Homelessness is a longstanding issue in Lethbridge and beyond.
Lethbridge College Student James Meyer knows first-hand what it’s like to be without a place to call home.
Meyer grew up a child of the system after his parents, both drug addicts, abandoned their four children when they were all very young.
The resilient optimist spent most of his formative years bouncing from group home to foster care until he wound up homeless at the age of 16.
The now 26-year-old spent four years on the street finding temporary residence wherever he could. He travelled coast to coast looking for solace before making roots in Calgary.
Meyer spent time in many shelters before moving to Lethbridge to be closer to family. He credits breaking the cycle of homelessness to the birth of his sisters first child. The power of family gave Meyer the push he needed to change his life.
Now in a stable environment, Meyer reflects on what could have been done to help his situation.
“I believe the programs definitely could use more funding. If there was better funding for me in that situation, I wouldn’t have had to go through so many different shelters, I would have been able to have a more permanent placement,” he said.
The province of Alberta is now injecting $250,000 in local and innovative approaches with the grand goal of finding Lethbridge’s vulnerable, long-term housing by 2019.
Lethbridge’s goal to end chronic homelessness across the city is a 5-year strategy started in 2014 by Social Housing in Action (S.H.I.A).
The increase in funding is part of the provincial movement to help communities better house and support homeless Albertans through a Housing First approach. The City of Lethbridge will receive more than $4.1 million for various outreach services this year.
Meyer is hopeful that the increase in funding from the Alberta Government will go a long way in supporting some of our cities most vulnerable but believes it is the little things that really do make the most difference to those who have very little.ADVERTISEMENT
“It’s definitely great to donate to the programs but, if you give homeless people socks, it will definitely brighten their day, trust me, you can make a big change in people’s lives by just showing compassion,” said Meyer.
Every year a group of volunteers gather to conduct Lethbridge’s one-night Homeless Count. The 2016 count took place October 16.
The group of dedicated volunteers from local agencies, the Lethbridge College, the University of Lethbridge and various community groups in partnership with S.H.I.A walk the streets to collect crucial information.
According to information gathered, the homeless population of Lethbridge is made up of 54 per cent indigenous and 46 per cent non-indigenous individuals.
Cara Charles studied addiction’s counselling at the University of Lethbridge and found herself employed with the Lethbridge Homeless shelter for many years. Charles says the shelter is filled with people from all walks of life and homelessness is a cycle that’s tough to get out of once you find yourself in it.
“We have immigrants to this country, things don’t work out and they end up in the shelter system. People get out of jail they end up in the shelter system. People travel to this province from other provinces thinking there is a better way out west, they end up in the shelter,” said Charles
As a social conscious member of the community Charles is passionate about the work being done to end homelessness.
Having a long and storied history with social systems, Charles herself was once a recipient of social aid.
After being deported from the United States of America, Charles spent 3 months in Toronto with her then 15-month-old daughter before finding her way out west.
Landing in Lethbridge the mother and daughter spend time in the YWCA before securing permanent housing and stable employment.
Now a successful medical professional, Charles believes social programs are key to rehabilitation and funding them should be a priority to our government.
Charles also believes more must be done outside of monetary bandaids.
“It’s one thing to have money put in to the program’s but to just give people money, it never works. Whatever the problem or addiction is, it’s not going to be fixed with just money, there has to be more to it,” said Charles.
Managed by Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) HomeBASE serves as an intake and referral program for homeless adults. The program receives referrals from the public, the shelters, correctional facilities and the hospital about those in the community who needed a helping hand.
HomeBASE then makes connections with those named individuals in the hopes of bringing them closer to finding a home by aiding in their rehabilitation and recovery.
Comitted to the betterment of society Gillian Zentner spent over a year on the Lethbridge HomeBASE team.
Zentner graduated from the Lethbridge College with her correctional studies diploma and her bachelor degree in justice studies.
Now working as a peace officer, Zentner says many of the people she encountered had lost all trust in the current legal system, making it difficult for those trying to help.
According to Zentner, trying to build a rapport with the people they were trying to assist remained one of the biggest challenges her team faced in the time she was employed there.
“A lot of the homeless population that I’ve worked with have lost all trust and faith that anyone wants to help,” said Zentner.
Noticing an alarming correlation between mental illness and homelessness, Zentner believes accessible social supports are key to ending the vagrant epidemic.
The societal stigma surrounding homelessness was also a constant battle for the compassionate outreach worker. Often having to battle public opinion added another level of difficulty.
“In one year I found that only one individual stated he had chosen to be homeless. The argument that people choose to be homeless is just plain wrong. These people want help,” said Zentner.
As a mobile street outreach worker Zentner recalls speaking with over 500 different homeless people in the Lethbridge community. This number included residents as well as transient individuals.
Spending time on the streets gave Meyer a unique perspective on life. The hopeful journalist now hopes to use his past experiences and his education to give voice to those who need it most.
“It took me a while to get in to what I want to do, but now that I’m here and my dreams are so close, I’m really happy. I can’t wait to shed light on people who often are invisible.”