Lac La Biche curling rink turns into temporary homeless shelter

Lac La Biche curling rink turns into temporary homeless shelter

Drops in temperature, increase in users and the possibility of a virus outbreak will draw homeless people to a larger location by the end of March

A drop in temperature, an increase in customers and fears that disease could spread in the cramped spaces of the existing Out of the Elements Shelter have prompted Lac La Biche County councilors to open the community’s old curling rink building as oversized emergency shelter.

With the approval of the council, operations of the Out of the Elements shelter will be relocated from the one-room trailer on the community lot at 104 Street to the Curling Railroad building on Main Street, effective immediately. The move is temporary and will last until the end of next March during the coldest winter months.

The move to a larger location, says Anita Polturak, director of Lac La Biche County Family and Community Support Services, comes after emergency discussions with the Alberta Health Service, the community and members of the community that operates the shelter. Those decisions focused on the cold weather, the size of the current shelter and the likelihood of anticipated virus strains spreading through the community.

“With the number of people going into this (existing) shelter, this small space, there is a very high possibility that people will get sick there and there is nowhere to isolate them. It’s an opportunity for a breakout for the whole place,” Polturak said. “There are very serious concerns. And when staff have to work with people who come in such crowded conditions, staff get sick and housing is totally unavailable.”

With daily temperatures dipping below minus 30 degrees Celsius over the last week and even more severe cold weather forecast, Polturak’s request to open the larger space required immediate action.

During brief discussions of the motion, Councilwoman Darlene Beniuk asked if the curling rink option would be offered in addition to the existing Out of the Elements Shelter and temporary homeless camp in the Bonesville subdivision.

“At the end of the day, they have three choices to decide where to go…they always choose a hotel? Or how does that work?” She asked.

Beniuk was told that the Out of the Elements building would not be operational as it was too small and posed a health risk to staff and customers, which was the reason for requesting a curling rink. The Bonesville camp will continue to operate as it has been, Polturak said.

While the Out of the Elements Shelter receives some municipal funding, it is largely supported by provincial and federal funds. The community and the Metis Nation of Alberta are providing funds and resources to the Bonesville camp. Since the closure of the ice stock building in 2012, it has served as a storage area for municipal services. In 2020, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the building was used as temporary housing to help many of the community’s vulnerable find a suitable space for isolation needs.

With the council approving the temporary move – only Beniuk opposed – staff at the shelter and community will begin setting up the curling rink to accommodate customers immediately. The site will offer sleeping areas, washrooms and access to a kitchen area.

It has not been said how many customers the new location will serve.

Polturak and the city council came to Lac La Biche County City Council with two possible locations to temporarily relocate Out of the Elements employees and customers. The other option was a piece of common land south of the A&W restaurant near the Northern Lights Public Schools off-campus school. The problem with this location, Polturak said, was that an existing building on the property would require about $20,000 in renovations to be converted for the shelter, and the work could take weeks.

The council and administration, along with a community-led advisory group, continue to work on the long-term strategy for the area’s homelessness problem. Plans to create a new facility to compete with housing and social needs programs near Alexander Hamilton Community Park have recently met strong public opposition.

Despite ongoing discussions about the larger social issue, Lac La Biche County Mayor Paul Reutov said the move to the curling rink was an essential but short-term solution to the larger problem.

“The keyword here is ‘temporary’. We are still working on a permanent solution,” he said.

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