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Busy nights for the mat program

Submitted Photo
Volunteer Katie Willis (right) and another regular volunteer set up in the kitchen at the Lutheran Church.

Masha Scheele

By the end of 2019 the mat program hadn’t seen an empty night since it opened Nov. 4 for those in need of a warm and safe place to sleep.

For one man, who slept in the church basement where the program is hosted for nearly every night since Nov. 5, the program has done more than just provide a safe and warm place.

“Without the mat program, I hate to say it, but I could’ve even froze to death by now. Every night in the car gets hard on the head, and you don’t see hope. The mat program gave me hope,” said Don, who’s name is changed for the purpose of this article as he asked to stay anonymous during the interview.

Don isn’t originally from Hinton but has lived in the community for a number of years with his family.

After falling behind on bills while working this spring he eventually lost the trailer his family lived in.

He continued to work away from home but was laid off in August, finding himself homeless.

“I was never homeless before. It was horrible actually, I thought it might end up being a couple of weeks but that was late August and I’m still in my car,” he said in December.

His family stayed with relatives while he slept in his car each night until the mat program opened its doors in November.

Surprised that a small community like Hinton opened a shelter, he was relieved at the welcoming and safe place the volunteers provided.

“Especially when the temperatures get cold it can be dangerous, so it’s nice to have a warm place to go,” he said.

Don now looks forward to moving to another community where his family will be together again in a new place and where he can get a new job.

Hinton’s Lutheran Church committed to allow Hinton Employment and Learning Place (HELP) to organize their mat program in their basement.

Candace Pambrun, homelessness coordinator at HELP, explained that she closely followed what Drayton Valley did with their program. 

“Our communities are quite similar. Our people are quite similar, our addictions, mental health, and access to resources and all of that,” explained Pambrun.

Five different individuals have used the mat program so far, and with the help of the Hinton Rotary they’ve secured 10 mats for people to use. Rotary also donated money towards training of the volunteers, who all have previous experience in working with homelessness.

One of Pambrun’s top volunteers, Katie Willis, said that it gives a whole different perspective on what it would be like to take the first step and come into the shelter.

“We all have these ideas of what a shelter is and to see somebody take that first step is hard, it’s emotional for them. Maybe they’re not ready,” said Willis.

As a volunteer she makes sure to take the time and build trust with each person.

“Even if it is just two or even if it’s just three [people], that’s well worth it for me, because I know that’s people who didn’t have to be stuck out on the street and they were safe and they had a meal and shelter, that’s huge,” she said.

Pambrun said she’s not sure what will make the program busier, but added that Freddy’s resource room usually gets busier in the spring when people are wet instead of cold.

“We don’t do things without asking our clients what they need. We built Freddy’s based on what people asked us and it still took 17 days before one person ever used Freddy’s when we opened,” said Pambrun.

HELP serves those who are homeless, at risk of homelessness, living transient, living rough, and anyone in need of emergency shelter. 

Three quarters of their clients are men and at least half of those are transient, meaning they couch surf, stay in trailers, or with family and friends. One quarter of their clients live rough, and the at-risk population is increasing. She added that some of her clients have lived homeless for years and know how to survive outside easily. 

One of the mat programs’ users asked Pambrun if they would stay open if he was the only person to show up, and every volunteer already agreed that they would stay.

“Everybody would, even if it is just one person, that’s one person that doesn’t have to be cold and at risk that night. There’s not many opportunities that you get, where you get that immediate gratification of knowing what you did really helped somebody. It’s huge,” said Willis.

After the program began, HELP also received a grant from Alberta Rural Development Network (ARDN), which will go towards a position to run the program. HELP is always looking for volunteers, to find out more contact Candace Pambrun at

The mat program is open until April from Monday to Friday between the hours of 10 pm and 7 am at the Hinton Lutheran Church.