Researcher speaks about rural homelessness

Mat Program gets funding for another month

Gord Fortin
Lakeside Leader

Slave Lake residents were able to hear the results of the rural homelessness report live from the person who did research.

University of Calgary faculty member Anne Marie McLaughlin made trip to the Slave Lake Native Friendship Centre to talk rural homelessness on Feb. 27. Those that attended could made a donation to the Mat Program and have lunch.

McLaughlin said there is very little knowledge about rural homelessness. She added that the Slave Lake study can help a lot with future studies into rural homelessness. This is because researchers look to the results of similar studies.

Part of the Slave Lake 2016 study was a point-in-time count. This means that the research team went out in the community and did a count of all the homeless they could find in the area. They found 21 visibly homeless.

McLaughlin explained that the definition of homelessness can be different to some people. To some it means someone without shelter that is out and living in public spaces, forests, vehicles or an abandoned house. This is called ‘sleeping rough.’

Not everyone who is homeless appears this way though. Someone living in a shelter is homeless but is sheltered. There is also the precariously housed. This included someone who is couch surfing, living in a low rent motel, in prison or in a medical institution.

The last are the at-risk group. Anyone can be at risk. Factors that put their housing at risk are things like job loss, divorce and a health crisis.

“We classify homelessness in different way,” McLaughlin said.

McLaughlin estimates that there are approximately 235,000 homeless in Canada during any given year. She feels the number is higher because not everyone appears homeless. It is estimated that for every one visibly homeless person there are three hidden. The hidden homeless has no data behind it.

As for what stands out when speaking of rural homelessness, McLaughlin said that is the wide range of opinions. Those go from the view that there are no homeless in their community to the opposite.

There are factors that contribute to rural homelessness. These include limited housing, economic growth and migration effects on rental prices, lower income than urban areas and uncertain nature of work.

McLaughlin highlighted some factors that aggravate the situation. There are no funded emergency shelters in northern Alberta and a lack of affordable housing. Most of the possible solutions to the problem are short term and don’t focus on preventative measures. This includes the Mat Program.

“There are very few permanent solutions pursued,” McLaughlin said.

Best practices include a ‘housing first’ initiative. McLaughlin said that getting stable housing should be the first step to help someone. Once they have someplace to go, then the focus can go to mental health and addictions.

McLaughlin believes there is a lot of interest in this strategy but no movement. That being said, McLaughlin does not think that Slave Lake stood out when it comes to rural homelessness, but she did outline some issues. She found there are limited services available in the area. Some people are unsure how to help the homeless or are unsure if the homeless even want help. Some homeless do not accept available services because of a lack of trust or the service does not meet their needs.

Slave Lake is also a service hub to the outlying area. This plays into the homelessness issue. McLaughlin recommended that everyone should follow the lead of the Friendship Centre. The number one response from anyone who participated in her study was that the Friendship Centre is a leader on the issue. She was concerned that they do not get funding for this.

McLaughlin also recommended establishing a regional leadership council to help move beyond having just a crisis response program such as the Mat Program. Barb Courtorielle, of the Friendship Centre, spoke briefly after McLaughlin’s presentation. Courtorielle said she will be looking to start up the stakeholder group again. She gathered contact information at this meeting and will be reaching out soon.

As for the Mat Program, Courtorielle was proud to say that she has secured funds to keep the program running through March. Prior to this she would have had to shut it down as of Feb. 28, 2018. She took donations at the door and held a silent auction at the end of the meeting with all proceeds going to the Mat Program.

Anne Marie McLaughlin

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