LAC LA BICHE - Constructing a new transitional housing facility that includes wrap-around mental health and social services for vulnerable populations in the Lac La Biche area has been an ongoing plan since 2017.
Officials from the area’s Métis Nation Office — a working partner on the ongoing plan — are hoping things start moving a little more quickly before the winter season arrives.
In recent months, a Transitional Task Force comprised of over a dozen community partners, Lac La Biche County officials, and stakeholders, has been working on finding a permanent location for a support facility to assist the area’s vulnerable population. The most recent timeline on paper sees the site up and running before the winter season.
The task force, however, has yet to find a suitable location for a facility. Multiple locations have been recommended by the task force over the last year, but have been rejected for a range of reasons.
While the discussions continue, a temporary camp location, complete with small, wooden sheds, a fire pit, porta-potties and electricity has been operating on municipal land in the Bonesville subdivision about five kilometres south of the Lac La Biche hamlet. The temporary camp was first set up a year ago, with the thought that it would be replaced by a more formal transitional housing facility.
The Métis Nation of Alberta (MNA) Region1 has been operating the site under a one-year leas agreement with the County.
However, the contract expired on July 12, and now another one-year extension has recently been granted by Lac La Biche County council. County officials are still hopeful the October deadline to find a more permanent solution can be achieved, but they have agreed a full-year extension would provide a good safety net for all contingencies.
Granting their approval of the extension at their council meeting last Tuesday, councillors were then planning on contacting local MNA officials about their decision.
MNA Region 1 vice president, Jason Ekeberg, who has been overseeing and running the Bonesville project, says while supporting vulnerable people is the priority, the County needs to get moving and prioritize picking that permanent space.
“It’s sad that they can’t make a decision—and I was very vocal about that at the last meeting [in recent weeks] that we had. It’s their time to do something now and make a choice,” he told Lakeland This Week, prior to any County contact about the lease extension.
Originally, County officials spoke with the local MNA representatives and asked to have the site stay as a primary location until the end of October, a decision he said is understandable — but running a temporary site with limited support potentially for a whole year is not ideal.
“They gave me a heads up for four or five months… they figured until November. I said, ‘No problem, we can do what we can.’ But a year? We’ll have to figure out how we can help as many people as we can, but we all need to be on the same page,” Ekeberg says while looking for the County council to hold up their end of the bargain.
While councillors did say they still hoped to be ready this October, the full-year extension raises some concerns for Ekeberg.
“I wasn’t told it was extended for another year, I was told it was for up to four-five months... They can’t say something, not follow through with it and expect us to pick up the remains.”
Ekeberg admits that the need for a dedicated shelter is less common over the summer months — but as the nights get colder, the temporary shelters in Bonesville will once again be in high demand.
“Right now there are no people that stay there, they come back and forth all the time… It's warm and people are kind of staying all over the place because they’re closer to town. They’re sleeping in back alleys, they’re sleeping all over the place until it gets cold again,” he says.
While concerned with the ongoing timelines, Ekeberg and other MNA officials realize that projects like this take time, and say they continue to be committed to working with the community partners to find the best solutions.
“We’ll do whatever we can to help out. It takes time to make things happen but what I need is a solid plan and action by the municipality to keep up with their end of the deal,” he said, referencing the initial project to get the Bonesville location last winter. “They asked us when we were going to break ground and how long it would take, I told them I would start immediately. I busted my ass and got it done - it was done in December - and people had a place to go."
Future project concepts
While the location of a permanent facility is still in limbo, the task force has made a lot of headway this year with other aspects of the project, including the purchase of multiple trailers, furniture and needed service items, that are outlined in the Transitional Housing Report released in 2021.
Building and preparing the sites will cost roughly $800,000, which includes municipal and grant funding from the Rural Development Network (RDN). An annual estimate of $616,000 for staffing and operational costs was anticipated last February for both projects that will need to still find funding.
Even when a new site is selected and the transitional housing facility is operating, it is possible that the Bonesville site will still operate in a capacity as a healing area. Those details, however, are also part of the ongoing discussions.
With an in-town site still being explored, Ekeberg says in the coming months, County council and administration need to acknowledge their partners who have been supplementing support for vulnerable people while communicating more effectively with groups.
“We are waiting on not necessarily direction, but communication from council on what we can and can’t do because their grand plan is to have this transitional housing set up in the community,” he said.
“Once that moves forward, if we still need the Bonesville site, then yes we are going to do some alterations and changes but it’s not up to us… now it’s time for action.”
Through a financial and management contract with Lac La Biche County, the temporary camp has been operated by the MNA Region 1. The site, which became fully operational last December, has been providing six shed spaces outfitted with heat, electricity and cooking spaces for up to 24 individuals. The project has also received a cash infusion of over $70,000 from the municipality with bus services to transport individuals back and forth to the hamlet.