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Homeless man freezes to death in rural Central Alberta town

Sixty-year-old was living in an open-air shelter in Westlock, Alberta.
WES - homeless man shelter
The scene inside the makeshift open-air shelter near the Rotary Spirit Centre where Timothy Phillips lived. The 60-year-old homeless man was found dead by RCMP Jan. 8. Spencer Kemp-Boulet/WN

WESTLOCK – A homeless man who was found frozen to death last weekend in a makeshift, open-air shelter near the Rotary Spirit Centre has prompted the Town of Westlock’s mayor to offer his sincere condolences to the family calling it “heartbreaking”, while the head of the Rural Development Network says rural homelessness is “a bigger problem than people realize.”

Westlock RCMP Cpl. Leigh Drinkwater said that they were notified Jan. 7 that a homeless man hadn’t been seen since Dec. 21 and they went to check on his whereabouts as he was known to camp in several spots around the community. With the temperature hovering in the -25 C range around 9 p.m., Jan. 8, Drinkwater, along with two other RCMP officers, found the man deceased in the announcer’s booth that overlooks the ag society racetrack just to west of the RSC. Although the RCMP did not release the name of the 60-year-old man, the Westlock News has confirmed the deceased was Timothy Phillips.

“He had a set up a little camp in there and unfortunately it looks like he succumbed to the weather, but that will be medical examiner’s call,” said Drinkwater Jan. 10, confirming there was no evidence of foul play.

Drinkwater said Phillips was known to police and that the announcer’s booth was one of a few spots he took refuge in before being asked to move along by police — the shelter contained a crude bed and some thin blankets and sleeping bags, a tarp and small burn barrel. Over the last two weeks the overnight low in the Westlock area has repeatedly fallen to -40 C.

And while City of Edmonton officials visited 2,972 encampments on public lands in 2021 — up 22 per cent over 2020 — and dealt with four fire-related homeless deaths in the fall, public homelessness is an anomaly in Westlock.

Drinkwater, who’s been stationed in town for seven months, and Staff Sgt. Al Baird, who signed his contract to be the commanding officer at the detachment in January 2018, said this is the first time they’ve dealt with the death of a homeless person locally.

“There are people we deal with locally who struggle with mental health illnesses and coupled with addictions that cause them to be transient between homes in Westlock. But as far as the pure definition of (someone being) homeless, no,” said Drinkwater when asked about how many homeless people they deal with regularly.

Mayor Ralph Leriger said he was “absolutely heartbroken” when he heard that Phillips had “literally frozen to death.”

“Most people in our community have seen this man and many of us have had interactions with him … it’s heartbreaking. As the spokesperson for the town and council I offer our sincere condolences to his family,” he said.

Leriger said finding a solution to homelessness is a complex problem and requires “a multi-faceted approach” which led him to Tim Richter, president and CEO of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness, for advice. Leriger, who didn’t want to discourage residents and groups who’ve stepped forward to pursue a shelter, said collectively they need to dig deeper into the issue and “look beyond just a shelter.”

“What I’ve learned in those discussions is that providing temporary housing or transitional housing is a very small piece of the overall solution. We must address the root causes of homelessness because it’s seldom just poverty or the lack of a bed to sleep in,” said Leriger, adding he’s also been in discussion with the City of Medicine Hat which is the first community in Canada to announce success in ending chronic homelessness.

“All too often homelessness comes with a wide variety of issues. It’s substance abuse, it’s addictions of all kinds, it can be violence or sexual abuse, or mental illness. Or it can be a combination of all those things. So, in order to make progress you have to have programs in place to address those issues.

“I’m glad so many citizens are interested and it shows that they care and it demonstrates compassion for people in need and that’s really encouraging. But I think there’s a danger of jumping straight to the answer without first understanding all of the other questions and that’s a concern for me. Our goal is to try and help steer and direct the energy of those grieving in the community towards the right solutions.”

Town of Westlock CAO Simone Wiley called the news of the man’s passing “sad” and said it has started a dialogue within the halls of the town office. In the community services report presented monthly to town council, Family and Community Support Services noted Jan. 9 that discussions with a homeless coalition and talk of starting a homeless committee have occurred, although nothing concrete had happened — executive director Tracy Prolux said in a Jan. 10 e-mail, “they’re planning to gather community agencies for a coordinated conversation regarding homelessness in our community.”

“Just this morning there’s been a back-and-forth between key people and we’re going to get together later in the week and have a discussion. But I don’t know what that will look like … I don’t know if it’s a shelter. But we are reaching out to other people in other communities to get some information and ideas,” said Wiley Jan. 11.

