‘Still a lot to do:’ University of Calgary researchers discuss Slave Lake homeless study

Gord Fortin
Lakeside Leader

The results of a University of Calgary study on rural homelessness in Slave Lake are in.
Associate Director of Academics Central and Northern Alberta Region (CNAR) and Associate Professor Anne Marie McLaughlin and Associate Dean CNAR and Associate Professor Rick Enns went through the results in a call to The Leader.
McLaughlin said the study found there is some discrepancy how people define homelessness. The most common way people define homelessness is if they can see visual cues. She called this being “visibly homeless.” Though the data showed that there was a noticeable lack of awareness of other types of homelessness, not everyone demonstrated that.
“There is a certain perception of homelessness that is limited,” she said.
McLaughlin defined some of the other types of homelessness. This can be a person who may not currently have a home but is not without shelter. This person may be “couch surfing.” Another is someone who may not have a stable place to sleep. Enns said anyone who is precariously housed could be counted as well because if anything goes wrong they may not be able to continue to live there.
Enns explained that all of these factors make it difficult to define homelessness as well as do an official count of the homeless in the community.
The lack of awareness didn’t go just with the types of homelessness. McLaughlin outlined that some residents don’t have a sense of the impact on the community. This includes the cost to the municipalities for not dealing with the issue.
Other impacts are on the community’s emergency services. Over all she said homelessness has a ripple effect in communities.
“People aren’t always aware of these extra costs,” she said.
Enns said there are some unique challenges in Slave Lake. The town is a service centre for the surrounding area. People are coming to town from the surrounding area and this puts added pressure on housing. This puts a greater need on some kind of action because of the regional factor.
McLaughlin went into this further, saying that it appeared services were strained. People were coming in to Slave Lake because there is a lack of addiction services and treatment opportunities outside the community.
“It’s sort of a step up,” she said.
The point-in-time survey asked questions to 13 homeless people. McLaughlin said a point in time survey is a snapshot of a community at that particular time. Many factors can impact the numbers, such as the weather and time of year. Enns said most had been homeless for between six and 12 months and were at risk of staying that way.
The data gathered pointed to Slave Lake having a higher level of homelessness than other similar areas.
A recommendation was outlined. McLaughlin said she would like to see the establishment of a regional leadership council. This council would be made up of interested leaders in the community and they would get together and talk.
McLaughlin got a lot of feedback about the Friendship Centre, stating that it is the leader on this issue. She pointed to the mat program specifically. Unfortunately the Friendship Centre gets very little funding for its efforts and is unable to help people long-term. Enns said the Friendship Centre has credibility and should be funded.
“I find that interesting,” she said.
Both McLaughlin and Enns feel any solution to the problem should be a coordinated effort. She would like to see more education done on the topic, awareness raised and concerns to be shared. She recognized this will not be fixed overnight.
“There is still a lot to do,” she said.
The data was gathered by four university faculty members – McLaughlin, Enns, Academic Director of the Global Nursing Office and Professor Solina Richtner and Research Assistant Jill Ciesielski.
The data compiled in the report was gathered through a point-in-time survey and interviews. McLaughlin explained volunteers were found by the Slave Lake Native Friendship Centre for face-to-face interviews. These individuals made up the stakeholder group. These were people that were interested in the issue for various reasons. Homeless people were interviewed as well.

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