RMWB council passes motions fighting poverty in Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo

Council was told at their Tuesday meeting that 1-in-11 people in the region experience poverty, including an estimated average of at least three children per classroom.

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Fighting homelessness and poverty was a top issue for council at their Tuesday meeting as councillors unanimously approved two motions to fight the issues.

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Council has ordered administration to work with the Poverty Reduction Network on an anti-poverty plan. The Homelessness Initiatives Strategic Committee (HISC) will now be a council-appointed committee. Since 2000, HISC was a community advisory board. This change brings stability to HISC, aligns it with the priorities of the municipality and offers more government resources.

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“With the soaring prices of both groceries and utilities… it’s becoming more and more difficult for people to be housed,” said Councillor Funky Banjoko, who proposed the motion on a poverty reduction plan. “We all know the problems and we need to start fixing them.”

Councillor Jane Stroud agreed and told the rest of her council colleagues that the rural hamlets south of Fort McMurray have few options for social housing, public transportation or health care services.

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Poverty reduction and homeless advocates have argued poverty is made of a complex web of factors. This includes food security,

Paula Galenzoski, chair of the Poverty Reduction Network and a coordinator with United Way Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo, supported working with the RMWB on a plan to fight poverty. She told council that 1-in-11 people in the region experience poverty. Galenzoski, who is also a Catholic school trustee, estimates an average of at least three children per classroom live through poverty.

Councillor Shafiq Dogar argued poverty was too large for the RMWB to fight and a plan would be “not very applicable.” He said the federal government should instead give subsidies to people. Dogar later voted for the plan after Galenzoski disagreed with his argument.

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“Our aim is to put ourselves as community agencies out of work,” said Galenzoski. “We’re not going to solve it probably here but it takes all of us as a community to work towards that… our big dream would be to eliminate poverty.”

Pierre Chouinard, a chaplain at the NorthLife Fellowship Baptist Church’s soup kitchen, told councillors that drug and alcohol abuse in Fort McMurray is worsening among the homeless in Fort McMurray. He talked about soup kitchen patrons who are struggling to get sober or had died.

Chouinard said he struggled with addictions and was saved through Christian-based counselling. He told council others have benefited from this service and asked councillors to support addiction programs that include a faith-based approach.

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He also told council to support housing services, improve health care access, and offer job and financial supports that help with recovery. Chouinard told council not to pursue supervised consumption sites as part of a poverty reduction plan.

These facilities, which are commonly called safe-injection sites, are not open in Fort McMurray. There are also no applications for a local site before the federal government. Alberta is prioritizing a recovery-orientated strategy regarding addictions.

Poverty a long-fight for RMWB

The RMWB’s current Community Plan on Homelessness is based on the 10-Year-Plan to End Homelessness, which council approved in 2010. That program cut the number of homeless people in the region after peaking at 549 people in 2008.

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The recent municipal count found 162 homeless people in Fort McMurray last September. Abuse, financial problems, addictions, health issues and unsafe housing were all cited as reasons for homelessness in the municipal survey.

Housing advocates in Fort McMurray say this count is likely short and does not include everyone who is couch surfing or living in unsafe or illegal housing conditions.

Food insecurity, trouble finding stable housing, and limited access to health care, addictions support and mental health services are still problems in Fort McMurray and nearby rural and Indigenous communities. The Wood Buffalo Food Bank reports demand keeps growing and is likely to continue rising.

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