Community groups working to tackle rural homelessness in Alberta

Advocates taking on rural homelessness in Alberta say the current patchwork of funding available makes it difficult to make progress.

Province says committee established to give advice

The Eagle's Nest Motel in Whitecourt now operates as transitional housing for community members at risk of being homeless. (Kory Siegers/CBC)

Advocates taking on rural homelessness in Alberta say the current patchwork of funding available makes it difficult to make progress.

Sydney Stenekes is the director for homelessness initiatives with the Rural Development Network, a social development non-profit that helps rural communities. She said the pandemic has highlighted some of the problems. 

"I think COVID has only exacerbated the issues that rural communities and other communities are facing," she said.

Rural homelessness is typically much more hidden than in the cities, she said. Often it can be couchsurfing, sleeping in a vehicle or overcrowded housing, which is especially prevalent in Indigenous communities.

Stenekes said community groups have been an effective way to organize at local and regional levels.

"Those task forces and homelessness coalitions are key in bringing together service providers and different stakeholders to have those difficult conversations."

Some rural organizations and municipalities have developed overnight mat programs, she said — a first step to save lives and keep people out of the cold.

The Slave Lake Homeless Coalition Society formed last summer after another local agency could no longer cover the cost of a mat program it had run for years.

Funding through RDN allowed them to set up the program this winter but finding space has been a challenge, according to board co-chair Danielle Larivee. 

The coalition was able to work out a deal with the local Northern Star Motel as an interim solution. 

The society now has a temporary commercial space. The overnight shelter sees about eight people per night but has hit its maximum occupancy of 14 on especially cold nights.

"We're not unhappy with it but we don't see it as a permanent location," Larivee said. The coalition is looking toward a future when it can provide supportive housing with wraparound supports — one especially dependent on consistent funding.

The society has been able to access provincial pandemic funding for isolation sites, set to end in the spring, to support quarantining individuals and operate day programming.

"It looks like we just have to close our doors at the end of April, and say, 'See you later, everybody — back to your bush camps and we'll see you next season in October again'," coalition coordinator Jule Asterisk said.

"That's been the format for rural Alberta."

A New Year's celebration this year at the Slave Lake Homeless Coalition Society's overnight shelter. (Submitted by Jule Asterisk)

In Whitecourt, Alta, the Soaring Eagle Support Society has been operating transitional housing out of a motel since last May.

Rents adjusted for income are able to cover most of the building costs but the society must also rely on donations and grants. 

Executive director Shelagh Watson said finances are a constant scramble.

"We're trying to be creative with what we could do to be self-sustaining, but as a charity, there's just so much you can do to do that."

Provincial support

Stenekes said one issue is the "huge gap" for data on rural homelessness in Alberta — securing funding without that is challenging. The RDN has its own methodology for estimating needed support in rural communities, last done across the province in 2020.

The organization also administers funding through the federal government's Reaching Home homelessness strategy.

Stenekes said there is no central pot of funding from the province, noting there's a need not only for capital funding but ongoing operational costs.

Justin Marshall, press secretary for the minister of community and social services, said in a statement that the provincial government recognizes that rural homelessness is a growing concern.

He cited $1.4 million allocated to emergency shelter and isolation spaces in rural Alberta, including Lloydminster, Leduc, Peace River, Slave Lake and Edson. 

A rural task force committee — part of the provincial homelessness task force announced last fall — will also give advice on rural homelessness, Marshall said.