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Hinton’s mat program put on hold this year

Masha Scheele

The Hinton Employment and Learning Place (HELP) decided not to go forward with opening the mat program this winter.

With the lack of volunteers, security of the program, and funding, it is currently not possible to offer a warm night indoors to those who have no other options.

“We are thinking the only way to safely run the program this year without enough volunteers would be to hire a security guard to stay the night, and we just don’t have the funding for this,” said Candace Pambrun, homelessness coordinator at HELP.

HELP needs to make sure volunteers are safe and secure in their positions overnight at the church where the mat program took place last year, and that’s not something they’re able to do right now.

Last year, the Alberta Rural Development Network (ARDN) funded the pilot mat program.

Fourteen individuals took advantage of the program last year, four of those individuals were not from Hinton, and the majority were men, while only two were women.

“That’s what I see in my job anyway is more men than women,” Pambrun said, noting that women often manage to find other accommodations.

Despite the current standstill of the program, HELP continues to look at different ideas for a warming space this winter, and possibly partnering with different organizations.

Maybe it won’t be an overnight program but it might be something where people will have access to what they need during the week.

If funding does become available, they will reconsider opening the doors to the mat program.

“A lot of effort was put into carrying it out last year, to the best we could. And what we know this year is that we can’t do it without a secure person in a paid position overnight,” Pambrun said. 

It’s tough to know what the demand would be this winter as people are usually temporarily housed, living in vehicles, couch surfing, or moving between friends and family, Pambrun noted.

Options for homelessness in Hinton are very few and far between right now, whereas in the past HELP could rely on Alberta Supports to help someone out.

“There are no other options. When I hear from somebody that they have nowhere to go, then it’s a serious conversation about ‘Hey, let’s look at who is in your network. What support do you have,’” said Pambrun.

Pambrun and staff at HELP can work with individuals to look at their situation and options to find some relief or help, as well as financial assistance or housing availability.

She noted that regular local support programs like the Hinton Food Bank have seen lower attendance and demand over the past few months, not because individuals can’t access them but because they have the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) funds to fulfill their needs.

“We are seeing very high needs and a difference in the mental health of people this year, a lot due to CERB money and availability of substances for use as well as the closure and inability to access resources,” Pambrun stated.

Once the CERB money runs out, the community may see a drastic change. Since many people have been housed and fed very well due to CERB, the demand for other programs might increase afterwards, Pambrun said.

“[CERB] has provided an income to people who don’t necessarily have the skills to know properly what to do with that money,” Pambrun said.

While the money could have been spent on damage deposits of an apartment, it was often spent on hotels and temporary solutions instead, she noted.

Choices by some individuals were made to better their current situations, but those decisions didn’t necessarily create long-term improvements.

“I feel like the money was too easily distributed and I feel like we will soon see the fallout in that,” she said.

Pambrun noted that her clients with addictions and her clients that are homeless will still be in the same position once the CERB money is no longer available.

The difficulty that came along with the COVID-19 pandemic is that all the doors to regular programs and support resources were shut.

HELP has tried their best to stay in contact with people throughout the pandemic, and has found ways to stay connected.

Some face-to-face programs transferred into online programs, but nothing takes the place of face-to-face interactions, Pambrun said.

HELP’s ability to reach people by going online has improved throughout the last months, and they’ve taught a lot of their clients to use zoom and various google tools.

“We definitely want to see that face-to-face and have people come back into our office. Our doors are open, I feel like there’s a hesitation for people to go back out,” Pambrun said.

Throughout the pandemic, HELP has worked together with the food bank and Family and Community Support Services (FCSS) to deliver food to those in need.

“That’s wonderful, I feel like we really strengthened our networks and things like that and we are working diligently to strengthen our relationship with people via distance, text, and in different new ways,” Pambrun added.

Freddy’s Homeless Resource Room at HELP’s office has also reopened and anyone can contact HELP to access the shower, laundry facilities, and other amenities provided by Freddy’s room.

HELP is a charitable society and donations are always welcome. They are always in need of men’s underwear, socks, Hot Paws, long underwear, and warm winter items this time of year.

Other local businesses can contact HELP to arrange the use of their commercial kitchen if they want to do some team building by making meals to freeze.

For more information or questions, Pambrun can be contacted at HELP from Monday until Friday by phone at (780) 865-1686.