Safe Harbour Society is helping fewer homeless clients, making 2016 an “anomaly” for the non-profit

Far fewer people have been using Red Deer’s homeless shelter and mat program in 2016, making it an “anomaly” for the Safe Harbour Society.

Only nine of the 26 available spaces at the mat program were used last weekend — as were only 31 of the 46 beds available at the People’s Place homeless shelter.

While it looks like good news on the surface, operations director Tricia Haggarty-Roberts said, “my gut senses a bigger story here…”

Haggarty-Roberts knows some people have been ‘couch-surfing’ at friends’ places, and others have been sleeping rough in the outdoors. She would like to find out why they aren’t coming to the mat program, which accepts all clients, including those who have been drinking or doing drugs.

But “it’s been a tough crowd to engage” in dialogue, she added.

Some campers have used considerable ingenuity — and possibly criminal skills — to line up generators, big screen TVs, cooking stoves and other conveniences that allowed them to overwinter in the outdoors. All of these items were pulled off an island in the middle of the Red Deer River last year after city workers and police cleaned up a squatter’s encampment.

Haggarty-Roberts also knows a number of societal factors that have likely contributed to less demand on homeless shelters.

Red Deer’s economy has been in a slump for much of 2016, so people from across Canada haven’t arrived here looking for work. In the past, some newcomers have needed temporary housing until they received their first pay cheques for rent.

The economic factor makes sense, since a Calgary’s drop-in centre for the homeless is now assisting 1,000 clients a day, compared to a previous 1,300, added Haggarty-Roberts.

On the rental market front, there’s been a high vacancy rate — she believes it’s around 11 per cent, making it easier for people to get into apartments or townhouses.

The City of Red Deer has also been focusing on getting homeless people off the street and into housing.

“I’m cautiously optimistic” that things are getting better, she added — although a decrease in clients hasn’t meant lower budgets requirements for Safe Harbour, since a minimum of two staffers are needed to supervise, whether there’s one person or 40 people staying.

Haggarty-Roberts said, “This is the first time since we’ve been open that we’ve seen number like this,” so it will be interesting to see what happens in 2017.

lmichelin@reddeeradvocate

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