On November 3, the Rural Development Network (RDN) and Soaring Eagle Support Society (SESS) held a virtual engagement session for Whitecourt residents. The event aimed to introduce people to SESS and Eagles Nest, located in the Alaska Highway Motel. Linda Bernicki, Project Consultant with the Rural Development Network, led the event and opened with an exercise on myths and facts.
The first myth buster was that Eagles Nest is not an emergency shelter. Shelagh Watson, manager of SESS, said that aside from the women's shelter (Wellspring), which is an emergency shelter for women and children, "there isn't an actual emergency shelter in Whitecourt." Next up was a question about whether those staying at Eagles Nest need to pay rent. "It's just like any other hotel," explained Bernicki. "All residents at Eagles Nest pay something towards room and board. That may fluctuate and adjust based on their journey and what is happening with income."
One topic of contention locally had to do with talks of Eagles Nest being a safe injection site, and Bernicki said the truth was the opposite. "Eagles Nest is considered a dry accommodation. That means that people cannot bring alcohol or drugs or use alcohol or drugs on site." If someone staying at Eagles Nest drinks or does drugs off-site and returns to the hotel, Bernicki said it's no different than anyone else. "It's your home. You are welcome in your home and can stay in your home. You just cannot bring drugs or alcohol on site."
The next myth to be busted had to do with whether the homeless choose to stay homeless. Bernicki said that many people think that's true. "I'm sure everyone can appreciate that nobody would want to live in that situation if they had a choice. Even if they can't make healthy decisions, people in those situations want help, but they may not know how to access the help, or they may not understand what type of help they need, or they just might be lost in their journey of addiction and mental health and aren't able to make the best decisions for themselves."
Bernicki then explained who could stay at Eagles Nest. "It is for women and men. They have individual suites, and there is no couples housing at this time. It's individuals only. There were rumours going around town that Eagles Nest was housing families and that there were children living there. That is absolutely false."
People might not realize that SESS works with anyone who needs help. "I could go there and ask for help, and I'm fully and gainfully employed, and I own my own house. If I live in Whitecourt, and I don't know where to go, I could go to the Soaring Eagle Support Society." Bernicki said that if the staff at SESS couldn't provide the service needed, they would connect the person to the resource.
She also explained that there is a spectrum of homelessness that people don't understand. "Some people are living outside. Some are at risk of becoming homeless, and some people live in poverty and have to choose between keeping the lights on or getting food. SESS helps with all of that. If you go to their door, you are welcomed in."
Another myth is that SESS and Eagles Nest were created by "good-hearted people who mean well" but are not qualified. Bernicki said that, yes, the staff are good-hearted people, but they also come with the necessary qualifications. She said she toured the facility and met staff members and found that staff have a variety of expertise and are trained in different areas to support people properly.
From May to September of this year, Eagles Nest housed 30 people, but not simultaneously. "Some people misinterpret that and think that 30 people are living there right now, and that's not the case. It means that between May and September, the staff at SESS were able to house up to 30 people. So, someone could've been staying there for a week, and then they were able to get more permanent housing, or people had lost their housing for some reason, and SESS was able to support them to obtain other housing."
Sydney Stenekes, manager of Homelessness Initiatives at RDN, said that SESS provides a laundry list of other supports, from access to washrooms, showers and laundry, food, clothing, and advocacy on various topics. "They also help support clients with a mailing address, court advocacy, mediation, mental health, and addictions."
Bernicki said that Whitecourt is lucky to have an organization like SESS. "A lot of communities don't have key organizations that address issues, such as homelessness. SESS can provide a young pregnant woman with housing navigation and supportive referrals to ensure that she and her baby continue to live healthy and stay housed. Because of SESS, the person living in a van has a warm, dry place to shower, have coffee, and work with one of the outreach workers. They can assist and explore how to obtain financial support to hopefully get them to the next stage of more permanent housing."
For a couple that has lost both of their jobs, Eagles Nest can provide food, assistance to obtain income support, and support to access job training to help them get back on their feet. "Imagine being the person who is ready for the next step of healing to go to treatment, but they are worried about losing their house. Imagine being able to focus on healing and treatment without having to worry about becoming homeless. Soaring Eagle Support Society can do that."
Serena Lapointe, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Whitecourt Press