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Rural homelessness a hidden issue, expert says

“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,” said Dee Ann Benard, executive director for the Rural Development Network.
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Rural homelessness looks very different than it does in its urban centres. In Edson, Alta., the community has built shelter pods — small warm rooms for those who have nowhere to go to stay in for the night or go to warm up. SUPPLIED/Photo

While rural homelessness looks vastly different than in urban centres, an expert says the percentage of those experiencing homelessness is the same in both places.

Many residents of rural Alberta experiencing housing insecurity won’t be found sleeping rough on the streets, but rather their circumstances are more hidden from the rest of the community, said Dee Ann Benard, executive director for the Rural Development Network — 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,” Benard said.  

The causes for these circumstances 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 the steep rent in their community.

“You'll also see, a lot of it's just people who can't afford a place to live because in smaller communities there tends to be a lot less of a rental market. 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.

Many people have precarious housing situations, such as being one paycheque away from losing their home.

In other communities, such as in Banff, where rent is extremely steep but there are plenty of jobs, residents will do something called "hot bunking," Benard said, where multiple people will share a bed to sleep for an eight-hour shift.

In Fort MacLeod, people from the surrounding reserves may move into the community without a place to live, causing a surge in homelessness.

Boom-and-bust communities that rely on the oilfield for their main industry may 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 same challenges due to the volatility of the oil and gas industry.

One of the myths is that people have migrated to the community during the boom-and-bust cycles and then become homeless, but Benard said often they have lived in the community for many years before they face housing insecurity.

And because the issue can be hidden away, it can be difficult to estimate exactly how many people face housing insecurity in a community.

“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 read.

A 2020 report released by the Rural Development Network found that about 0.37 per cent of Alberta's rural population is experiencing homelessness or housing instability. That number jumps to one per cent when it includes children who may be impacted by the housing instability. 

These challenges are made worse by the lack of anonymity when residents identify as being homeless in a small community.

The Rural Development Network estimates homelessness through a service provider survey, in which those who seek to access services such as daycare or health care are asked about their living situations.

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.

Although there are limited resources in rural communities, many residents migrate to urban communities to try and find affordable housing or social supports, Benard said, 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.”

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 the urban centre to access services.

Many rural communities are using creative solutions to tackle their housing insecurity issues, such as in Hinton, where the municipality built shelter pods.

“We worked with them to build shelter pods, so they're kind of little self-sufficient units. People get an access code, I think it is to get in, and it's got a bed and it's warm and there's access to a bathroom and stuff and then they can just go in there and spend the night or go in there and warm up when it's cold,” Benard said.

Benard said while larger centres often boast creative solutions, it's important for residents to have access to affordable housing in their own rural communities and to allocate funding to support that.

Some 1.3 million people live in rural Alberta, Benard said, and those communities don’t get nearly as much funding as the major cities do to tackle the issue, often because it can be tough to estimate rural homeless numbers, which means the government spends less cash on solving the problem.

“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.

Jennifer Henderson, Local Journalism Initiative reporter

About the Author: Jennifer Henderson, Local Journalism Initiative reporter

Jennifer Henderson is the Local Journalism Initiative reporter for Great West Newspapers based in St. Albert, Alta.
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