available.

They cite reports in Edmonton that suggest 40 per cent of the youth in city shelters actually come from rural communities. The numbers are higher for First Nations people.

Unfortunately for rural communities whether they are aware of their local homeless population or not the researchers say they are poorly equipped to help them.

“The costs are prohibitive to having all types of services in smaller centres” explains Turner. “You’ve got people that have very complex issues that are showing up at your doorstep. You’re not necessarily able to provide them with the support they need.”

Also Waegemakers-Schiffs says “when there are services in the smaller communities they’re often provided on a volunteer basis through faith-based organizations and unfortunately in some of these communities if you don’t belong to the right church you may not be eligible for support.”

Though Alberta’s original plan to end homelessness in the province focused exclusively on the seven largest cities limited funding is now being dedicated to rural communities. That’s not enough says Bernard who points out that 29 communities applied to the ARDN for homelessness program funding in 2013 but the $450000 available was enough for only seven towns.

In Chestermere one of the funded communities the town hired a full-time resource co-ordinator to help those in need.

Chestermere community development manager Patti Brown agrees homelessness in the 16000-person town looks much different than what people expect.

“We don’t have people with shopping carts walking down the street or living under the bridge — that vision of homelessness. But what we do have is people living in rental homes with nothing inside no furniture and their payments are in arrears” she says.

Chestermere works to keep people in their community but Brown says the town still lacks the resources to help homeless people with complex needs forcing them to send those people to Calgary for help.

Bernard says that’s why rural homelessness is also an urban issue.

“Because if we’re ignoring the problem and not helping people in the rural communities when they start to have a problem… then that problem’s going to escalate and these people when they’re going to need services or need to go somewhere they’re gong to end up going to Calgary or Edmonton.”