“Are there homeless people in St. Albert?” It’s a question that gets asked all too often when the topic of homelessness is raised in this city. Ten years ago, you might have been hard-pressed to find evidence of homelessness here, but things tend to change quickly as populations rise and economies shrink. The City of St. Albert and organizations like the St. Albert Community Village are already working hard to combat the issue, but there is still much more work to be done, primarily when it comes to our own attitudes. Many of us moved to St. Albert with the hopes of escaping some of the social issues that trouble big urban areas. As our city grows, however, we need to grow with it and consider issues that weren’t prevalent in the past. The question “Are there homeless people in St. Albert?” can no longer be the extent of our conversations. They are here, and informing ourselves as to the realities of the situation is the first step towards finding solutions. With the proper facts and just a little bit of compassion, we can all work towards making St. Albert a safe and friendly community for all its citizens, whether they have a roof over their heads or not.
According to estimates from the St. Albert Food Bank, there were 98 homeless -people
living in the city in 2015, a substantial increase from just 35 in 2011. These numbers may seem small compared to Edmonton’s latest count of 2,252, but they still tend to catch most of us by surprise. After all, you would expect to come across at least some of these 98 people from time to time, perhaps collecting bottles or pushing shopping carts along St. Albert Trail. For most of us though, this hasn’t been the case, and we’re often left wondering just where it is that these numbers are coming from.
Men and women fitting the stereotypical profile do exist here, and if you went searching, you’d likely find them. But the truth is, the stereotype doesn’t accurately describe the situation for most of the homeless people living in St. Albert. The majority of our homeless population remains fairly invisible. They are the couch-surfers, relying on the kindness of friends. They are the recently unemployed and evicted, living out of their cars. They are the mothers and children who are fleeing domestic abuse. These people may not be sitting on street corners, but all of them lack the safety, security and financial certainty that many of us often take for granted.
This definition of homelessness may seem a little too inclusive to some. After all, the people in these situations still have a roof over their heads and friends to call upon, right? They have options. They aren’t truly homeless. The fact is though, that for these individuals, a warm meal and a safe place to sleep are not guarantees. The transition from invisible homelessness to what is called “absolute” homelessness can be quick and quite unexpected. When that couch you were counting on disappears, when the kindness of friends runs out or when your car finally breaks down, you can find yourself out on the streets in a hurry—not an appealing thought ever, let alone in the middle of a Canadian winter.
Invisible homelessness might seem like an easy fix. If you’re dealing with domestic abuse, call the police. If you’re struggling with substance addiction or mental health issues, get yourself into a program. If you’re couch-surfing or living out of your car, tell your family or friends; they’re probably willing to help. Unfortunately, this is all easier said than done.
The stigmas that exist in our culture prevent many homeless people from speaking out about their situations. Many spouses and children remain silent over domestic abuse, thinking it’s a problem they have to fix on their own. And while many people are becoming more aware of substance abuse and mental health disorders every day, it still fills many people with shame to admit to having these problems. We’ve all been in that situation at least once, where we’ve chosen to hide our problems rather than being “a burden” to those who might help us. Shame can be a powerful force, and is often the biggest hindrance to seeking help.
According to the St. Albert Community Village, the city’s go-to resource centre for struggling and homeless citizens, the majority of homeless people in St. Albert are couch-surfers, and a sizable number of couch-surfers are youths fleeing bad conditions at home. But if you were to ask this demographic if they identify as homeless, the answer would almost certainly be no. They often don’t want to admit to themselves or others that they might need help, lest they be judged or ridiculed. When help is not asked for, it is rarely provided, and life on the streets may soon turn into the only option. Openness, honesty and understanding are often the best tools when it comes to getting people back on their feet, and these same tools can be used to prevent homelessness before it even begins.
Many people wonder why the homeless would come to live (or choose to remain) in St. Albert, when many more resources are available to them in Edmonton’s core. They choose to live here for the same reason that many of the rest of us do: Because it’s their home. They know St. Albert, and they know that it’s safe. They have fond memories here, and sometimes even family and friends to call on. The shelters in Edmonton can be violent places with easy access to drugs and alcohol—dangerous substances for those struggling with addiction. St. Albert doesn’t have shelters or soup kitchens, but the St. Albert Community Village says that this is exactly why many homeless men and women choose to call this city home—it’s not a place where they can easily build dependencies. In the short term, St. Albert is a place where they feel they can sleep a little easier at night, safer from attacks and the dangers of substance abuse. In the long term, it is a place that will force them to get back on their feet.
