Loon River chief joins discussion on homelessness

Pearl Lorentzen
Lakeside Leader

“I’m here to bring solutions to the table,” said chief Ivan Sawan of Loon River First Nation, at the March 25 Homeless Coalition meeting.

Sawan is also the grand chief of the Kee Tas Kee Now Tribal Council.

Loon River is 170 km north of Slave Lake, just off of Hwy 88. It was one of the First Nations in the Lesser Slave Lake area which were named as being a source of homeless people in Slave Lake during a fall 2020 Town Council meeting. A few months later, a recording of the comments went viral. Driftpile First Nation boycotted Slave Lake for a few days. There was a rally at town hall. The town councillor and town issued an apology and have been working toward gaining more cultural awareness.

New location
Once again, the main problem that needs a solution is where the Mat Program is going to be next year. The Mat Program provides a place to sleep indoors during the cold months and breakfast and supper. It is run by Barb Courtorielle, executive director of the Slave Lake Native Friendship Centre.

Funding goes through the Friendship Centre, but other than security at night there is no paid staff to work with the homeless. Also, the Friendship Centre is not a homeless shelter. It has many other functions.

April 30 is the “absolute last day” that the homeless can live in the main hall at the Slave Lake Native Friendship Centre, said Courtorielle. “It’s not nice. These people do have feelings. It’s not a place I’d like to be myself. It’s not good enough for any of them.”

There are mats on the floor for sleeping, but nowhere comfortable to sit during the day. Friendship Centre staff need to come in and out of the hall during the day.

As of March 25, there were 19 homeless and six ‘couch surfers’ in Slave Lake using the Mat Program. Some nights 15 people sleep in the hall.

During the nice weather, the younger people have to be out and about during the day, said Courtorielle. Only the seniors and those with mobility issues can stay in the Friendship Centre all day.

Two of the homeless have dementia, said Courtorielle. At least one of whom worked their whole life, but now is on the street because of their dementia.

Transition housing
The homeless coalition exists to help the Mat Program and transitional housing move forward, said Courtorielle. The end goal was to provide transitional housing, but so far that hasn’t happened.

Courtorielle has experience working with people who have addictions. Many (but not all) of the homeless struggle with addiction to alcohol.

“Addictions are with you every day,” she said. Therefore, Courtorielle wants to have the Mat Program and transitional housing in the same location. “In order to teach them to be strong,” either on the streets or when housed.

Mat Program report
“It’s been a crazy couple of months,” said Courtorielle. In January, men slept at the Mat Program 169 times and women 64. Of these, 13 were new. There were three calls to the police, two to EMS, and so many to Courtorielle that she lost count.

February 1 to 18, men slept at the Mat Program 80 times. The Friendship Centre was closed February 19 to March 2 because of COVID.

Only the three staff who work with the public got it, said Courtorielle. AHS was very impressed that none of the homeless people got sick. They were sent to Peace River to quarantine in hotels, because there was nothing set up in Slave Lake.

The Friendship Centre was able to keep the food bank open throughout the shutdown.

Chief Sawan offered to advocate with various ministers if the Friendship Centre needed anything.

Kendra McRee, Library manager was at her first meeting for a while.

Quite a few of the homeless use the library, she said. She has decided to change the way the library interacts with the homeless. The new focus is to get to know them as individuals, talk to them, and build a relationship, so if there is an issue down the road it is easier to deal with.

RCMP, Town of Slave Lake Peace Officers, and Town of Slave Lake didn’t have anything to report at the meeting.

Next meeting
Homeless coalition meetings are open to the public. The next one is April 29 at 1 p.m. on Zoom. To attend, email [email protected]

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