Two local businesses issued a challenge last week to people in Slave Lake and surrounding area to find solutions to local homelessness.
“Spirit Bear and Intuit would like to challenge every business and resident to match us or beat us,” says Marilyn McRee, of Spirit Bear Supported Independent Living in Slave Lake. Both companies donated $2,500 to help with the immediate needs of the homeless and for a building fund.
Along with money, Marylin, her brother Bryan, and Kim Versloot, from Intuit, invite people to suggest possible locations for the shelter and other potential solutions.
“Our intent with this was to bring the community back together,” says Marilyn. Her mother, Madge McRee, was one of four women who started the Friendship Centre in the 1970s.
“It can be done for the homeless,” she adds. “I would like to see Slave Lake residents come forward. We’re known as a community who cares. The sky’s the limit if Slave Lake comes together.”
“My dream is to start a committee to start a centre,” adds Marilyn. “A centre where they can come and get healing and counselling,” as well as have a safe space to sleep.
“My vision has always been let’s try and heal them,” says Barb Courtorielle, Friendship Centre executive director. “The majority of them want something different, but this is where they are stuck.”
The Slave Lake Native Friendship Centre runs the Mat Program, but does not have space within its building to house the homeless. Courtorielle coordinates the program. It provides a warm place to sleep during the coldest months for now Nov. to April, but Courtorielle would like to expand this to October to May.
“You have a beautiful plan,” says Courtorielle. “I love it.”
However, she adds, this sounds similar to what had already been lined up for the former clinic building on 3rd Ave. NE. This fell through in the rezoning stage.
“We’ve been fighting for a permanent space,” she adds. “A permanent place, so every year we don’t have to fight” to find a place.
The Friendship Centre has been feeding and clothing the homeless since the 1980s. In 2014, the Mat Program started as a stop-gap measure with the ultimate goal of providing permanent transitional housing. It has stalled in the Mat Program stage and each year there is a question of whether or not it will run. Before the rezoning was denied, the Mat Program had a four-year lease on the old clinic, a grant to renovate it, and four years of operational funding. The grants can be applied to a new location.
At the public hearing on the rezoning, people and petitions were shared for and against the location of the Mat Program at the 3rd Ave. NE location.
“I’m willing to work with the neighbours,” says Courtorielle, but everywhere the issue is NIMBY: ‘not in my back yard.’ In 2019, the Mat Program lost its home in the southeast. Last year, there was some push back when it moved to the Friendship Centre in the northwest.
“These people have been walking around Slave Lake for 30 years,” says Courtorielle. “We know their stories. Our homeless people are not the people doing the B & Es.”
At the moment, the Friendship Centre is working with homeless aged 18 to 77 years old, says Courtorielle. “They’re all different. I’m more worried about the young kids.”
In the last two years, six of the homeless in Slave Lake died, says Courtorielle. “That hurts so much, and I don’t want to see it any more.”
“We are looking for a permanent spot that can hold up to 20 people,” says Courtorielle, with two bathrooms – one for men and one for women, and a space for a fridge and place for a microwave. Even a vacant lot would work, as she could ask local companies to lend the Mat Program skid shacks or trailers.