February 28th, 2024

Winter supports in place for city’s homeless population

By KENDALL KING on November 18, 2022.

Medicine Hat's Mustard Seed is the operator of the city's first 24-hour shelter service.--NEWS PHOTO KENDALL KING

kking@medicinehatnews.com

Local homeless support and accessible housing organization officials say Medicine Hat has the services and resources necessary to meet winter housing demands, but worry rising costs of living could result in more Hatters needing to access them.

Having been reported as the first Canadian city to end chronic homelessness, Medicine Hat has drawn the interest of many; including some city residents who have challenged the claim, pointing out the continued existence of outdoor living encampments – a cause for concern as temperatures drop.

But officials with both Medicine Hat’s Community Housing Society and Mustard Seed assert that between the city’s new 24-hour shelter services and established housing support programs, there are sufficient resources to keep any and all individuals without a home out of the cold this winter.

“This is the first year that Medicine Hat has 24/7 sheltering options,” MHCHS homeless and housing development manager Jaime Rogers told the News. “So, we’re really grateful for that as that’s going to fill a big gap in the community.”

While Medicine Hat has long had a homeless shelter, operations have been limited to 12 hours, running from 7:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. daily. But with the Nov. 1 launch of a new daytime shelter service – operated out of the Mustard Seed’s Allowance Avenue building and running from 7:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. – those in need now have access to a warm and welcoming space 24/7.

Having only just launched, daytime shelter use data is not yet available, but Rogers says recent numbers show an increase in overnight shelter access, likely driven by the cold weather. She says the increase is expected each year.

Mustard Seed managing director Colette Eirich says as of now, there is no concern or indication capacity will be an issue through the winter.

“We have 30 (shelter) beds and we’ve never reached capacity yet,” said Eirich. “As the cold hits, yeah, possibly we will, but (the temperature) was -26 C there (a few weeks ago) and we didn’t. And if we do, we’ll accommodate. We’ll never leave somebody out in the cold.”

Eirich and Rogers invite anyone in need of shelter to connect with the services – an invitation they say has already been extended to individuals who continue to sleep and live outside.

“We have a number of individuals (who) are just choosing not to engage in the shelter system at this point or any other housing options,” said Rogers. “So, of course, we worry about those individuals.”

Rogers and Eirich both say supports and services are open to those individuals though, if and when they choose to engage.

In terms of housing insecurity, Rogers says the number of Hatters impacted by such is rising. And while housing has been found already for 150 individuals from the start of the fiscal year until the end of October, the search for housing options is becoming evermore challenging.

“Medicine Hat is struggling with affordable and appropriate accommodations,” said Rogers. “So the availability of units and then the affordability, is something very different, of course. So, not having access to a unit because of its financial cost – we can help offset that. But there’s just a limited supply of units right now.”

Rogers believes rising cost of living is driving the demand for affordable housing units, as she says MHCHS is seeing an increase in the number of individuals accessing its housing support services.

“Our No. 1 population that we’re actually serving right now is people who just can’t afford their rents,” she said. “About 90% of the people we serve are not the people that you see on the street.

“Right now, we have a lot of kids coming into our program with their parents or guardians as well, (so) we can see that the cost of living is taking a toll on families and individuals in our community.”

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