Homeless sheltered in sheds as Wetaskiwin seeks solutions

Wetaskiwin is using sheds to deal with a growing problem of homelessness as the community and neighbouring Maskwacis rally to find long-term solutions.

Volunteers are taking steps to open a permanent shelter as leaders rally in Wetaskawin and Maskwacis

Andrea Okeynan slept in the bushes until the shelters were introduced in August. (CBC/Dave Bajer)

On a cold September afternoon, a small group huddles in two sheds set up on a snow-covered field in Wetaskiwin, Alta.

Up until last month, the unheated wooden structures, which often shelter cattle or horses, were used as dugouts at the local baseball diamond. Now they offer temporary relief to people with nowhere else to go.

The interim step comes as community leaders in the city and neighbouring First Nation community of Maskwacis, 100 kilometres south of Edmonton, rally to find long-term solutions for residents struggling with homelessness, addictions and mental health issues.

Last week's early snowfall made the mission even more urgent, as Andrea Okeynan and others shivered in the shed, passing around a large bottle of beer.

Okeynan, 46, has been on the streets since her home at Maskwacis burned down in 2005. Prior to the shelter, Okeynan said she often slept in the bushes. She warms up in fast food restaurants or an ATM entranceway until she's asked to leave.

"It's kind of hard because so many people starve out here," Okeynan told CBC News. "I don't think it's right for us Natives to be living like this. I pray that God will help us."

A friend accompanying Okeynan said the temporary shelters are helpful, but something permanent is needed.
Wetaskiwin officials have set up sheds for homeless residents as they work with advocates and Maskwacis bands to find long term solutions. 1:27

Wetaskiwin has a population of about 13,000 and no permanent shelter for people without homes.

An RCMP study conducted between January and July 2017 suggested between 20 and 27 per cent of policing hours were spent on non-criminal public intoxication offences.

Sue Howard, director of infrastructure for the city, spoke to CBC at the shelter site, as her colleague comforted a tearful woman who ventured from the shed.  

At one point, a man pulled up in his truck shouting that horse sheds were not an adequate solution.

"This is not our solution to homelessness," said Howard. "This is a temporary area to try and provide the people that are already camped out there a safe place up off the ground and somewhat out of the elements."

She said the city is committed to working with the four bands at Maskwacis and concerned groups to find long-term solutions "but until then we are simply trying to help in whatever way possible."

The sheds were introduced while the weather was still warm. But with temperatures already plunging, officials are now looking at improving the shelters and opening up city facilities, Howard added. The site will soon have a portable toilet as well.

'It's not perfect'

On social media, one person described the move by the city as "sick" and "insulting."

But Roxanne Roan, who is couch-surfing at the moment, told CBC it was a "good idea" that she hoped city officials would expand on.

Jessi Hanks, 32, who was born and raised in Wetaskiwin and runs a "Rant and Rave" page on Facebook, noted that by Sunday snow was coming down hard.

"Now, instead of sitting behind Canadian Tire in the elements, they have a roof over their head to help stay dry. It's not perfect. And it wasn't meant to be. It was just a more humane approach, rather than driving by them and pretending they don't exist in our city," she wrote in a message to CBC.
Pastor Vinjelu Muyabe hopes to buy Manny's Motel, pictured here, to open a permanent shelter. (CBC/Dave Bajer)

Volunteers are largely involved in the outreach efforts in Wetaskiwin. A church-supported group called Neighbours Outreach serves up homemade soups on weekdays. Those who are intoxicated are fed but not allowed inside. 

Board chair Blayne Leeuw said their numbers have increased slightly in the past few months. 

'People ... are dying'

On the other side of town, a husband and wife team at Justice Cafe provide coffee, a weekly dinner and clothing.

Vinjelu Muyaba, pastor of Lighthouse Church, estimated they serve about 40 clients. He also attends their funerals.

When someone is missing at Sunday dinner, it's hard not to think the worst.

"We have a lot of people that are dying," said Muyaba. "I believe it's maybe one or two every couple of months that are passing away here on the streets because of the situation.

"The issue of getting a shelter is a matter of life and death for some of these people."

Part of the problem, said Muyaba, is the lack of services to support those who struggle with addiction and mental health issues.  

There's a small exodus happening and unfortunately, some people are falling through the cracks- Samson Cree Chief Vernon Saddleback

Vernon Saddleback, the chief of Samson Cree Nation, one of four bands at Maskwacis, said a "population explosion" has maxed out housing and land on his reserve. The population has jumped from nearly 7,000 to 9,000 in just a few years, while boundaries are static.

"So you're starting to see this migration to the local towns," said Saddleback. "There's a small exodus happening and unfortunately, some people are falling through the cracks."

He praised Wetaskiwin Mayor Tyler Gandam and city council for their efforts and for collaborating with the Samson Cree. Both Saddleback and Gandam were elected to their current roles in 2017.

Prior to that, Gandam was a funeral director who attended many services at Samson Cree.

"Sometimes the right people need to be in office for things to happen," said Saddleback. "Now you're talking to someone you know as a friend. And it just seems like things start to move a lot faster."
Samson Cree Chief Vernon Saddleback praised Wetaskiwin for working with Maskwacis to help people in need. (CBC)

Saddleback said addiction counsellors from Samson Cree, armed with sandwiches and water bottles, have recently convinced six people on the streets of Wetaskiwin to go into rehab.

"We're all trying to figure out how do we reach out to a vulnerable population to try to change the outcomes of their life," said Saddleback.

One way Muyaba and his team hope to do that is by purchasing the nearby Manny's Motel. They plan to convert it into an emergency shelter with transitional housing alongside rental suites, and hope to make the project self-sustaining.

Unlike previous proposals, Muyaba said city council, agencies and advocates appear to be on the verge of consensus.

After more than two years of negotiations, the building price is set at about $550,000 with $50,000 needed for renovations. Operations would only cost around $4,000 monthly thanks to volunteers, said Muyaba.

Volunteers ready to run shelter

"We already have our volunteers from our church that are willing to commit the time it's going to take to start running an overnight shelter," he said.

The next step is to raise money, which could include selling off church land as well as applying for provincial and federal grants.  

Samantha Power, press secretary for Alberta Community and Social Services Minister Irfan Sabir, said submitted requests for such funding would be considered as part of the 2019 budget.

"We work with community groups and municipalities to address the unique needs of communities and we are open to conversations about what needs are priorities in each community," Power wrote in an emailed statement.

"We know there are unique needs of rural communities and we are committed to working with local communities to address those needs."

andrea.huncar@cbc.ca
david.bajer@cbc.ca

With files from Dave Bajer