Mayor says Fort McMurray's rural homeless need to be counted

Although long-term trends show homelessness in Fort McMurray is on the decline, the region’s recent survey failed to consider rural homelessness and housing issues.

'There has never been a rural homeless count ... This is the council that is taking action'

Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo Mayor Don Scott says the municipality needs to conduct a rural homelessness count. (David Thurton/ CBC)

Although the long-term trend suggests homelessness in Fort McMurray is on the decline, the region's recent survey did not include the region's rural communities.

The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo released its point-in-time homeless count in July. Funded by the federal Homelessness Partnering Strategy, the count was conducted in Fort McMurray in April 2018.

But Wood Buffalo Mayor Don Scott said the count doesn't give a complete picture. 

"There's definitely work that needs to be done," Scott said. "My understanding is that there has never been a rural homeless count in our region ever. This is the council that is taking action on that."

In March, council voted to conduct a rural count and the municipality dedicated $15,000 toward the program.

'It is incomplete'

The Wood Buffalo Housing Corporation said it and other organizations need an accurate count of rural areas to better understand what the housing needs are.

"I don't think the numbers are complete unless we count the rural communities," said Henry Hunter, the corporation's CEO. "It's the Wood Buffalo region so without the rural community count, it is incomplete."

The Centre for Hope is a Fort McMurray drop-in centre for homeless, which offers a range of services.  Its executive director, Amanda Holloway, said the non-profit sector and the municipality need to know if they should decentralize outreach programs.

"For information purposes, absolutely, it would definitely be good information for us," Holloway said. "Considering that now our services are focused on the urban centre."

Scott said the municipality can use the data from a rural homeless count to lobby the government for more dollars.

"I am going to demand the other levels of government take action," Scott said, pointing out housing is a federal and provincial responsibility.

While the latest numbers focused on Fort McMurray, the data showed the homeless population has decreased from a high of 549 in 2008 down to 200 this year.

Although numbers were lower in 2016 than 2018, the municipality says 2016 was an anomaly with the wildfire evacuation driving residents and the region's homeless out of the city.

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


David Thurton

Senior reporter, Parliamentary Correspondent

David Thurton is a senior reporter in CBC's Parliamentary Bureau. He covers daily politics in the nation’s capital and specializes in environment and energy policy. Born in Canada but raised in Trinidad and Tobago, he’s moved around more times than he can count. He’s worked for CBC in several provinces and territories, including Alberta and the Northwest Territories.