LAC LA BICHE - Lac La Biche County officials are expected to report back to council this week with possible locations for a formal homeless camp.
The search for property comes following a meeting last Wednesday between municipal officials and members of the provincial and regional Métis Nation of Alberta. The meeting was called by MNA representatives to find a short-term remedy to concerns about a group of homeless people recently forced to leave private property where they had set up a "tent city".
Provincial Métis Nation of Alberta President Audrey Poitras, Metis Nation of Alberta Region 1 President Jimmy Cardinal and the region's vice-president Jason Ekeberg addressed council. The discussion coming to the table was to find property where the homeless could safely stay, seek forms of treatment and be in contact with Indigenous leadership. The Métis officials said the need to find appropriate land must come before the details of whether the land could be purchased, leased, rented or donated from the municipality — those decisions could come later.
For now, Ekeberg said the property should be near the main amenities of the community, easily accessed by walking trails, but fenced to restrict access.
"The property has to be close to the town ... with a walking trail so the people aren't walking along a highway," he explained to Lac La Biche councillors and administrators during two-hour meeting. "There should be easy access — but it has to be gated. It's not going to be restrictive, but it has to be restricted access."
Video from the recent tear-down of a homeless "tent city" on private property near the Lac La Biche downtown. The sound of a traditional drum-song can be heard alongside chainsaws being used to clear a path for heavy equipment. Supporters are trying to find municipal land to host a formal homeless area.
Ekeberg pushed council to fast-track the land decision.
Lac La Biche County Mayor Omer Moghrabi told the MNA representatives that a list of possible sites could be created in a few days. Turning to municipal administrators, Moghrabi said the initial inquiries don't have to be in-depth.
Just land, no formal structures
"We are just looking for possible land acquisitions, we're not asking to build the Taj Mahal," he said.
In fact, the MNA representatives don't want to see anything built on the land. The homeless people who will be utilizing the property aren't ready for structure and rules yet, says the regional MNA president.
"We need to let them relax, let them be who they are," said Cardinal, explaining the core group of about nine people who have been part of several tent-city establishments in the community for the past several years as people who have "lost their spirits."
He also said that most people who end up in "bush-cities" or "tent cities" have trust issues with the outside world.
"Their spirits are lost — they trust no one and sometimes not even themselves," said Cardinal, encouraging council and the community to get a better understanding of who the homeless people are. "We have to learn who they are and once we do that, they will give us their trust ... and hopefully help them to come out of their lost journey."
Acknowledging that the homeless issue runs parallel to addiction issue and mental well-being, Cardinal said that a dedicated homeless property would see resource staff making regular visits to the occupants. The MNA would also be responsible for the well-being of the property.
Cardinal, Ekeberg and Poitras committed to those supports.
"We will take the responsibility. If you give us the land, we will be responsible for it. We will be there to teach (the occupants) how to look after it," said Cardinal.
Poitras said the partnership between the MNA and the community is similar to a project in Grande Prairie she said started with her office almost 20 years ago. By working with the Grande Prairie city council of the day, Poitras said they were able to move homeless camps from along the river banks to a formal camp area near the municipal offices. From there, she said, permanent structures have been built and purchased, becoming part of one of the province's most successful municipal homeless campaigns.
According to the City of Grande Prairie website, the most recent survey shows 228 people identifying as homeless out of a population of about 65,000. The latest figures are double what they were from the survey two years before. The survey also breaks down the current homeless population by identifying that more than 50 per cent identify as Indigenous. Almost half of the people recorded in the most current survey are also new to that community, saying they came to Grande Prairie with a year of the survey, mainly for the homeless resources offered.
While the Métis Nation isn't currently identified as a contributor in recent documentation of Grande Prairie's Plan to End Homelessness, Poitras says the Métis leadership was integral in getting the municipality to create the program.
"It's very similar to what Jim is doing here now," she said, referencing the regional Metis president, "we are asking for help."
For any plan to work, however, more communities will have to be at the table, says Poitras, encouraging other communities — Indigenous and otherwise — from the region to take an active role in the fight against homelessness and its contributing factors.
"My role is to support Métis people, but if we can help everyone, that is even better," she said, adding that federal and provincial governments must also take an active role in the issue — but will likely not get involved until they see local groups working together. "They don't step up until they know it's a good thing."
Along with beginning a property search, Lac La Biche municipal officials are inviting local MLA, MPs and government ministers to the discussion.
Much of the discussion that took place at Wednesday's special meeting has been on the agenda of the Lac La Biche County Transitional Housing Task Force. With local stakeholders including members of the Métis Nation, the Lakeland Out of the Elements Shelter, the friendship centre, Portage College and policing agencies, the task force is said to be looking at short-term and long-term strategies. The task force's next meeting is May 7.
More details on land selection for formal homeless camp area are expected in the coming days.