Downside of the boom

By Katy Anderson

Only 10 per cent of Albertans have seen direct personal benefits from Alberta’s boom, according to a Parkland Institute report.

The Calgary Drop-In and Rehabilitation Centre hosted a public discussion Thu., Jun. 14 sponsored by the Parkland Institute–a non-partisan public policy research centre–detailing a report by an institute researcher entitled The Spoils of the Boom, and including speakers from around Calgary that worked around homelessness.

“We have warned of impending crisis for years now,” said drop-in centre representative Linda McLean. “There’s a simple answer here. Create the housing. Create the housing now. It’s not that complicated.”

McLean recounted stories of people coming to the drop-in centre included those in taxies coming straight from the psych ward, those out of prison, and even individuals showing up fresh out of the hospital with IVs still in their arms.

“There’s been a dramatic shift in values and attitudes in this city,” said McLean. “What we’re seeing is a whole class of people that are being cast out economically, people that are cast out socially because they have mental disabilities.”

Another speaker, Vibrant Communities Calgary interm director Connie Johnson said there has been a 458 per cent increase in homelessness since 1996.

“The fact is that the boom is not good for everyone,” said Johnson. “There are more and more people from the middle class joining the growing population of the just-getting-by.”

On the same day as the discussion, Alberta’s minimum wage increased from seven dollars an hour to eight. A spokesperson for the Albertan Ministry of Employment, Immigration and Industry Lorelei Fiset-Cassidy said that after taxes, the increase made Alberta’s minimum wage the highest of any of the Canadian provinces.

“It effects primarily a lot of young people in our province, many people who work in hospitality, accommodation and retail sectors,” said Fiset-Cassidy. “There’s 41,000 people in the province that currently earn less than the eight dollars an hour, so they can expect to see an increase in their wage on September first of this year.”

Parkland Institute executive director Ricardo Acuña agreed that increasing minimum wage and indexing it were positive steps towards alleviating the homelessness crisis in Alberta but stressed the need for further action.

“There needs to be some immediate investment in affordable housing,” said Acuña. “It’s going to cost a lot more than it would have five years ago, but I think that needs to be done. I think there need to be some rent controls implemented to make housing affordable for folks.”

Acuña also said that according to the Statistics Canada information examined in The Spoils of the Boom, most of the benefits were disproportionately going to the top 10 per cent of income-earners in Alberta. Diana Gibson, the report’s author, was unavailable for comment.

Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Ray Danyluk disagreed that the advantages of the boom were only felt by the top 10 per cent of Albertans, stating that benefits are felt throughout infrastructure, schools and health care.

“For the first time in the government history, we added $285 million to affordable housing and homelessness initiatives,” said Danyluk. “That has been shared to support municipalities to address the needs and challenges that they have with affordable housing. We have increased our funding with the homeless and are trying to make sure there are more units available for individuals.”

Forty-year-old Peter Rice, currently residing at the drop-in centre, said he has yet to see the result of the provincial government’s initiative and like McLean, focused on the importance of an immediate solution.

“You could solve the homelessness problem in just one sentence: more affordable housing,” said Rice. “Lower the prices for the rent of an apartment and stop changing everything into condos.”

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