Rural Alberta asks for help for the 'hidden homeless'

There aren't any official numbers to prove it but with stories of people sleeping in their vehicles and campers in rural Alberta, a group is asking for more help to deal with the issue.

‘These are people who are living in their cars'

A non-profit rural action group says some people are sleeping in their vehicles in rural Alberta. (Supplied)

You don't often see people pushing around shopping carts or sleeping on park benches in Alberta's rural communities, but things are still desperate for some who don't have anywhere to call home.

"A lot of the homelessness in rural communities is hidden, so it's not what you might typically see in the city," Dee Ann Benard, executive director of the Alberta Rural Development Network, said Monday.

The group, which administers all federal funding for rural homelessness in Alberta, is holding a conference in Nisku on Tuesday to shine a light on the issue.

"These are people who are living in their cars, living out in the bush, or in substandard housing, maybe without heat or running water," said Benard.

There are no official numbers yet to show exactly how many people are homeless in rural Alberta, but Benard said times are tough for many living outside of the seven largest urban centres, which are well equipped to deal with the issue.

"We know that there is homelessness in probably every single rural community in Alberta," she said.

Some people unable to afford rural rents are getting by in tents and even garden sheds. (Supplied)

That's true in Drayton Valley, southwest of Edmonton, where a local church has run a mat program for the last few years. The program provides a place to stay overnight for people without any shelter. Twenty-three people have used it.

The town's homelessness and poverty reduction coordinator, Emily Hickman,  is one of the speakers at the conference.

"We also know there are people who are homeless who never access the mat program," Hickman said.

One of the big barriers many face, she said, is the initial cost of rent in addition to the damage deposit landlords ask for.

Knowing that the first payment could be more than $1,000, the town has been able to offer rent assistance through a federal grant.

While as many as 35 people have been able to take advantage of the grant since March 2016 to get into housing, Hickman said Drayton Valley is looking at other ideas.

Investment in housing still a pressing need

One idea she'll be presenting Tuesday is the proposal for a 20-space community hostel, which would provide the most affordable housing for those who need it.

It's still in the planning stage. Hickman hopes to get approval for next steps from town council in the summer.

In the meantime, Benard is hoping rural areas will get a share of affordable-housing funding that was recently announced by the provincial and federal governments.

​She said an increase in federal funding to her organization is already helping connect people to important housing and employment services across rural Alberta.

The province said of the $1.2 billion earmarked for affordable housing over the next five years, 60 per cent will go to projects in rural Alberta.

Benard is hoping the conference in Nisku will help rural communities build an action plan to deal with a growing problem.

"People are starting to realize that there is an issue in rural communities with respect to homelessness," she said, "but they don't really know how to approach it."