Calgary’s crumbling core community

By Cam Cotton-O’Brien

Lack of affordable housing takes a lot of the heat as homelessness continues its mercurial rise in Calgary. To educate the public about the causes, consequences and solutions of homelessness, Homeless Awareness Calgary launched Homeless Awareness Week Sep. 14-22.

Since 1992, the City of Calgary has conducted a homeless count every two years, documenting the total number of people sleeping in shelters and on the street on a particular night. The last count was done May 2006 and recognized 3,436 homeless individuals.

“[Homelessness is] a very significant problem in Calgary,” said Alderman Joe Ceci, who has participated in every homelessness count undertaken. “Last time, there were individuals who were sleeping in a facility shelter or in the rough on that evening. We had about 150 volunteers come out. We used to just focus on downtown in the early years, we now go pretty far. That’s because people are finding places to camp or live further and further from the core.”

While not the only problem associated with homelessness, Calgary’s lack of housing, affordable or otherwise, is certainly one of the most pressing.

“There is a tremendous shortage of housing,” said MLA Harry Chase. “We’re at a 0.5 per cent rental vacancy, so affordable housing is an extreme problem.”

These comments were echoed by alderman Ceci, who feels affordable housing is the largest contributing factor to homelessness.

“The problem is not the people, it’s the fact they have no place to live,” said Ceci. “The lack of appropriate affordable housing is the largest dynamic that prohibits these individuals–and families–from being properly housed.”

Roughly 50 per cent of the homeless population are working, backing the argument that homelessness is often caused by lack of affordable housing. Indeed, there are a great number of currently housed individuals and families in peril of becoming homeless.

“Fifty per cent of the homeless population are working,” said Homeless Awareness Calgary Committee co-ordinator Larissa Kennedy. “[They] have some sort of job where they are making a regular pay check. The Calgary Committee to End Homelessness published a report [indicating] 58,000 households are at risk of becoming homeless. Putting them one pay check or one family crisis away from becoming homeless.”

Chase stated the provincial government has so far failed to act satisfactorily to address the lack of affordable housing. One of the key problems he indicated was the government’s unwillingness to institute rent controls.

“The government’s own affordable housing task-force put out 52 recommendations to resolve the problem, but unfortunately the government rejected 38 of them,” said Chase. “Because the government rejected that reasonable recommendation, there was no limit on rent increases, so what we’ve seen are increases anywhere from 50 per cent to 400 per cent. The government, instead of putting the onus on landlords to be reasonable, has come up with Band-Aid solutions. The government is big on temporary solutions, but it lacks any kind of sustainability for its solutions to homelessness and affordable housing. Basically the government has said they are not going to restrict the market, but the reality is there have been no restrictions and there has been no affordable housing coming onto the market. Even without the caps, affordable housing hasn’t been popping up in a neighbourhood near you. Chase explained the Alberta Liberal Party has been advocating for temporary rent caps to stabilize the market. They also put forward the idea of temporary rent caps to stabilize the market.

In the interest of providing more housing, the Mustard Seed is in the planning stages of an affordable housing tower.

“We are planning to build an affordable housing tower on one of our properties, located at 10th Ave. and Centre Street SW,” said Mustard Seed development officer Diana Schwenk. “The Calgary planning commission approved our re-designation for land use and it goes to the city council meeting in November for ratification. Our next step would be to apply for a development permit.”

As this project is underway, it remains important to make sure that the homeless population will not be left on the streets through the harsh winter. The city is trying to meet this challenge by opening a new shelter in the southeast industrial area.

“We have agreed to set up a temporary winter shelter in industrial SE Calgary,” said alderman Ceci. “It will provide temporary shelter for several hundred individuals, many of whom will be working at manufacturing and warehousing in the SE. Without this SE industrial shelter there would be a lack of shelter, space in Calgary.”

Homeless Awareness Week is run each year by the Homeless Awareness Calgary Committee during the third week in Sep. It kicked off with a BBQ and then launched into a number of other events striving to educate Calgarians so they can make informed decisions about the issue and what can be done to confront it.

“What we aim to do is raise awareness; provide education and the tools of education for Calgarians to get involved, become active and encourage change in our community,” said Kennedy. “We also want to provide understanding for what it is like to be homeless. The moment one person is homeless is the moment that requires action. We don’t want to force people’s decisions, but we want to provide the tools for them to make an informed choice.”

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