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Okotoks homeless couple calls for more support from community, gov't

A homeless couple that has been unhoused across southern Alberta is calling for more housing support in small towns and rural communities.
Laura Palmer and Rory Morrison, pictured with their bikes which they rely on to get around in the winter, consider the Okotoks Public Library their home.

Many consider homelessness a nonexistent issue in towns like Okotoks, but a local couple is saying otherwise.

Laura Palmer and Rory Morrison have spent the last seven years experiencing homelessness in communities such as Claresholm, Lethbridge, High River, and now Okotoks.

"The library is our home," said Morrison, who has been unable to find a job and is only able to make money panhandling and collecting bottles. "We managed to get a tarp and found an electric heater, so we'll just go to the steps in the back there and put the tarp up and have the heater going."

Morrison spends most of his day on his bicycle, even in the winter.

"Riding around, all I got is a bicycle, and we're moving bedding and stuff," he said.

Morrison said he often goes days without sleep, and at one point fell asleep on the side of a highway.

"I'd like to have a place where it's safe to go and stay, like a homeless shelter," he said. "The town says that there's no place for them. There's lots of empty buildings around, right?

"All you'd have to do is have one building with people to go and sleep at night, cause they don't care if it's 40 below. I'm still sleeping out on the streets."

Sian Anderson, Town of Okotoks community wellness team lead, said the Town is committed to working with individuals experiencing homelessness, but added there is currently not enough demand for 24-hour warming spaces.

"The warming centres were very specific to extreme cold weather that we were experiencing that aligned with cold weather warnings," said Anderson. "We aren't quite in those extreme cold situations currently, and so the warming stations ultimately are not going to be demanded throughout the year, based on weather, right?"

The Town of Okotoks was unable to provide statistics about residents experiencing homelessness, but said the Okotoks Family Resource Centre will work with each individual to determine their unique circumstances and needs to help connect them to government and community-based supports.

Anderson said that a possible solution is bringing people to shelters in Calgary, but Morrison and Palmer say they do not feel safe or comfortable in the city due to crime and drug use.

Despite feeling safer in Okotoks, Palmer said community support for unhoused people is negligible in small-town Alberta.

"The biggest underlying issue is that all these people, and bless their hearts for wanting to do something and all, but at the end of the day it's just something they want to do to make themselves feel better for a few minutes," she said. "That's the reality. That's the harsh reality.

"I mean, if you see me on the street and I'm dirty and I'm hungry and I'm saying I need food, and you drive up and you say, 'Well, here's $20, go get yourself a hot meal,' now I appreciate that, I think it's great that you do that, of course that's great and it makes you feel good for a few minutes but that's not gonna fix the problem."

Palmer has met countless people experiencing homelessness, saying the numbers have only grown throughout the years.

"When I first experienced homelessness for the first time in my life was 15 years ago," said Palmer. "I knew probably two [homeless] women. I know about 200 women now. That's huge in a 15-year space."

Palmer said neither have been able to get hired anywhere despite their efforts, and the small amount of support they get from passersby is outweighed by the abuse they endure most days and nights.

"Just last night we were being called a pig by a bunch of teenagers throwing garbage at us," said Palmer. "We have people follow us as soon as they see us, they start following us for a couple hours until they're tired. We'll just go and get our food, we'll do a bottle run, we don't do it during the day because we don't want people seeing us picking through garbages to get bottles because nobody will hire us.

"What we want is a hand up, not a hand out. We just want help."

Amir Said

About the Author: Amir Said

Amir Said is a reporter and photographer with the Western Wheel.
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