As homelessness reaches critical levels across the province, Metis Nation – Saskatchewan (MN-S) is inviting community partners and those with lived experience from across the province to the first annual, intersectoral, provincial ‘Building Community – Saskatchewan Housing and Homelessness Conference’.

The goal is to find solutions to providing affordable, accessible and secure housing for all.

“It’s so important to remember that people living on the streets are our relatives, our family members and our friends,” said MN-S Housing and Infrastructure Minister Loretta King. “When we listen to their stories and experiences, we are reminded that we are similar in so many ways. We all have people we love and that love us. It’s our job as a community to learn how we can help one another.”

MN-S, together with the Saskatchewan Housing Corporation, Saskatchewan Urban Municipalities Association, River Bank Development Corporation, Namerind Housing Corporation, Saskatchewan Landlords Association, and the Network of Non-Profit Housing Providers expect to host more than 350 people at the Saskatoon Sheraton Cavalier on March 14 and 15.

“We thought it would be good for us to not only share ideas but to be solutions-focused on how we can address these systemic issues that we’re seeing across the province and really make connections both within bigger urban centres, but also the rural and northern centres as well,” said MN-S Director of Housing Jason Mercredi, who added that the issues are not unique to any one particular community.

Around 40 scholarships have been provided to residents who have experienced homelessness. Those scholarships cover accommodations and travel expenses, which allows them to attend the two-day event, share what they can and give government, service-providers and housing professionals the insight they need to find immediate solutions with long-lasting effects.

Existing organizations across the province were given the opportunity to select a few individuals either experiencing homelessness or living in social housing in their communities to attend the conference so they could have their voices heard.

“We’ve asked them because they know their communities better than we do,” Mercredi added.

Topics up for discussion at the conference include rural homelessness, tiny homes, mental health and addictions, accessing federal and provincial funding, youth homelessness, harm reduction and sober living housing.

According to Mercredi, the conference will not be Metis-specific but those in attendance are asked to consider Indigenous-based solutions to the homelessness and housing instability crisis.

Two heavyweight keynote speakers that will be in attendance are Skidrow CEO Joe Roberts and Federal Housing Advocate Marie-Josee Houle.

Having Houle attend the conference in person is huge, said Mercredi.

“It’s going to allow the Feds to have a much more robust picture of what’s happening in Saskatchewan and it’s going to allow us to have a voice at the federal level,” he said. “It’s going to be a chance for organizations to talk to her directly and for her to hear what the communities are saying.”

Mercredi said MN-S is also excited to have Roberts speak at the conference, a homelessness advocate that walked across Canada in 2016 with a shopping cart to raise awareness and dollars to end youth homelessness.

According to a 2022 Point-in-Time survey, homelessness is up by 36 per cent in Prince Albert, 15 per cent in Saskatoon, and 41 per cent in Regina. According to MN-S, the reasons for this increase in homelessness can vary from addictions issues and domestic abuse to mental health and wellness.

General Manager of River Bank Development Brian Howell said when a Point-in-Time count is done, they look at both sheltered homelessness and street homelessness. While there is a 36 per cent increase in overall homeless in Prince Albert, street homelessness has actually doubled since their last survey; rising from 26 individuals on the street to 57.

When asked what he believes is causing the increase in homelessness, Howell said they are not completely sure, but it started during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We know it’s across the province and actually across most of Western Canada, maybe the whole country,” said Howell. “I think there’s inflation, rising rent, stagnant incomes, more and more people moving to the city from northern communities that are struggling to find housing; it’s kind of a perfect storm of factors.”

Howell said MN-S is a positive partner to work with on homelessness issues and River Bank is looking forward to helping make the conference a success.

By: Bailey Sutherland, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Prince Albert Daily Herald