Emergency shelters in Alberta are dealing with a lack of funding and a 10-year provincial high in demand for services, with rural areas especially affected.

Linda McLean, executive director of True North domestic abuse shelter in Strathmore, has seen this firsthand.

“The statistics this year have shown a 10-year provincial high in terms of demand for services, so the number of calls and requests for access to shelter services. Just under 60,000 calls were made to women’s shelters requesting access to support,” McLean said.

Over 44 percent of all calls to women's shelters came from small towns or rural communities.

McLean said that the housing crisis has significantly impacted their clients.

This is because when a family decides to leave an abusive situation and enter an emergency shelter, they give up a lot. Often, they are sacrificing their house and need to find new, safe accommodations.

True North is a short-term shelter; it's meant to be a temporary sanctuary.

‘What we are seeing is that our clients are unable to exit the emergency shelter because there is nowhere to go. The vacancy rate of rental accommodations is sitting below one percent in this region, and we have seen a 40 percent increase in average market rental rates the past few years,” McLean said.

Because of this, families must stay at the emergency shelter for more than 30 days as they cannot find a place to live.

This creates a bottleneck effect because the longer it takes current residents to exit, the shelter has less ability to help new intakes.

“We are finding more women, and their children are unwilling to leave abusive situations because of their fears about not being able to secure alternative housing when they make an exit,” McLean explained.

Not only is there an increase in families seeking emergency services, but shelters are seeing a tremendous impact on their operations due to a lack of government support.

“Our funding has been static since 2014, so we are operating on 2014 dollars in a 2024 cost environment,” McLean said.

All these issues combined have also placed shelter staff in a tough position.

“It's very difficult to operate in an environment where you have to say no because you can't shelter someone due to being at full capacity. It takes a toll psychologically on our staff, and it's not what those in the helping professions believed they would be doing when they entered this field,” McLean expressed.

Being isolated in a rural location can make it even harder to escape abusive situations. Not all social services are offered in Strathmore, and it often means people must go into Calgary, and transportation is a challenge.

A one-way cab ride to Calgary from Strathmore is about $80, which is unfortunate as it can be the only way for some people to appropriately get the help they need in the city.

“We are seeing lots and lots of needs around mental health and well-being for children and mothers. Part of that is a consequence of having been in a domestic violence situation. But a lot of it is being exacerbated by the stress and anxiety about feeling like they are not going to be able to meet their basic needs in the community,” McLean said.

Due to rising costs, it also means that community members have less to give to shelters.

“We are feeling a little anxious going into 2024 about our ability to continue to be successful in raising community funds because we know our neighbors and friends are also feeling the pressures of inflation,” McLean said.

True North can make use of and benefit from any donated household items, such as cleaning products, toiletries, feminine hygiene products, diapers, formula, old clothing, canned food, and garbage bags.

If you are seeking support or are interested in how you can help, visit the True North website.

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