Note: This article has been updated to reflect a change in hours the programs is running. This information was unavailable before print.
ATHABASCA - While it may not be the fanciest place to lay one's head, it's a place to get out of the cold and it's a lot better than sleeping outside in the winter.
The Athabasca Native Friendship Centre (ANFC) officially opened its mat program last week — a bare bones program that allows local homeless something to eat and a safe place to stay the night. It's in Jim’s Tire Shop, a building that has been sitting unused for a few years.
“It’s so much better than what it was,” said ANFC executive director Laureen Houle. "The owners, they tried, it's an old garage so, not much can be done, but they really cleaned it up.”
It has been a few months since Houle was before town council asking for assistance in starting such a program in Athabasca, and while there was some great information provided it did not pan out. It was a random conversation Houle had on the subject with Jim Tarrant, who agreed to let the ANFC use the old space.
"Mr. (Rob) Balay, he gave me a couple of companies that owned ATCO trailers to follow up with, but they didn't really have anything that would be suitable, and nothing seemed to work out for one reason or the other,” said Houle. “When I spoke to Jim, it was actually about something totally irrelevant and he had no problem. He actually thought maybe it wouldn't be suitable enough, but I said we can make anything work right now.”
Between that conversation in November and opening last week, the wait has been on insurance, but once that was finalized the doors were set to open.
Inside, nothing has been built, it is what it is, but it does include a separate space if a woman needs to take shelter, along with a wide-open area set up with several cots for the men to sleep on.
"There's lots of space to spread them out, because with COVID, the rules have changed even in shelters, so it's really going to be a learning experience for us too,” she said.
There is one washroom, no shower and no laundry facilities, but Houle said clothing will be set out from the Riddle Thrift Store, which is operated by ANFC, that clients can choose from.
"Right now, we're going to go from 9 p.m. until 9 a.m. and we'd like them to be there before 10 p.m. and then once they're there, we don't want them coming and going,” said Houle. “They won't be allowed to come and go so, they'll have to commit to staying the night. Of course, if they want to leave and not come back, they can, but we want to keep it quiet for the other clients.”
Houle was able to purchase some raiseD camp cots and cleanable blow-up mattresses, but is still in need of blankets, face clothes and towels.
"I don't want to say cozy, but they'll definitely be warm and more comfortable than if they were outside,” she said.
ANFC will also supply some sort of non-perishable food at night and coffee and muffins or other breakfast items, again non-perishable, in the morning and clients will have to wear a mask and be screened by answering the standard COVID-19 questions and have a temperature check, then stay in their designated space for the night, except for using the washroom.
Houle did say preference will be given to people who are recognized as local to the area and thanked Athabasca Alberta Treasury Branch manager Eunice Reichstein, Home Hardware owner Carol Alberts and Pastor David Neufeld from Aspen Ridge Christian Fellowship who have been helping Houle get the mat program organized.
There was one client when the doors opened Jan. 6, waiting for staff to let them in.
“I was so happy though that somebody was in it,” said Houle. “It just made my heart so full, knowing that, yes, we kept somebody out of the cold (that) night.”