Alberta homeless shelter usage dropping for the last 6 years

Funding for shelters has dropped every year the UCP have been in power.

The Alberta government updated their emergency shelter occupancy data, and I thought I’d go through it and share what I found.

Which is pretty much nothing remarkable.

So, here’s the monthly data for emergency shelter capacity in Alberta as a whole.

Between April 2013 and December 2019, emergency shelter capacity went from 3,943 to 3,927, a loss of 16 beds.

And here’s what occupancy looks like during the same period.

Clearly shelter occupancy had decreased significantly during this 6.5–year period. In fact, it dropped by nearly 1,000: from 3,642 to 2,662.

And if usage declines, there’s probably no need for capacity to increase.

Does that mean there are fewer homeless people in Alberta? Well, not necessarily. I tried to find homelessness data for the same period, but what I found was inconsistent and not for year. And there’s probably a reason for that.

No one seems to use a standard definition on what counts as homeless. Does couchsurfing count? What about doubling up? What if you’re incarcerated?

And that’s not even counting the logistics of trying to make sure that everyone who is homeless ends up counted.

Regardless, without that data, it’s hard to say that usage is dropping because homelessness in general is dropping. No longer being homeless isn’t the only reason people stop using homeless shelters.

Last summer, I received an anonymous, handwritten, 8-page letter in the mail from someone who had significant experience with the homeless shelter in Lethbridge. They talked about having their possessions stolen while staying at the shelter and inadequate sleeping facilities (just a mat, no bedding or pillow). Others I’ve talked to who’ve stayed at the shelter mention seeing or experiencing violence, prompting them to never return.

So, while shelter usage has been dropping for the last 6 years—even in the middle of a recession—it may not be because homelessness itself is down.

On a related note, here is how much Alberta spent on “homeless and outreach support services” during the same period, as well as how much it spent per capita each year:

Budget yearSpending
(in millions)
(per capita)
Note: 2017–2018 was a forecasted amount. 2019–2020 was the budgeted amount; however, the government ended up spending $30.18 million more for one-time, COVID-19-related grants to both emergency shelters and women’s shelters. The last two lines are targets and are subject to change.

Keep in mind that given the last two lines are forecasts, the per capita calculations are assuming a similar annual population growth of 0.8% seen between 2020 and 2021.

What we see is that for each of the 3 budgets the UCP have prepared, they have cut funding for “homeless and outreach support services”, both in absolute dollars and in per capita dollars.

Every year within this period but prior to the UCP taking power, funding had increased, by both measures.

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By Kim Siever

Kim Siever is an independent queer journalist based in Lethbridge, Alberta. He writes daily news articles, focusing on politics and labour.

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