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Funding cuts are failing Fort McMurray's homeless, advocates say

In the midst of a deep freeze, one group on the front lines helping Fort McMurray's homeless are having to turn away those who need their help most and there are fears they'll have to turn away more because of cuts to their funding.

'We're planting this seed that there is hope. We can help you'

Fort McMurray’s zero homeless strategy will fail because of funding cuts, advocates say. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

In the midst of a deep freeze, one group on the front lines helping Fort McMurray's homeless are having to turn away those who need their help most and there are fears they'll have to turn away more because of cuts to their funding.

The organizations laid out the stark reality after pleading with the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo to reverse planned cuts during the 2019-2020 fiscal year.

"We are failing [the homeless]," said Allison Pardy, the outgoing executive director for the Choices Association of Fort McMurray. "Whether it's local government or provincial government the cutbacks are happening every year."

On Tuesday night, municipal council in Fort McMurray allocated $3,986,013 to eight projects to fight homelessness in the upcoming fiscal year that begins in April. That's a $238,318 drop from the previous fiscal year and comes up short of the $5,936,219 non-profits asked for during consultations.

Planting false seeds of hope?

The cuts will hit homeless people like Dereck Shiner, advocates say.

(CBC Graphics)

Shiner is thankful that he has a spot at the local emergency Salvation Army shelter, but, the 56-year-old who battles addictions would love to have a place to call his own.

"Any help, I would greatly appreciate," Shiner told CBC News. "Down there it gets crazy. People get drunk and they want to fight."

Shiner has asked Wood Buffalo Wellness Society for help.

Dereck Shiner is staying at the emergency shelter at the Salvation Army in Fort McMurray. (David Thurton/ CBC)

But the society, which runs outreach and housing programs, had it's funding cut by almost $60,000.

Theresa St. Pierre, a centralized intake worker for the society, expects her waitlist will grow.

She says the society has already turned away about 80 people within the last 10 months.

For St. Pierre it's disheartening to reject clients who are dealing with addictions and mental health issues, who often step into her office with a resolve to change their lives.

"We're planting this seed that there is hope. We can help you," St. Pierre said. "I don't know. Some people are so far down the list I don't know when they will be able to be helped."

“We are failing (the homeless),” Allison Pardy, the outgoing executive director for the Choices Association of Fort McMurray, told CBC. The organizations laid out the stark reality after pleading with the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo to reverse planned cuts during the 2019-2020 fiscal year. 0:10

Her organization is now fundraising to make up the shortfall, but as of Wednesday only raised $12 from an online campaign.

Tough decisions

The Choices Association of Fort McMurray will also have to make some tough decisions over the next year — it's funding has been cut by $82,532.

The employment support agency says the reduction means it can't run a program that helps clients get government-issued identification

The association's executive director said Fort McMurray's homeless strategy will fail if programs that help vulnerable people are not funded.

"It's not just about housing people," Pardy said. "It's about the wrap-around services. If they don't have these, then, no program will be successful."

Theresa St. Pierre, a centralized intake worker, in Fort McMurray says because of funding cuts she will have to turn away homeless persons seeking help. 0:44

Pardy said this week's municipal council meeting struck the wrong note with her because the cuts to homeless grants were approved at the same meeting where councillors were supposed to discuss spending $7 million about funding a design to build a roof on a stadium. Council voted to defer a decision on stadium design until more public consultation had been done. 

When questioned about council's decision to cut the homeless funding, Don Scott, mayor of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, deflected blame.

Scott said the municipality doles out the funding that's provided by the province and the federal government.

But, the Alberta government's department of community and social services said in an email statement that funding to fight homelessness has been maintained.

"We have protected and stabilized funding for homelessness from year to year," department spokesperson, Brenna Ward said. "The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo determines how to allocate funding they receive from the province and we have reached out to them to learn more about these concerns."

CBC has not heard from the federal government, which also provides funding for homelessness. 

Connect with David Thurton, CBC's Fort McMurray correspondent, on FacebookTwitterLinkedIn or email him at david.thurton@cbc.ca.

About the Author

David Thurton is a national reporter in CBC's Parliamentary Bureau. He's worked for CBC in Fort McMurray, the Maritimes and in Canada's Arctic.

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