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Peace River opens first overnight homeless shelter

The small northern Alberta town of Peace River will open its first overnight homeless shelter Sunday. The volunteer-run shelter will run out of church buildings, offering people a warm place to sleep between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m.

Rural homelessness an issue often unseen, unacknowledged

At times, people with nowhere else to go sleep in the Peace River post office. (Marc Boychuk)

The small northern Alberta town of Peace River will open its first overnight winter shelter on Sunday.

The volunteer-run operation will open its doors every night until late April from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m.

Marc Boychuk, one of the organizers, said homeless people often go unseen in smaller communities, with people sleeping in cars, in back alleys, or in tents out of the eye of the public.

"Two, three years ago I didn't even know we had homeless in our community, and I think the vast majority of our community didn't," Boychuk said Friday. "And the vast majority, like myself, are quite appalled and shocked at what some people have to put up with and how they're living. 

"And they want that to end, now."

Byron Schamehorn, a town councillor who plans to volunteer at the shelter, said options were running out for those sleeping rough with local businesses increasingly locking their lobbies.

"The windchill's getting below minus 35 here these days, and so it's clearly a need," Schamehorn said. "It's not going to solve everything. But if it's something that will help a little bit then that's important to take that step."

The shelter will initially be housed in the basement of the Catholic Conference Centre. (Marc Boychuk)

According to a news release, the shelter's steering committee includes representatives from the Peace River Regional Women's Shelter, the Sagitawa Friendship Centre, AHS's Environmental Public Health, the RCMP, and the Town of Peace River.

Two church buildings will host the shelter as the group collects donations needed to secure a permanent location and hire staff for next winter. Boychuk said the response so far has been amazing.

"I couldn't be prouder to belong to this community."

Hidden homelessness

John Kmech, director of homelessness initiatives with the non-profit Alberta Rural Development Network, said there's less awareness of the issue in small communities because they typically do not see "absolutely unsheltered" homelessness.

Hidden homelessness is more common — couch surfing, squatting, overcrowding or escaping domestic violence.

"All of these forms of homelessness are present in cities as well," Kmech said. "But because there's less visible homelessness in rural communities, it typically isn't associated with rural communities."

He said a lack of available data makes it harder to address the issue, because without numbers it becomes difficult to apply for funding.

In urban areas, volunteers go out during a specific time span and tally numbers based on people on the street or in shelters. ARDN developed a more in-depth methodology, co-ordinating with service agencies to invite clients to fill out a 28-question survey over a 30-day period.

Boychuk used the method to survey 45 people during a pilot project last year. Thirty-nine said their housing situation was unstable, that they could easily lose their housing, or were unsure whether their housing was stable.

Boychuk said he expects 20 visitors to the shelter on a regular basis. ARDN is currently developing a housing needs assessment for Peace River, something he hopes will be the first step to making the shelter unnecessary.

"I'm really hoping with this awareness, we can really take off from Peace River and be a pilot project for a lot of the other smaller rural communities."