Booming Alberta faces growing rural homeless problem

Most homeless people in Alberta live in Calgary or Edmonton, but a growing number can now be found in rural areas.

Oil boom has raised housing prices in rural and urban areas

The Calgary Homeless Foundation says Calgary's efforts to combat homelessness are paying off even in the face of heavy migration and scarce affordable housing. (Kevin Frayer/Canadian Press)

Most homeless people in Alberta live in Calgary or Edmonton, but a growing number can now be found in rural areas as well.

New research funded by the provincial government suggests about 3,000 people outside of the two cities are homeless — and that doesn't track with how most people view rural areas.

"When we think about rural community, we think about this idyllic place where everybody takes care of each other and you don't have the social problems you would experience in an urban setting," said Alina Turner, who conducted the research.

The Alberta Centre for Child, Family and Community Research commissioned the study, which looked at 20 rural communities in Alberta and another 20 rural communities across the country.

Overall, it found homelessness does persist in those communities — and much of it is what Turner calls "hidden homelessness."

"There's quite a prevalent of homelessness and particularly hidden homelessness, which is communities that have populations that are at particular risk and in housing instability versus rough sleepers, those people you would see on the street," she said. "So that's a major difference between communities in rural Alberta and Calgary and Edmonton is that you have a population that remains hidden."

Some communities reported between five and 10 homeless people per year while others reported as many as 20 or 30. 

Research highlights homeless rural aboriginals

In many communities, researchers found an "intimate interconnection" between aboriginal communities and the rural homelessness phenomenon. 

"Wherever we have aboriginal communities in proximity to or having access to rural communities where services exist, you always have an over-representation of aboriginal people in the homeless population," said Turner.

"We always look at the aboriginal population migrating to urban centres for services and opportunities, but in reality they're actually migrating for those same purposes within rural communities as well, and it speaks to the conditions on reserve and in aboriginal communities that prompt that type of migration."

Many are migrating to communities like Camrose and Slave Lake as well as Edmonton and Calgary.

However, Turner says many of the rural communities aren't able to provide the support services that people seek — such as domestic violence shelters and other forms of help not available in First Nations communities — and that further compounds the problem of homelessness.

While Alberta's booming economy has benefited many, it may also be linked to the growing problem of rural homelessness.

Low vacancy rates a problem

The province's low housing rates and vacancy rates, even in communities like Camrose, create vulnerabilities in terms of access not just to affordable housing but to any housing, says Lars Hallstrom, a sociology professor at the University of Alberta.

Hallstrom says many rural communities haven't built comprehensive plans to deal with homelessness and some have been solely focused on generating revenue in light of the number of people leaving town in search of jobs.

"We're seeing an absence of a broader, more holistic perspective on homelessness and how it relates to social factors," he said. "So many of them, because of the Municipal Governance Act, are so focused on how they can generate revenues that they haven't really been in the position to think about other ways to pursue community development."

Hallstrom says there are no clear cut ways to solve Alberta's rural homelessness, but he has a few recommendations.

He says service providers in rural communities need to stop competing with each other for funding and should instead focus on becoming more integrated.

As well, rural transportation needs to be more actively considered and city planners should make an effort to focus on social planning as well as economic planning for their communities.

Still, he says raising the profile of rural homelessness will be a big part of motivating people to seek change.

"The vast majority, I think, of Albertans don't believe that there is such a thing as homelessness in rural Alberta. It goes against the stereotype we have of a person pan-handling on the streets, which you may see in Calgary or Edmonton," Hallstrom said.

"The idea that we have of a person living with a shopping cart and some plastic bags isn't really the full characterization of homelessness or vulnerability in terms of housing ... It's tough to find a place to live, it's tough to afford that place to live."


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