Working poor need more support, Edmonton faith leaders say

07 September 2018

Appears in: Archdiocesan News

Frank “Bushy” Stegemeier is struggling.

He has a place to live. But after nearly 30 years of chronic homelessness, Stegemeier knows his problems are far from over. He’s among the hundreds of Edmontonians living in poverty and in chronic need of affordable housing.

Frank “Bushy” Stegemeier

“I’m housed, but that’s only part of the problem. I’m staring at the four walls going crazy because I don’t have work, so I’m not paying for any of this. The taxpayer is. So where’s my self-respect? Where’s my esteem? How does that help me keep in the place when I don’t give a damn anymore?”

Stegemeier shared his story with political and faith leaders who met Sept. 6 to talk about how to respond to chronic homelessness as well as the lack of affordable and supportive housing in Edmonton.

The event was organized by the Capital Region Interfaith Housing Initiative, a group of 23 faith leaders committed to the city’s 10-year plan to end homelessness.

Despite longstanding efforts by the city, annual counts show there are 1,500 to 2,000 homeless people in Edmonton and the number “doesn’t seem to be going down,” said Rick Chapman, a minister with the Inner City Pastoral Ministry.

Faith leaders say they want government as well as their own faith communities to take action.

“We’re keen to see practical steps on the ground,” said Pastor Mike Van Boom, chair of the Capital Region Interfaith Housing Initiative.

Experts say what’s needed is not only affordable housing, but support for those on the margins.

Randy Boissonnault, Liberal MP

Over 48,000 renter households spent more than 30 per cent of their income on housing costs in 2016, according to the City of Edmonton. Of that group, the city says 22,000 households spent more than half, and a growing number are paying 75 to 100 per cent of their income on housing.

“Housing isn’t enough,” said Randy Boissonnault, the Liberal MP for Edmonton Centre.

“You have to wrap supports around them. You have to have pathways to jobs.”

Menghistab Teclemariam Menghistu

Menghistab Teclemariam Menghistu knows that all too well. When he came to Edmonton in 2004 with his wife and four children, most of his monthly salary went to pay rent.

The stress impacts families, sometimes escalating to violence and family breakdown, and lack of healthy food for both children and adults, said Menghistu, who works as a broker with immigrant communities.

“Hunger happens because paying rent is prioritized,” he said.

The city did last month set a target to have a minimum of 16 per cent affordable housing in each Edmonton neighbourhood, including 916 units of permanent supportive housing — facilities which provide support services in addition to housing, for individuals at risk of returning to the streets again.

Councillor Michael Walters

However, the City of Edmonton dropped its 10-year plan to end homelessness, started in 2009, because of a lack of financial support from other levels of government.

“That’s all behind us now,” said city Coun. Michael Walters. “Now they have more recent strategies, particularly federally with the national housing plan, so I’m not too focused on that 10-year time frame.”

The Alberta government’s affordable housing strategy includes a $1.2 billion commitment to build, renovate and modernize affordable housing across the province, said Lori Sigurdson, the minister in charge of housing and an Edmonton MLA. Under the strategy, 4,100 homes for seniors and Albertans with low income will be renewed or built under the plan.

And the federal government’s 10 year national housing strategy includes the creation of over 100,000 housing units and repair of another 300,000 housing units.

Stegemeier said all levels of government have to work together to end homelessness, but after years of disappointment, meeting that goal is not entirely possible.

Elder Russell Auger

“It requires a lot more than just municipal resources. And some of those homeless people, they don’t want the help because they’ve learned to distrust what’s out there.”

Supportive housing facilities such as Ambrose Place in McCauley give people coming off the streets a sense of dignity, belonging, wellness, spirituality and love, said Elder Russell Auger.

“When somebody comes off the streets people don’t want to come close to them because they think they might smell, or are intoxicated,” said Auger. “We’re not afraid to give someone a hug, love, to smile.”

And what works for one homeless person might not work for the next, Stegemeier explained.

“I’ve got a roof over my head but what about the rest of it? It’s just not there,” he said. “There’s a one size fits all system here but each one is different with individual needs.”