Strathmore is acting as a playground for serious concern, as a large number of the community’s younger generation continue to be displaced, seeking refuge on a friend’s couch, in local businesses and even finding comfort in ATM vestibules.

The number of Strathmore residents between 15 and 25 years of age who are currently without a roof over their head is growing at an alarming rate, according to individuals in contact with those down and out.

Notwithstanding the fact that Strathmore’s vagrant are not readily visible in the town – sleeping on park benches or hanging out in parks – local businesses, churches and schools are becoming aware of the seriousness of the situation. No fewer than 50 individuals are estimated of resorting to “couch surfing” – crashing on friends’ couches and wandering from place to place – taking up residence in substandard housing, often without water or electricity, and even tenting.

Comic book and game store, Hobs Hobbies, has established itself as somewhat of a hub for teenagers in Strathmore. Owner John Hilton O’Brien, who holds a university degree in social work and philosophy, and has been a staffer, volunteer and board member on homeless organizations in Portland, Grande Prairie, Milwaukee and Calgary, finds an average of five individuals in his store a week who are displaced.

“In terms of the youth homelessness Strathmore is troubled, and I have a handful of customers who are couch surfing, who come into the store because we have very cheap entertainment for them,” Hilton O’Brien said. “Maybe you need to couch surf because your parents are having a big fight and you just don’t want to be there, so who’s going to put you up? Is it that nice family who wants to take care of you, or is it the kid who you met at a party and invites you over and doesn’t have a lot of food but there’s some beer. You put this stuff together and it get’s real interesting.

“What we’re observing right now, it’s all anecdotal because it’s so hard to quantify, but we only have the stories the kids are telling us.”

Hilton O’Brien, among other members of the communities, have heard stories of teenagers staying with friends to avoid family violence, drugs, alcohol or mental health issues at home.

Youth homelessness on rise

Together with the economic downturn, which Hilton O’Brien references as the forefront of many homelessness problems, those of age are often staying behind with friends while their families move out of town in hopes of better employment prospects. In turn, these individuals have trouble finding work and overstay their welcome, forcing them to move on to other couches, possibly falling in with a bad crowd or living on the streets.

“Couch surfing itself isn’t the problem, it’s actually a good thing because it means somebody is doing something to help,” said Hilton O’Brien. “The first goal of therapy is awareness. We have to be able to see it for what it is. That largely means we have to demystify it so we can look at it without being a figure of fear.”

The situation isn’t just present in Strathmore. Siksika Nation Councillor Ruben “Buck” Breaker is aware of over 300 of his nation members displaced due to the floods, waiting for housing and finding temporary shelter in trailers and sometimes cramming into homes with roughly 10 other people. According to Richard Rodgers, director of outreach for the Strathmore Overnight Shelter, Wheatland County is also facing a youth homelessness issue within their communities, and he knows of at least 12 couch surfing teenagers in Carseland alone.

However, while larger cities such as Calgary have numerous resources in place to accommodate the youth – the Boys and Girls Club, and Avenue 15 – and can collect data, gathering statistics on rural areas has been an ongoing problem in Alberta.

A 2014 study Rural Alberta Homelessness’ by Jeanette Waegemakers Schiff, Ph.D. and Alina Turner, Ph.D., examined rural homelessness in 20 Alberta communities with populations under 25,000. While the research did not include Strathmore, the findings stated that an increasing number of communities are reporting sleeping accommodations not considered safe for habitation and couch surfing as a measure of last resort in rural areas. The information also acknowledged the lack of research and data currently available, making it difficult to understand the scope of Alberta’s rural homelessness situation.

The dilemma is one Rodgers is accustomed to.

“It’s really impossible to count because how are you going to collect the (data)? Are you going to knock on everyone’s door?” said Rodgers. “You can’t collect accurate data here. In Strathmore and the rural area it’s a little bit more difficult. There are so many issues and so many reasons to couch surf. You have to identify it first. One step at a time. No one wants to talk about it. If you don’t see people lying in the park, it doesn’t mean we don’t have a problem with homeless.”

By Miriam Ostermann, Times Associate Editor

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