“What is the town’s role being a community of our size? It’s not passing the buck either because this is our community and that was part of our conversation. This is our community and what are we going to do about it because this was very sad.”

A hidden issue in rural Alberta

A Jan. 9 story by Local Journalism Initiative reporter Jennifer Henderson delves into the issue of rural homelessness — the original version of that story can be found here.

Her piece, condensed below, states that while rural homelessness looks vastly different than urban centres, the percentage of people experiencing homelessness is the same in both settings.

Most rural residents experiencing homelessness won’t be found sleeping on the streets as their circumstances are usually more hidden from the community at large, says Dee Ann Benard, executive director for the Rural Development Network (RDN), a not-for-profit group that helps rural communities fill gaps in community social development.

“There is a lot of couch surfing, people living in abandoned buildings or buildings unfit for human life … or just way too many people living in a house. A house that has three bedrooms will have 14 people living in it,” she explained.  

Causes tend to vary, just as they do in major cities, Benard said, adding mental health and addictions play a role, along with people who just can’t afford rent.

“Some small communities, they can be very expensive to live in, but that's where the jobs are, and that's why it's expensive,” Benard said.

Some have precarious housing situations and can be one paycheque away from losing their home. In other communities, such as in Banff where rent is extremely high but there are plenty of jobs, some resort to something called "hot bunking" where multiple people share a bed and sleep in eight-hour shifts.

Boom-and-bust communities that rely on the oilfield can also see higher rates of homelessness.

“For example, Drayton Valley goes through a real boom-bust where things are going great and everybody has jobs and then the economy, oil and gas, tanks, and then there's a lot of people who are homeless,” Benard said, adding that Edson and Hinton also deal with the similar challenges.

One of the myths is that it’s only people who’ve migrated to the community during the boom-and-bust cycles that become homeless, but Benard said often they have lived there for many years. And because the issue can be hidden away, it can be difficult to estimate exactly how many people are in need.

“It's a bigger problem than people realize. People don't tend to think of homelessness as being a rural issue. But I would say, based on the data we collect, that percentage-wise it's fairly similar to the cities. You just don't see it as much.”

According to a 2021 report from the National Alliance to End Rural and Remote Homelessness, 31 per cent of Canadians live in rural and remote communities where residents suffer from homelessness in equal or greater numbers than their urban counterparts.

“The hidden nature of rural and remote homelessness is due to a lack of services and supports, including housing options, and a lack of 24/7 emergency service,” the report reads.

A 2020 report released by the RDN found that about 0.37 per cent of Alberta's rural population is experiencing homelessness or housing instability, a number that jumps to one per cent when it includes children.

The RDN estimates homelessness through a service-provider survey in which those who seek services such as daycare or healthcare are asked about their living situations. But as COVID-19 hit and public services shut down, the ability to estimate homelessness through service providers disappeared and Benard said it has become more difficult to know how many rural Albertans are homeless.

“A lot of the homeless have kind of disappeared because the services they used to access are closed,” Benard said.

Because there are limited resources in rural communities, many residents migrate to urban communities to try and find affordable housing or social supports which adds another level of difficulty.

“What people don't realize is actually in Edmonton you have to be homeless for at least a year before you can really start to access services,” she said.

The capital city has done a lot of work on tackling homelessness, Benard said, but it is tough to get the numbers down because more people continue to migrate from rural communities to access services.

And while larger centres often boast creative solutions, it's important for residents to have access to affordable housing in their own communities and to allocate funding to support that, said Benard. Some 1.3 million people live in rural Alberta, she noted, and those communities don’t get nearly as much funding as the major cities do to tackle the issue.

In November the province announced $21.5 million in pandemic funding to ease capacity issues at homeless and women's shelters across the province — the bulk, $13 million, will go to emergency homeless shelters in Edmonton ($7.2 million), Calgary, Red Deer, Grande Prairie, Medicine Hat, Lethbridge, Lloydminster, Drayton Valley, Leduc, Slave Lake and Wetaskiwin.

About $6.5 million was earmarked for COVID-19 isolation facilities for homeless people who have been exposed to the virus, while $2 million will support women's shelters, which are dealing with increased rates of domestic violence during the pandemic. 

“When you look at the amount of money being spent in urban centres versus rural centres and the number of people it impacts, there's no comparison. It's cents on the dollar for people in smaller communities,” Benard said.

George Blais, TownandCountryToday.com