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The Suncor tar sands mining operation north of Fort McMurray, Alberta, November 3, 2011. (Todd Korol/REUTERS)
The Suncor tar sands mining operation north of Fort McMurray, Alberta, November 3, 2011. (Todd Korol/REUTERS)

Poverty

The other side of the oil boom: ‘You have the very poor, the chronic homeless’ Add to ...

It’s just before 10 a.m., and a lineup is already winding away from the doorway, down a set of cement steps.

Inside, a thrift store is about to open for the day. Next to it are bins of bread, free for the taking, while upstairs are offices and a homeless shelter, each of its 32 beds typically in use on any given night.

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Welcome to the Salvation Army, a staple of Canadian inner cities, where staff and volunteers are often the front line for those in need. But it’s a need that transcends boom and bust, reaching even here, to Fort McMurray, the heart of Alberta’s oil sands sector.

As money rolls through – no city in the country donates more per capita to the United Way – Fort McMurray copes with its share of poverty. It has up to 205 shelter beds, depending on the time of year, and soaring demand for affordable housing. Need also spikes with warm weather as job seekers roll into town, and this year has been no different at the Sally Ann, as it’s known.

One night last week, the Salvation Army soup kitchen served dinner to 101 people at its downtown site, which hasn’t grown since the boom hit. Typically, they’d expect no more than 75.

Blip or bellwether, these are the needs of some in Fort McMurray, a city of about 77,000 where not all have grown rich.

“It’s a place of extremes,” says Joan Nobles, the local program manager for the Salvation Army. “You have the very poor, the chronic homeless, and then you have those who, obviously, are thriving.”

As Fort McMurray has grown, so too have the needs of its disadvantaged.

“It just means you have more people who need services,” says Melissa Blake, mayor of the municipality of Wood Buffalo, which includes Fort McMurray. The region’s arm’s-length housing agency already owns 1,191 affordable housing units.

Problems often crop up when new residents fail to find jobs or places to live – vacancy rates are low and rent is high, and lucrative jobs aren’t guaranteed.

“You need to come with the skills and education employers are looking for,” Ms. Blake said, adding that job hunters grow frustrated.

“They sometimes turn to other vices, which can lead to a downward spiral.”

Altogether, it creates homelessness, poverty and addiction – all issues that send people to the cement steps of social agencies. In the past seven months, compared to the previous year, Fort McMurray has seen a 19 per cent increase in mental health and addiction cases.

“I believe that they’re falling between the cracks,” Ms. Nobles says of high-needs residents. The Salvation Army’s clients range from the homeless (which numbered about 300 in the city’s most recent estimate, in 2010) to families on tight budgets.

Lorraine Bryanton, 61, visited the thrift store last week to buy clothing, a blanket and a movie for her family – some of whom are living with her until they can find rental units.

“Kids are starting out, and they’re struggling,” she says.

Frances Whitford, a mother of three who was born and raised in Fort McMurray, relies on the store for affordable children’s clothing.

“Especially here, because the cost of living is so high, having extra money for the added expenses, like clothes – it’s tight,” she says.

Proceeds from shoppers such as Ms. Whitford help support other Salvation Army services – the provincial government and the health board provide for other needs.

Between Nov. 1, 2011, and May 31, 2012, the Fort McMurray region dealt with 1,314 cases of addictions and mental health treatment – up about 19 per cent from 1,100 in the same time period the previous year. Alberta Health Services officials say the totals are “within range,” and do not indicate a spike in demand.

The province, meanwhile, is in the middle of a 10-year plan to end homelessness, one developed through visits to seven cities, including Fort McMurray. But the government hasn’t confirmed whether it will continue funding shelter spots in the fall – extra spots, known as the Mat Program, for when the weather gets cold.

This month, though, cots remain in use and the kitchen is busy, even in boom town. “There’s never a dull moment here,” Ms. Noble says.

Follow on Twitter: @josh_wingrove

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