WESTLOCK – Eleven months after a homeless man was found frozen to death in a makeshift, outdoor shelter, Town of Westlock and Village of Clyde councillors have agreed to provide $7,250 in “additional funds” to Westlock and District Family and Community Support Services (FCSS) to hire an after-hours “emergency intervention services” contractor for the winter as a “stop-gap solution” to help the community’s homeless.
At their Nov. 14 meetings, town councillors voted 6-1 (Coun. Abby Keyes was in opposition) to provide $6,750, while village councillors voted 5-0 to pony up $500 — at the Oct. 27 tri-council meeting, an agreement was made in principle by the three municipalities to fund the initiative. Westlock County CAO Tony Kulbisky confirmed via e-mail Nov. 16 that councillors will debate a similar $6,750 request at their Nov. 29 meeting.
According to the request for decision (RFD) to town council, up to $14,000 will be used by FCSS to contract an agency or group to provide after-hours emergency intervention services during inclement weather as homelessness and housing are excluded from FCSS’ mandate, meaning its core funding can’t be used.
In a Nov. 15 follow-up interview, CAO Simone Wiley explained that the “intervention” could be as a simple as paying for a hotel room for a night or two or getting the person to a shelter in Edmonton.
She also noted that these dollars are aimed specifically at “after-hours” services as if a homeless person walked into FCSS during business hours and asked for help, they would be directed to Alberta Supports, the provincial government agency that provides access to 30 programs and 120 services for seniors, people with disabilities, job seekers, parents and families, homelessness, financial assistance, abuse, and family-violence prevention.
“Maybe that person hasn’t eaten in a number of days, so they would get a food voucher. Maybe they are willing to go to a shelter in the city, but have no way to get there, so we would we cover a taxi or some other way to get them there,” Wiley explained.
The need for action
During council debate, Wiley noted that while the request is coming from FCSS specifically, the initiative is a result of the Westlock Homelessness Coalition, a group of 14 that includes reps from FCSS, Alberta Health Services, Westlock RCMP, Hope Resource Centre, Alberta Addiction and Mental Health, plus the three municipalities.
The coalition formed earlier this year after a 60-year-old homeless man, Timothy Phillips, was found Jan. 8, 2022, frozen to death near the Rotary Spirit Centre. Night-time temperatures in the weeks leading up to tragedy had repeatedly been in the -40 C range, while Phillips’ encampment located in the open-air announcer’s booth that overlooks the racetrack and rodeo grounds contained only a crude bed, plus some thin blankets and sleeping bags, a tarp and small burn barrel.
Wiley, who also sits on the coalition, said there’s been “a lot of good discussion” as the “right people are at the table” and they’re in tune with the “unstable conditions in the community and have a good understanding of what’s going on.”
“I think the discussions have been good, but they’ve been challenged by what do we do about it because we don’t have a fulsome understanding (of homelessness in Westlock). The term ‘stop-gap’ has been used and really it’s for us to build a bridge towards working with the Rural Development Network (RDN) to understand the housing needs in the community,” said Wiley.
Sub: Councillor says initiative will ensure no one freezes to death
Town Coun. Murtaza Jamaly, who’s also the FCSS advisory board chair, called the solution “far from perfect” but said they can’t sit idly by and allow another person to die outdoors this winter.
“We know we have to deal with so many other challenges that lead to homelessness, like mental health issues, addictions … we have shortages in all these areas. But we need to make sure that no one freezes to death and these dollars are meant to do exactly that,” said Jamaly. “I think this is a good stop-gap solution but it’s far from perfect.”
Added mayor Ralph Leriger: “Every community is struggling with affordable housing and all those upstream issues and we know that. And very much from our tri-council meeting, we (all) understand that this is a stop-gap measure for sure.”
Keyes, the lone dissenting voice, said she’s had conversations with a few members of the coalition who “have concerns over this.” — Keyes declined additional comment when contacted Nov. 17.
“I think there needs to be a solution, but I don’t know if this is the right one,” she said at the Nov. 14 meeting.
The path forward
Wiley said the $14,000 figure is a bit of a shot in dark “as we really don’t know the actual need in the community at this point” and “they might only need half that amount.” Going forward, Wiley said the contractor will keep stats on their interactions, while the homelessness coalition will continue to work with the RDN on a long-term, community action plan and a homelessness estimation survey.
“I think there’s always been a need, but as a municipality and speaking from an FCSS lens, we didn’t see it as much because of the way Alberta Supports operated. And the changes that they made during COVID and subsequently after, FCSS really started to the see the need in the community with the province, basically, not being available to support these people in the community … that’s when it really came to light for us,” said Wiley.
“When those surveys are done, we’ll have a much-better idea of what actually needs to be done in the community combined with our statistics from the people using the contractor this winter.”