(File photo)

(File photo)

Ponoka homelessness committee becomes a society

Lack of volunteers biggest hurdle to opening overnight mat program

The small, but powerful group of professionals and individuals passionate about homelessness and the local vulnerable population have now come together to form a society.

The Ponoka Housing and Homelessness committee officially become a society at their first inaugural AGM (annual general meeting) on Dec. 14, 2020.

After a welcome and introductions, the meeting started with declaring all 13 attendees members of the new society. An overview of 2019-20 activities was then given, followed by the election of officers and appointment of other positions.

“As I drove through town today and saw a fellow biking with a large amount of stuff in a cart behind him, I was pretty grateful we’re having our meeting tonight,” said Shannon Boyce-Campbell, executive director of Ponoka FCSS.

The group has been meeting to discuss housing and homelessness in Ponoka for about three years now, starting out as a committee with AHS input. From their discussions, a few main projects emerged, including the Ponoka Mat Program.

“One of our biggest hurdles with the mat program was getting insurance and funding secured and those kinds of things and as a council of, basically concerned citizens, we couldn’t do a lot,” said Dr. Cayla Gilbert, a Ponoka family physician.

For example, they weren’t able to open a bank account or apply for insurance, so the decision was made to become an official society.

“That’s what’s happening today: we’re taking a step to go from a group of concerned citizens working together to tackle housing and homelessness in Ponoka to becoming an official society so we can have more tools and more ways to move forward.”

Overview

The overnight shelter, for up to six people, was successfully launched from January to March in 2020.

The group had hoped to get the mat program running again in November or December, but with COVID-19 restrictions and recruitment of volunteers as the biggest barriers, it hasn’t gotten off the ground yet this winter.

“I suspect that people don’t want to expose themselves more than they already are with their employment and their ‘have-to’s’ so it’s harder to extend for volunteer work,” said Gilbert.

The First Baptist Church, the site of the program last year, is set up and ready to go, and there is a lease agreement in place. The town has also agreed to continue its support, and some other funds were secured through fundraising and applying for grants.

“The only thing that’s holding us back right now is volunteers. That will be our biggest next step — to continue to engage the community for volunteers and reconnect with our volunteer cohort from last year and try to find out what’s holding them back this year.”

It was brought up, that in the long-term, the society may have the goal of creating transitional housing for the vulnerable population, such as a communal living facility with wrap-around services and support.

In 2018-19, the committee had conducted a survey in cooperation with Wetaskiwin and the Alberta Rural Development Network. The survey found there were at least 15 individuals who spend time in both Ponoka and Wetaskiwin that were under-housed or homeless.

READ MORE: Group seeks support for overnight shelter program

Dr. Gilbert says there seems to be fewer people currently in need of emergency housing, perhaps due to increased government supports during COVID-19, however, there is still a need for those in the community who are under-housed.

The Ponoka Aquaplex had been supplying the mat program with vouchers for showers, as well as clean towels and shampoo, but that has discontinued now that the pool is closed.

Elections

By acclamation, Dr. Cayla Gilbert was elected as chair, Lisa McBride, vice chair; Sheila Pateman, secretary; Mona Ivan, treasurer and Lisa Hagemann, mat program director.

Michell Comeau and Brittany Sande were appointed as mat program volunteer coordinators, along with Boyce-Campbell as director of community engagement and Kasha Maser as director of communications.

“I have a passion for housing and homelessness, especially as it concerns our Indigenous population, so that’s’ what brings me to the table,” said Gilbert.

“I get very passionate about housing and it directly impacts a number of patients I see through the clinic,” said McBride, a social worker with Battle River Medical Clinic.

“Something we noticed as social agencies in town and working where we do is there is a need for some kind of emergency housing,” said Hagemann, a mental health liaison with Ponoka Addictions and Mental Health.

The first general meeting of the society will be held on Feb. 1, 2021.

Those interested in volunteering for the mat program can email ponokamatprogram@gmail.com.