Opinion piece published in the Calgary Herald, February 7, 2023
Written by Bernadette Majdell, Leslie Hill, Heather Morley, Mike Pasma.
Crises hit the most vulnerable hardest, and cost-of-living has reached crisis levels. As Alberta’s political parties prepare their campaigns and budgets, Calgary non-profits are anxious for commitments to bolster supports for those teetering on the edge of homelessness.
At last count, 2,782 Calgarians were experiencing homelessness. Some 84,000 households in Calgary are paying well over 30 per cent of their income for rent, another 42,000 pay more than 50 per cent of their earnings on housing. Many of those households are one layoff, emergency or big utility bill away from homelessness. As the cost of food, utilities and rent rises, many are forced to choose between which basic needs to meet.
At social serving agencies across Calgary, we are seeing unprecedented demand for services. Waitlists for Calgary’s Discovery House domestic violence shelter are up 27 per cent, with people waiting nearly five weeks before they can access beds. These women and children bravely leaving violence are then staying longer in shelter as they can’t find affordable housing in Calgary communities. Rent across Calgary has skyrocketed up 22 per cent in one year. The average stay for a mother and children at Discovery House was 68 days as recently as this summer, the average stay is now 112 days.
For agencies like HomeSpace that build and operate affordable housing, construction costs have ballooned in Calgary over 30 per cent since 2021. These costs have forced HomeSpace to include construction inflation contingencies in its new development plans. Limited funding is slowing the momentum to develop more affordable housing at a time when it is sorely needed.
Inn from the Cold family shelter has seen demand rise 55 per cent in 2022. When IFTC once served about 11 families per day, it now hosts closer to 17 families and these families are staying about 30 per cent longer. Families are now staying 60 days compared to 47 days in 2021. As families report, they have difficulty securing appropriate affordable housing. These longer stays with more families have nearly doubled the number of meals served from 2021 to 2022 — compound these staggering numbers with the rise in food prices and budgets are stretched thin.
The Calgary Food Bank has seen demand intensify, reporting a 20 per cent growth in demand last December compared to December 2021, distributing 11,000 hampers to more than 27,000 people. The Calgary Food Bank notes that people working full time still cannot make ends meet, and with food prices skyrocketing, the quality of food people are eating is decreasing and some are missing meals. Employment is no longer the way out of poverty when the cost of living has risen so sharply and wages remain relatively stagnant.
Our organizations are not alone in calling for the strengthening of the social safety net for the growing number of Calgarians who have run out of options. Battered by pandemic, inflation and the threat of recession, many organizations are stretched thin. The Calgary Chamber of Voluntary Organizations has called for a “one-time cash injection of $30 million” to bolster the province’s non-profit sector. While a cash injection could help, we need the community to rally around the need to stop this cycle.
It is clear that even people working cannot make ends meet, and for those on social support, the margins of survival are tighter than ever. Rent is going up, wages are not keeping up with inflation and food prices are skyrocketing. These conditions are forcing more Calgarians towards homelessness, and our social safety net to keep families off the streets is under immense stress. We are calling on the public to support their local non-profits by encouraging policy that funds social supports, invests in affordable housing, and inflation relief measures that target Alberta’s most vulnerable — as they are the hardest hit by this crisis.
Bernadette Majdell is CEO of HomeSpace Society; Leslie Hill is executive director of Discovery House; Heather Morely is executive director of Inn from the Cold, and Mike Pasma is interim president of the Calgary Food Bank.