Tackling homelessness takes a community, says master’s grad

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Sydney Stenekes credits her degree with giving her the confidence to engage with people of diverse cultures

Growing up, Sydney Stenekes was taught to help others however she could.

Whether teaching kids how to skate or speak English or serving as a student trustee for her school board, she learned “to love and respect everyone and treat others the way you would want to be treated.”

Sydney Stenekes
Sydney Stenekes
Brenda Parlee
Brenda Parlee

That sense of social responsibility has stayed with her ever since, powering her through a University of Alberta master of science in risk and community resilience that is now helping her fulfil a passion to support communities in responding to various social issues and promote community well-being.

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Graduating recently from the Faculty of Agricultural, Life & Environmental Sciences, Stenekes credits her degree with guiding her collaborative work to support rural, remote and Indigenous communities in responding to homelessness in Alberta.

“It’s given me the confidence to engage with communities of diverse cultures and backgrounds.”

As director of rural homelessness initiatives for the Rural Development Network, she works closely with various partners to manage funding applications for the Reaching Home program.

The work is complex, but she’s able to navigate it thanks to a foundation built by her master’s thesis, which focused on working in collaboration with Kátł’odeeche First Nation in the Northwest Territories to design a community-based, culturally driven water monitoring program.

Part of a larger U of A project called Tracking Change, and inspired by her supervisor Brenda Parlee’s work with northern communities, Stenekes’ thesis gave her a solid grounding in community-based research.

Listening closely to elders and other members of Kátł’odeeche First Nation, she worked to carefully document their traditional ecological knowledge, which gave her “a deep appreciation for the process of building relationships and respect for Indigenous peoples’ relationships to the land.”

Funded by UAlberta North, she was then able to travel back to the community to share the research findings, presenting each elder and fisher she’d interviewed with a book she’d created of their stories, quotes and photos of their traditional territory.

“I didn’t want to extract information from the community and then never have the opportunity to personally thank them for their knowledge and the stories they shared with me.”

Research from her thesis work also involved engagement with the Northwest Territories government, federal scientists and other academics, which helped identify best practices for sharing information among various parties.

She now relies on those skills in her current position, working with Indigenous and non-Indigenous partners, as well as different levels of government and social service agencies.

“Effective relationship-building promotes mutual trust and respect, and that’s important when dealing with the issue of homelessness, as communities share their challenges and vulnerable experiences with us.”

Collaboration is also vital to her work, to help craft effective programs and make the best use of limited resources, she notes.

“Each community has different challenges that require unique solutions, but when you collaborate, you can share learnings and adapt solutions to work for more than one community.”

Though differing slightly from the ecological focus of her degree, her current work is also about sustainability, she adds.

“Sustainability means addressing all aspects of a person’s life to improve their social, emotional, spiritual and physical well-being. Homelessness is a multi-faceted issue that involves basic needs, mental health, income assistance, employment and culturally appropriate services.

“It’s really encouraged me to look at the whole system. Housing is a critical piece; however, additional supports are needed. So we approach the work we do holistically.”

Her U of A experience also honed her leadership abilities, Stenekes says.

After being hired in 2020 while exploring the U of A’s Graduate Student Internship Program for career placements, she was quickly promoted as the Rural Development Network’s team grew from 14 to 50 people. With each step up and thanks to strong mentorship, “I had the confidence to take the position on and see it as the next challenge.”

Working with communities committed to addressing homelessness is gratifying, she adds.

“We work with a lot of inspiring leaders in Indigenous communities, municipalities, non-profits and passionate community members who want to make a change to help support people experiencing homelessness in their community. A lot of projects emerged from community leadership and collaboration, so it’s most rewarding to see those community-driven responses develop over time and generate an impact.”

She says that her life’s work will always be centred on advocating for inclusion and equity.

“Ultimately, I believe that basic needs are a human right and everyone has the right to live a meaningful and fulfilling life, so any small role I can play in improving community well-being and raising awareness about social issues and inequalities is something I want to be involved in for the remainder of my life.”

| By Bev Betkowski

Bev Betkowski is a reporter with the University of Alberta’s Folio online magazine. The University of Alberta is a Troy Media Editorial Content Provider Partner.


The opinions expressed by our columnists and contributors are theirs alone and do not inherently or expressly reflect the views of our publication.

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