Two new projects hope to help the homeless in Peace River

Sherry Hilton in what will soon become the PEACE Foundation office and community centre.

Susan Thompson
Express Staff

When Krista Loughton screened her documentary on homelessness at the theatre in Peace River, it inspired Marc Boychuk to take action.

He spent two days on the streets himself in January of last year to see firsthand the struggles local homeless people face, and he has been a tireless advocate for the homeless ever since. In order to try to bring people together to find a solution to the issue, he founded the PEACE (Providing and Ensuring Access to a Caring Environment) Foundation.

However, after a shakeup on the board late last year and some disagreements over direction, Boychuk is no longer working through the foundation he helped create.

“I want to end homelessness. But I’ve always been about preventing it instead of reacting to it,” Boychuk says. He continues to advocate through his Facebook page “I Care”, and is now working with the Métis Housing Foundation, who he says is having high rates of success getting people into homes and reuniting them with their children who may have previously been taken into care. He is now also working with Carol Risdale, President of the Métis Nation of Alberta Region 6, to get an assessment of the community’s needs done through the Alberta Rural Development Network (ARDN).

Boychuk says that a homeless count has recently been done, and that there are 39 homeless people in Peace River. The new assessment is not another homeless count, but a holistic look at the entire town, including the economy, the type of housing and supports that are already available and what housing may be needed, to see where people may be falling through the cracks and how that can be addressed.

“Data is crucial to getting the funds that you need,” Boychuk says. “That’s why we are focusing on getting a comprehensive study done in the community of where we need housing, and what type of housing is needed.”

Boychuk says the expert opinions and information ARN can provide can then be a basis for other groups to help, or to get grants and funding using the data, and so address local needs in a sustainable way that is successful long-term. Boychuk says he is also getting the assessment done at a steep discount to regular price, at about $10,000, with all funds going directly to ARDN. Time, however, is of the essence.

“If I wait too much longer, we’re not going to get this assessment done and we’re going to go another winter without helping anyone else,” he says.

The Métis region is hosting an event at the Belle Centre on May 11 to raise funds for the new assessment, featuring guest speakers who will speak on topics such as suicide and the impact of poverty on health. Boychuk will speak on the homeless situation in Peace River. The event loosely follows the “100 Who Care” event format, and Boychuk hopes that other groups will benefit from similar events in the future.

“I may act tough but some days I sure feel like throwing the towel in,” he says. “But nothing was as hard as those two nights I spent on the streets.

They help keep me motivated.”

Meanwhile, on Saturday, April 27th the P.E.A.C.E. Foundation held their own fundraising event to help the homeless. The “Out of the Cold – Spring Bash Event” was held at the Belle Petroleum Centre in Peace River with entertainment by live bands Rewind and Sweet Tequila.

The P.E.A.C.E. Foundation is raising money for operational costs for their own project, a new office and warming centre they hope to open soon in a renovated house near the library. The Foundation aims to use the house not only as their head office, but as a hub where homeless and vulnerable people can have a shower, get their laundry done, have a meal in the newly renovated kitchen, get referrals to other services, or take a nap.

“This is a house of love,” says Sherry Hilton, the driving force behind the idea.

Hilton also has little patience to wait for more data if it means delaying helping the most vulnerable.

“I’m the kind of person who wants to take action and get something done,” she says.

Lorne and Phyllis Mann have offered the P.E.A.C.E. foundation the use of their property next door to Mann’s law office last December, and since then the house has been renovated with help from the community. Rick Dostaler Construction, EMCO, and Tom O’Morrow have all contributed. Dan Doucette of United Floors has provided new flooring and Blue Ice Mechanical has upgraded the plumbing and heat, while Kenry Electric has fixed and revamped the electrical. Volunteer Angi King has been busy repainting and helping with the renovations as well.

With the main work on the house almost done, the foundation is still seeking more volunteers and about $10,000 in donations in order to manage early operating costs, something Hilton hopes to secure before officially opening.

“I don’t want to open it up just to have to close it again because we don’t have the money to pay our bills,” Hilton says.

Hilton says she is motivated by her own son’s former struggle with addictions, and the interactions she has through her job at the movie theatre, where she has already built relationships with many of the homeless and vulnerable people in town.

However, at least for now people using the P.E.A.C.E. Foundation facility when it opens will not be staying overnight, because that would make the house a shelter and would require rezoning.

Based on a briefing note prepared by Peace River’s planning staff and provided to Peace River town council before their February 25 meeting with the foundation, the Municipal Planning Commission is the body that has the authority to decide whether the proposed facility fits within one of three possible classifications.

In order to operate as a community service facility rather than just an office for the foundation, the foundation will need to get a development permit, and the planning commission will need to ensure the proposed use conforms to the definition of a community centre.

If the foundation wants to allow people to stay overnight, they will need to get both a development permit and a land use bylaw amendment approved.

In an official statement provided by communications coordinator Autumn Hulme, the Town of Peace River said it supports the different community initiatives related to homelessness and poverty reduction in the community.

“The Town of Peace River Family and Community and Support Services program has been hosting meetings to discuss and share information and resources on homelessness and poverty reduction. I CARE, P.E.A.C.E. Foundation and various other community agencies have been active participants in these meetings and discussions. FCSS will continue to host these meetings to assist in the collaboration of services and information,” Hulme said over email.

“In addition, the Town of PR, through FCSS will be providing funding support to the ICARE initiative of a Housing Assessment. This type of assessment would help to provide information for the potential development of a longer term plan.”

Hulme said the P.E.A.C.E. Foundation has been referred to planning staff, and has met with planning staff, but no permits or applications have been submitted yet.

“However, we are more than happy to help them through the process. Last year we worked with the Women’s Shelter as they worked to expand their operation to also include second stage housing,” Hulme said.

Extensive renovations have been done to prepare this local house to become a community warming centre. Above is a renovated bedroom.
Newly renovated kitchen.

 

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