The stories we tell about changemaking are often celebrations of “heropreneurs:” how someone encountered a problem, approached it in a new way, and brought about transformation and impact. These stories are inspirational, but not always relatable. Many changemakers spend years mucking through the messiness of complex and interrelated problems, without always knowing how their work will evolve or what impact it will have. Creating change isn’t always glamorous; it often requires resourcefulness and resilience, teamwork, and comfort with ambiguity and unknowns.
Ronda Reach and the community leaders she works alongside in Fort Macleod offered to share their story about changemaking in the face of complex housing issues in their community. They shared this story not because they have solved this problem and created a perfect model for other communities, but because they--like many changemakers--are doing what they can to get better at addressing the root causes of an important issue in their community.
In 2008, Alberta’s economy was booming and the vacancy rate for housing was at an all-time low of around 1%. Housing availability was very low in Fort Macleod, and the community was anticipating population growth associated with a new police college and expanding industry. Recognizing that housing was a significant issue and an important factor influencing mental and physical health and community safety, a group of leaders from the community, service agencies and health sectors came together to discuss this issue and to host a community forum. Later that year, they also hosted a regional ‘rural’ affordable housing gathering. More than 80 people came to this little conference in rural Alberta, sharing creative solutions and ideas. Most of the funding support for housing was going to Alberta’s seven cities at the time, but rural communities were also struggling with housing insecurity and related challenges, particularly around transportation and accessibility of services for households outside major urban centres.
Where to start?
Now that housing was a recognized priority for the community, it was time to do a needs assessment. Alongside the local municipality and housing authority, Ronda and the newly-formed housing committee found funding and a contractor to assess the affordability and accessibility of housing in their community. The contractor’s conclusion: increase the supply and access for rent geared to income and near-market rental housing. The only social housing available in the community was for seniors, and the town had a growing population of young families and a distinct lack of affordable housing options.
Unfortunately, around this time funding for capital builds was drying up. After struggling to find funds for a new build, this coalition from Alberta Health Services (AHS), Family and Community Support Services (FCSS), local realtors and community service agencies with the support of the Town of Fort Macleod applied for and received funding through the Homelessness Partnering Strategy (HPS) to adopt a housing-first approach in their community.
Through collaborations with researchers at the University of Lethbridge, the housing coalition identified that those at greatest risk of facing housing instability were people experiencing life transitions, such as moving, attending post-secondary school, dealing with family breakdowns, or being discharged from medical care or incarceration. With this knowledge, the coalition began working with partners to identify and support high-risk individuals.
A housing liaison worker was hired to provide client support. Existing agencies like FCSS and the local emergency shelter were already providing services for clients facing homelessness, but were overstretched and generally offered reactive rather than proactive services; this was the first time someone was able to provide focused preventative support. In Ronda’s words, the new liason worker “had to be a magician”: she was meant to be facilitating a housing first model, with no social housing available except for seniors. She quickly became extremely adept at helping people get connected--socially, to relevant services and programs. Together with local agencies, she has helped more than five hundred people find homes over the past five years, largely through the quiet but important work of educating landlords, building relationships, and connecting people with relevant information and services.
Learning and evolving
Over time, Ronda says, community leaders have come to recognize housing as an important determinant of health and safety in Fort Macleod. The municipality and housing authority are increasingly engaged, working with the Fort Macleod Housing Committee to explore options for bringing more affordable housing to the community. While the housing and rental markets have cooled since 2008, housing instability remains a challenge; a recent homelessness survey found nearly 40 people (out of a community of 3,000) living in precarious housing.
The housing coalition is working to deepen their understanding of the challenges and opportunities faced by people dealing with housing insecurity in Fort Macleod. They have recognized racism as an important issue that intersects with housing challenges; people who come to Fort Macleod from the two nearby First Nations reserves sometimes face additional barriers to housing because of prejudices among landlords and community members. The Housing Committee and AHS Indigenous Health are working with local elders from both reserves to increase access to culturally-relevant traditional wellness. They’re also working to educate community members about the importance of affordable housing and the prevalence of rural homelessness, which tends to be less visible than it is in urban settings.
Funding continues to be an issue. The coalition faces a tension between wanting to take human-centred approaches that address the root causes of the community’s housing and health issues, and needing to chase down available funding for their initiatives. They’re currently seeking funding that will allow their housing liaison worker to continue working her magic: building relationships with individuals and families and connecting them with the supports they need to avoid experiencing homelessness.
Words of wisdom
I asked Ronda what messages she wants to share with other changemakers struggling to move the needle on complex challenges in their community. She shared three important things she’s learned through this journey:
You can’t make change alone. Complex issues involve complex systems of people and organizations. Bring the community together, identify where you can have leverage within the system, and create partnerships to help you do so. Ronda emphasizes that all the work described here was and is a team effort.
Learn from other communities and networks. Through the Alberta Rural Development Network (ARDN), Fort Macleod has been able to network with eight other communities of a similar size who had also received HPS grants. The ARDN have acted as tremendous supports and champions, says Ronda, advocating for the needs of rural communities and allowing Fort Macleod to tap into the wisdom and experiences of other rural changemakers.
Rural communities are resourceful and resilient, and Fort Macleod is no exception! While this journey hasn’t unfolded as they would have predicted, the housing coalition in Fort Macleod has adapted and adjusted to create the change they want to see with and for their community.
Ronda Reach supports community initiatives through Alberta Health Services in Fort Macleod. To learn more about the work of the housing coalition in Fort Macleod, contact the Housing Liaison Worker at the FCSS office, 403-553-4491 or Ronda at 403-553-5353.
This post was written by Naomi Mahaffy, ABSI Connect’s Facilitator. ABSI Connect works to connect, align, celebrate, strengthen, and learn from Albertan change-makers who are finding innovative ways to address the complex problems their communities face. Do you have a story, idea, or insight you’d like to share with the ABSI Connect community? Let us know.
Cover image from the Fort Macleod Gazette.