“Homelessness, while often hidden, is a reality in rural Alberta,” said Solina Richter, a professor with the Faculty of Nursing. “In fact, until around five years ago rural homelessness had never been identified, and now it’s an issue on the rise.”
Over the last year Richter, whose research focuses on the social determinants of health, has been involved with identifying and tackling homelessness in two rural Alberta communities: Stony Plain and Drayton Valley.
Homelessness in rural areas is different than homelessness seen in large urban centres like Edmonton or Calgary. “There aren’t people hanging around on the streets or sleeping on the streets,” said Richter, “They’re couch surfing and living in their vehicles. What you’ll see is people living in housing that isn’t affordable, suitable or adequate for their needs.”
Unmasking the rural homeless
Richter’s research in Drayton Valley, and to a lesser degree in Stony Plain, discovered that homelessness in the area is deeply influenced by the fluctuations in the oil and gas sector. The petroleum industry has been a strong employer in Alberta for a long time, but recent challenges with low prices have caused companies to scale back their operations as the industry has slowed down.
“During the oil boom there was a huge influx of workers moving into the area, which raised the rental prices and caused a shortage of housing – especially affordable housing – and greatly affected those in the community,” she said. “Many workers in rural areas moved to Alberta for work, but don’t have social support systems around them. In this isolation, they can develop addictions or alcohol problems, which can contribute to an ongoing cycle of addictions, unemployment, homelessness, and temporary jobs.”
Richter found it interesting that the rural homelessness demographics were generally in line with what is occurring on a national level.
“We always think of homeless people as a homogenous group, but there are many differences between these populations,” she said. “In these two rural areas there are a lot of young people who are detached and without any support systems in place. As well, single-headed female families in rural areas are a very vulnerable population that need a lot of attention.”
Putting a plan into place
Both Drayton Valley and Stony Plain have similar needs to address the issue of homelessness.
“Simply put, there are zero services focused on homelessness in these towns,” said Richter. “There are a lot of social outreach programs available, but the mandate isn’t specific to deliver services to homeless people in rural areas.”
Although these services are available in larger cities, they aren’t accessible to those in rural communities.
“There aren’t any public transportation systems in Drayton Valley or Stony Plain,” said Richter. “These vulnerable populations find it difficult to access services and when they eventually do, their problems are much more urgent than what you would see in larger cities.”
Identifying homeless people and assessing the extent of the problem is the most important step in planning the services to focus on first. After determining who the most vulnerable populations were, the town councils have developed short, mid and long-term goals to addresses the needs of the rural homeless.
“In many of the rural areas there are no shelters,” she said. “In Drayton Valley there are a lot of oil field workers who are probably using alcohol and drugs and who are floating in and out of homelessness. Their most urgent need was to develop a ‘wet’ shelter which people can use when intoxicated.”
Funding is always a problem, but the towns have reached out to the community and the response has been overwhelming. “Churches have opened their doors and offered up their basements as shelter for homeless people,” said Richter.
She was surprised that landlords and those in the petroleum industry want to be part of the solution.
“They talked about how the shortage of housing impacts more than a single individual; it shapes the entire community. If people can’t afford to live in these rural areas, there are only a limited numbers of workers available to fill the jobs, which can heavily impact the service industry and other areas.”
The landlords that Richter talked to were very accommodating. “They were willing to step up to a certain extent to help the homeless. We always have this idea that landlords are cruel business people focused only on money, but the human piece is definitely there.”
The future of rural homelessness
Word of Richter’s involvement in tackling homelessness in rural Alberta has spread quickly, and what began as a pilot project in Drayton Valley quickly snowballed. She’s since been contacted by numerous rural communities asking for her help.
At the end of the day, how does Richter feel about the attention this issue is beginning to receive?
“I love doing this type of work because I can really see the projects are making a difference, but it’s much bigger than that,” she said. “I’m not giving them a voice — they have their own voice – my research makes this population more visible and gives them a platform to voice their concerns. At the end of the day, it’s about empowering the homeless so that their issues are heard and acted upon.”
Source: U of A