For those ready to get back on their feet, the St. Albert Community Village is the place to start. Since it opened in 2009, the Village has acted as a resource centre not only for the homeless but also for anyone needing help getting their lives back on track. The Village is intentionally not a homeless shelter. According to Susan Krecsy, executive director of the St. Albert Community Village, this is a decision that came from the clients themselves. In fact, all of the programs offered at the Village arose as suggestions from those who make use of it. According to Susan’s clients at the Village, the culture that develops in shelters is often detrimental to those wishing to turn their lives around. The Village offers aid in the form of money management classes, meditation rooms, cooking lessons and myriad of other services in order to ensure the financial, mental, emotional and physical well-being of their clients.
More important than the Village’s programs though, is its ability to connect people to the resources that are most appropriate to their specific problem. “We don’t offer counselling here,” says Susan. “We connect our clients with those who are better equipped to help them.” But the Village isn’t just unloading the problem onto someone else. “For most of our clients, a closed door can be a big barrier. We can send them for help, but if they don’t know who is in that office, they’ll often turn around without going in. We set up appointments for them, give them the names of who they’ll be meeting and let them know that they’ll be expected. It’s a small thing, but it goes a long way.”
The Village is currently self-funded through grants but works closely with the City of St. Albert and local businesses to ensure that they have the resources they need. “The businesses are very supportive of us, whether it’s through fundraising, donations or collecting data through surveys. There are lots of people collaborating now. The more you talk about it, the more the fear-factor goes down.”
Talking about the problem is one of the most important steps. Because of reluctance to talk about homelessness (either on the part of the community or from the homeless themselves), it can be hard to gather the data and resources that the Village requires. But Susan sees awareness rising every day. “People aren’t afraid to talk about it as much anymore. You have to give kudos to the agencies working to build that awareness. That’s huge. The next most important step, I’d say, is getting enough staff in here to help with our work.”
Once problems of addiction, abuse, unemployment and mental health have been resolved (or at least held at bay), the next step is to get people into affordable housing. This is where the City of St. Albert comes in. We aren’t typically known for affordable housing here in St. Albert. In fact, just the opposite is true. It can be expensive to live here. That’s why affordable housing initiatives from the City are so important.
Part of the City’s mandate is to ensure “that all residents have a place to live, and that individual families are able to meet their basic needs and achieve financial security.” To help accomplish this goal, the City has been working alongside organizations like St. Albert Affordable Housing, the Sturgeon Foundation and Habitat for Humanity to increase the number of lower-income rental properties across the city. These properties include apartment buildings, condos and basement suites that are priced to be available to low-income citizens of the city. In addition to these development projects, the city offers a rental-assistance program to those in need.
The City is also working on a Homelessness Prevention Strategy of its own in an effort to combat homelessness at its core. According to Scott Rodda of the City of St. Albert, “It isn’t just about fixing the shelter needs; we need to find ways to address the underlying issues associated with homelessness. Poverty, addiction and mental health can’t necessarily be fixed through policy; however, policies do provide the structure, leadership and commitment needed to begin addressing them. That will be our intent for developing future policy.” The Homeless Prevention Strategy is expected to begin planning in November of this year, following the completion of a year-long study into the issue. Needless to say, this strategy could be very significant in deciding the future state of homelessness in St. Albert. There is no firm date yet for when the plan will be unveiled, but keep an eye on the City’s website in the coming months.
It would be comforting to think of the St. Albert Community Village and the funding for the City’s housing efforts as temporary, to be happily discontinued once the issue of homelessness has been solved. Unfortunately, that isn’t a likely outcome. As Susan Krecsy points out, when the Edmonton Food Bank was founded in 1981, it was hoped that it would be a temporary fix, that the need for it would soon disappear. But the Food Bank didn’t disappear in Edmonton, and neither did the homeless. There will always be those who are down on their luck and in need of some help to get themselves back on track. As the population of St. Albert continues to rise, the number of people in need will likely rise alongside it. Homelessness can only be successfully managed with the help of a constant effort from everyone in St. Albert, whether that means volunteering your time, donating to the food bank or just having the courage to step up and ask if your struggling neighbour needs a little bit of help. t8n
The St. Albert Community Village is the first institution of its kind in Western Canada, with many cities using it as a model to begin combatting their own homelessness problems.
“People aren’t afraid to talk about it as much anymore. You have to give kudos to the agencies working to build that awareness.”
–Susan Krecsy, Executive Director
of the St. Albert Community Village
“It isn’t just about fixing the shelter needs; we need to find ways to address the underlying issues associated with homelessness.”
–Scott Rodda, Director of Family and Community Support Services St. Albert
The population of St. Albert is expected to double in the next 30 years, making safe and affordable housing more of a priority than ever before.