A group of citizens working towards solutions for the homeless population in Ponoka over the past year came before council on Nov. 12 to seek support for an overnight shelter program.
Dr. Cayla Gilbert, a physician, business person and concerned citizen in the community, spoke to council as the chairperson of the Ponoka Homelessness and Housing Committee.
People are currently coming to the hospital looking for a place to sleep, and sleeping in the vestibules of businesses, such as banks, as well as overhangs and bushes and residents are concerned about people sleeping in their back yards and alleys, says Gilbert.
“The citizens know this is an issue and want action on it.”
Gilbert and several other individuals noted over the course of the last two years an increased homelessness issue, and the need for after-hours supports, so they struck up a committee.
There is currently no after-hours supports for a person in need of housing, which was highlighted by a recent incident, says Gilbert.
A man went into McDonald’s, was asked to leave, then went to the Library, then to FCSS which made several calls, but wasn’t able to find any resources. The man ended up staying at the hospital for the night, which was only possible because it wasn’t a busy night.
In the last year, the committee completed a survey in cooperation with Wetaskiwin and the Alberta Rural Development Network, just trying to get a count and were able to survey 15 individuals who are homeless, which the committee believes is an underestimation.
“The first step was to get some data. Do we really have a homeless issue in Ponoka?” Gilbert said, and the numbers say “yes,” she says.
According to the group’s research 61 per cent of Ponoka residents spend 30 per cent of their income on housing, which is marker of poverty.
“We have poverty in Ponoka and we have many marginal people who are under-housed,” she said, noting that with cuts being made to rental subsidies and AISH, the issue will only escalate.
In the past year, the committee succeeded in assisting one long-term resident, who had been homeless for over a year, to gain employment and housing again.
They also attended Police Advisory committee meetings and procured money to purchase sleeping mats and have made efforts in the community to spread awareness of the issue, such as attending the recent Empty Bowls event.
“They didn’t know it was a problem and now they do,” said Gilbert.
“It’s our responsibility to not ignore it.”
The group has been searching for a location for an overnight shelter.
The committee went to the Ponoka Ministerial Association, which agreed there is a problem, but wasn’t able to provide a location because of insurance and liability issues, a common barrier the committee has faced.
Another issue is the group is not yet registered as a non-profit organization and has no “conduit” or accounting in place to accept donations.
Right now, with winter soon setting in, in earnest, the group is looking for an emergency solution to the urgent issue of overnight shelter during cold weather.
The group has possible locations and sleeping mats already, but asked the town for administrative support in providing insurance for liability and WCB for volunteers.
“I do commend you guys for working on this and doing this ahead of anyone asking you to,” said Mayor Rick Bonnett.
CAO Alberta Flootman says the town has been in contact with an insurance provider and hoped to begin discussions on risk management.
For the town to go forward with the committee, they would need to adopt a clear set of policies, including volunteer training, and protocols when dealing with impaired people, so volunteers are prepared to address issues and needs competently and with compassion, says Flootman.
Flootman added that FCSS may be in a better position to train and recruit volunteers and that the committee should organize as a non-profit.
Coun. Kevin Ferguson was in support of helping the committee with the insurance issue and then addressing its further goals.
Ferguson says that of the 15 people identified in the survey, 14 were born and raised in Ponoka.
“We’re not looking at a transient population, we are looking at our own people … we need to understand that,” he said, adding there are also people staying in hotels with children, who are also at high risk.
Bonnett said that although all organizations have seen cuts, “We all understand there’s dollars and cents but there’s a human factor here that we need to be cognizant of.”
He went on to say homelessness is not just a big-city problem, it’s a problem for all of us.
It was pointed out that there may be an opportunity to collaborate with Wetaskiwin, which just committed funds to open an emergency shelter.
“We need to come up with something to make this happen.”