Emergency shelter attendance down 28% in Alberta since 2014

Alberta’s daily average emergency shelter attendance has gone from a high of 3,820 in February 2014 to 2,753 in March 2020.

Earlier this month, the Alberta government updated the data on the number of individuals accessing emergency shelters that were funded by the Ministry of Community and Social Services.

There’s a lot of data, with information for over 60 shelters in Calgary, Edmonton, Fort McMurray, Grande Prairie, Lac La Biche, Lethbridge, Lloydminster, Medicine Hat, Red Deer, and Slave Lake. The data covers overnight attendance at each shelter for every day between April 2013 and March 2020.

That’s nearly 98,000 rows of data.

Needless to say, that much information presents a bit of a challenge in trying to present it in any meaningful way. What I decided to do was to graph the monthly averages to see what the data might show us.

Here’s what it looks like for the province as a whole.

Clearly there are fewer people accessing these emergency shelters overnight now than there were in 2013. We’ve gone from an average high of 3,820 in February 2014 to an average low of 2,583 in July 2019.

The peaks and valleys in general aren’t that surprising, corresponding more or less to the seasons: more attendance during colder months.

If we look beyond the seasonal variations, however, and look at the general trends, we see that attendance waned between 2013 and 2017, then sort of plateaued throughout 2017, 2018, and early 2019. Late 2019 and the first quarter of 2020 appear to be lower than the same period the year before.

Here’s what the numbers look for the two largest cities in the province: Calgary and Edmonton.

Well, Calgary obviously saw a drop in attendance during those 7 years, from a high of 2,419 in February 2019 to a low of 1,521 last September. That’s nearly a drop of 1,000 persons per day, on average.

Edmonton did as well, but only until early 2016, then attendance numbers stabilized. That being said, there appears to be a slight increase in Edmonton in the last few years, going from a daily average of 707–714 during the summer months of 2017 to 724–784 during the same period in 2018 and 735–761 in 2019.

Here’s what the next 4 largest communities look like: Grande Prairie, Lethbridge, Fort McMurray, and Red Deer.

Red Deer was fairly stable, with a slight increase for the first 3 years, then a slight decrease for 2 years. Since the summer of 2018, however, the average daily emergency shelter attendance in Red Deer shot up dramatically, more than tripling by the first quarter of 2020.

Fort McMurray has been more erratic than Red Deer. For much of the 7 years, the community has seen the third highest daily average attendance, but there have been several months where attendance was the second highest here than in the other 3 communities. It was in second place for nearly all of 2017.

Since late 2018, however, attendance in Fort McMurray has been declining overall. This past February and March saw the community’s 4th and 5h lowest attendance numbers since the spring of 2013. It was the only one of the 4 communities to see a decrease in attendance over the last year: the other 3 all saw increases.

Lethbridge has consistently had the second highest daily average emergency shelter attendance of the 4 communities, topping out the other previous 2 about 56% of the time and never dropping into 3rd place.

Overall, Lethbridge has been trending down during this 7-year period. However, during the colder months of 2017–2018 and 2019–2020, it saw higher attendance numbers than the cold periods in any other year. It will be interesting to see, as the data for the rest of 2020 comes in, whether the climb at the start of this year continues.

Grande Prairie, by far, has the highest average daily attendance of the four communities. Other than a 3-month stint in 2017, the city has been in first place every month over this 7-year period.

Even do, like the other cities, it was trending down for the first few years. However, starting in the latter half of 2017, attendance skyrocketed, at a faster rate even than Red Deer has seen over the past 2 years.

And it grew for almost 3 years—from a daily average of 80 in May 2017 to nearly 200 in February 2020—until an even more abrupt drop throughout early 2019.

Unfortunately, it rose again in the last half of last year. Luckily, it’s still lower than it was at the same time the previous year. As well, it dropped a bit for the first part of 2020, but we’ll have to wait for a little longer before knowing whether that’s a blip or part of a trend.

Now, keep in mind that these numbers—for all the cities—is not a count of the unhoused population. This is only those who attended a shelter. It doesn’t include those living on the street.

These charts do not show that homelessness is declining in Alberta. It only shows that attendance at government-funded emergency shelters is down (or up, like in Red Der and Lethbridge).

That being said, a CBC story from 2018 indicated that, at the time, homelessness in Calgary was down nearly 20% over the previous 10 years, which the Calgary Homeless Foundation attributes to identifying and housing people.

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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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