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Slow start for dedicated homeless camp

Lac La Biche County and MNA partner on dedicated homeless land

LAC LA BICHE - The project to provide shelter spaces for some of the area’s unsheltered population on bare municipal land in the Bonesville subdivision, located five kilometres south of the hamlet of Lac La Biche, has yet to be completed. 

Discussions began months ago between county officials and the Métis Nation of Alberta (MNA) Region 1 office to facilitate a designated outdoor space to relocate  homeless people living around the hamlet. Although there hasn’t been a lot of momentum recently regarding the issue, with the cold weather approaching, planning groups are now moving quickly to get things accomplished.

Last summer the municipality approved $60,000 to be utilized for a piece of land where the area’s unsheltered could create outdoor huts and shacks. The funding would include costs for waste removal, transportation to and from the location—three times a day, two portable washrooms, a one-year lease agreement on the land—ending in July —and services to provide electrical needs to any future occupants of the designated area.

The idea, spearheaded by local Metis leaders, is to create a designated homeless camp.

Additional funds to facilitate the project have  also been provided by the provincial MNA and through grant money collected by the local MNA office, MNA Region 1 Vice President Jason Ekeberg told Lakeland This Week.  He added that local MNA officials have already created the design concept, he explained. 

The initial plan will include six sheds—with four beds each—to accommodate 24 individuals. The sheds will have an overarching enclosed roof, covering a communal cooking area, a large seating area and an engineered fire pit to be shared. 

“The Metis Nation Region 1 put out grants and received some capital funding for this project. The provincial Métis nation also had some funds for homelessness as well. We’re all working together. They’re actually supporting us with the initial build of the first three sheds which is roughly about $75,000,” he told Lakelandtoday.

Delayed development

However, the wait for funding approvals, supply chain issues due to COVID, and miscommunication with municipal officials have reduced the progress of the encampment, and currently, there is only one shed completed — and that single structure is over-servicing roughly six to eight people each day, he said.

“Everything is behind because of COVID… getting the supplies is difficult. We couldn’t get heaters, it took three weeks. That's some of the challenges we're faced with,” Ekeberg said.

Resolutions needed quickly

While the dedicated homeless camp struggles, local elected officials are seeing more of the unauthorized ‘tent cities’ within the urban areas of the community. 

“The main issues we are dealing with is when we have these pockets spread out amongst the community; business owners are complaining to us as a council, we have residents complain to us as a council, we have risk to the community—with the form of fires,” said Lac La Biche County Deputy Mayor Lorin Tkachuk

The local MNA, said Ekeberg, has been working with that issue for several months while trying to create the dedicated camp. He says Métis Nation staff are actively working with the growing number of unsheltered people providing them accommodations at hotels and essentials. He admits the two-pronged plan to keep people sheltered and safe has put a big strain on an already over-exceeded budget — but the efforts are needed.

“The MNA will play any part we have to. The MNA has put them in hotel rooms that cost us — over the course of the summer — over $50,000. I had a $4,000 budget — We’re just about $60,000 with that now,” Ekeberg said. “We have accommodated them—by doing whatever we can—we bring them food, we communicate with them, we try to bring resources to them, that's what we’ve been doing.”

Communication issues and solutions

The local MNA, said Ekeberg, has been communicating the encampments progress with Lac La Biche County’s senior administrators, including associate CAO of Recreation and Community Services Darrell Lessmeister. Moving forward to provide safe spaces for the homeless, county officials and the MNA need to be on the same page. Ekeberg says county officials understand the concerns, and realize the need.

“The facilities (at Bonesville) that we have set in place now are full… there will be more. I did talk to Darrell about this. Darrell understands, Darrell knows that they’re coming…as soon as our accommodations are ready—which will be soon—we’ll notify all you guys,” said Ekeberg explaining that the communication channels to the public will improve once there is more new information to relay. 

Admitting the new crop of tents in the community is certainly not ideal, until more solid structures can be built at Bonesville, Ekeberg says those in the tented areas who are choosing to remain outdoors are coping with the cold weather as best as they can. He said the current tents around the hamlet have been there prior to the cold weather, and a lack of permafrost underneath them due to heat sources and fire pits allows the homeless to stay warmer compared to moving their tents to the Bonesville site where the ground is frozen, he said. 

County buys tents

An example of the ongoing partnership between the MNA and the municipality, says Ekeberg, is the recent approval of a $10,000  municipal purchase for all-weather, heated tents. 

‘...two or three tents—with internal poles, not external poles because that will hold the moisture—outfitter tents, insulators, wood stoves that go in there,” Ekeberg said, would be an idea alongside any other temporary spaces that the county might have at their disposal.

The expenditure by Lac La Biche County councillors was part of an option to make the Bonesville land more accommodating through the winter as construction material and funding is collected. The funds will go towards  three outfitter tents, three insulated floors, three wood stoves and other relevant supplies.

Lac La Biche County councillor Charlyn Moore said that having these kinds of discussions take place after the temperatures have dipped below zero shows a breakdown in communications between the planning partners. Going forward, she encourages the MNA officials to provide regular updates.

“This is the communication that I think we were missing. I would have loved to have this in August—had I known you need it—or in July, it's just an ask… when we don’t hear from you, you assume that you’re good and you’ve got it handled,” she said at the recent meeting where the emergent funds were approved.

While council, administration, and the MNA work on their communication, Ekeberg told Lakelandtoday that his office will continue to assess the inventory of items needed as the plan continues to unfold.

“Within the next couple of days, we will know where we stand and what we’re going to do,” he said.

Project projection

Next week, the Bonesville site is expected to receive another sheltered building from a local contractor, said Ekeberg, while three additional buildings have been ordered from a secondary contractor and are expected to arrive in late December.

County officials have also been working on electrical services which will be available soon, he said. 

For the remaining buildings, the MNA is working with contractors and the community to find support, he said.

Most importantly, building a relationship with the unsheltered and vulnerable  population is important, he said, 

Although the Bonesville site will be outfitted for up to two dozen people, so far only six to eight individuals have utilized the space consistently. When a recent ‘tent city’ was removed from private property near downtown Lac La Biche, supporters of the camp said a core of about half a dozen vulnerable people were regular occupants of the area. 

Ekeberg said conversations will continue with all stakeholders involved in this issue.

“It’s a learning experience for everybody. It’s a relationship that we have to build with the municipality and all the people involved from the top to the bottom. Everybody needs to be a part of it,” he said.