Calgary Is Facing a Homelessness Crisis Following Alberta’s Oil Bust

The city's services are being pushed beyond their capabilities.

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Apr 6 2016, 5:24pm

The Calgary drop-in centre. Photo by Flickr user Davebloggs

Around seven years ago, Nigel Kirk fled from a domestic violence situation to the streets of Calgary. He's been bouncing in and out of homelessness ever since. Until last month, Kirk was working in the kitchen of a family restaurant and living on his own. But hours were cut as the city's economy flatlined and he couldn't afford to pay his rent.

Kirk's now back in a homeless shelter. And he's certainly not the only Calgarian with such a tale.

The drop in global oil prices has resulted in a 73 percent spike in unemployment and 23 percent increase in food bank usage. Employment insurance claims in Alberta have almost doubled since 2015.

Crisis calls to the Calgary Women's Emergency Shelter have increased in frequency and complexity, with many now attached to issues like homelessness and financial duress in addition to domestic violence; executive director Kim Ruse says clients are now averaging month-long stays at the shelter, up from the standard of 21 days.

"We're seeing an increased demand across the board for all our services," says Ruse, who notes many of the shelter's clients are children. "Programs that never had waitlists before have waitlists."

According to executive director Debbie Newman, the city's downtown Drop-In Centre—the largest homeless shelter in the country, which averages 1,200 people a night even though it was opened with an expected capacity of 520 people—is seeing 10 to 15 new faces every day.

All up, it's a crisis of massive proportions and devastating consequences. But it's also a problem that plagued the city far prior to the economic downturn.

"I'm still seeing a lot of people in the shelters who were there when I first became homeless seven years ago," says Kirk, who serves as a board member for the anti-poverty organization Vibrant Communities Calgary. "These are people who really should be among some of the highest priority for help. But they're still there."

In 2013, York University's Homeless Hub calculated that Calgary had the highest homeless population of any major city by percentage (0.29 percent of the total population compared to 0.19 percent in Toronto and 0.27 percent in Vancouver).

It also "cautiously" estimated there are three people experiencing "hidden homelessness"—aka couch-surfing without any prospect of permanent housing—for every one person counted as homeless in Canada.

Calgary's last homeless count, officially dubbed a point-in-time (PIT) count, occurred in October 2014 and found a conveniently memorable number of 3,555 people to be staying in emergency shelters, supportive housing, or rough sleeping. Over 31 percent of those surveyed were Aboriginal, despite only making up 2.8 percent of Calgary's total population.


Photo via Flickr user Calgary Reviews

There were some successes prior to the start of the downturn: the total number of homeless people stabilized between 2008 and 2014 despite significant population growth. Over 7,000 people have been housed since the Calgary Homeless Foundation was tasked with its ambitious but unrealistic goal of "ending homelessness" by 2018. But such efforts haven't been nearly enough.

As Kirk's experience suggests, getting people housed doesn't actually ensure they can consistently afford to pay rent. Calgarians experienced a near-zero percent vacancy rate in recent years, a landlord's dream when combined with the fact the province doesn't have any form of rent control (an issue the Alberta NDP has bizarrely refused to address).

In other words, the concept of "affordable" is a highly nebulous one. For example, a 224-suite downtown apartment building opened in 2014 by the Mustard Seed, another major homeless service agency in Calgary, charges low-income tenants between $550 and $880 per month: "It's too expensive for a lot of people," Kirk says in a bit of an understatement.

Since 2008, the number of rental units have dropped by 3,000 mostly due to condo conversion (joining the loss of almost 5,000 rental units between 2001 and 2006). So it's no surprise that over 15,600 households in Calgary are in extreme housing need, meaning they earn less than $20,000 per year and pay more than 50 percent or more of income on shelter (housing is considered affordable if it costs under 30 percent of your before-tax income).

Such people aren't technically homeless. But they're pretty close.

Mayor Naheed Nenshi, who's previously described the housing crisis as the number one issue in Calgary, notes the "huge spaghetti of operating agreements" currently in place means someone who's in desperate need of housing can't always move into a vacant unit because they don't fit the right criteria.

"We have a significant shortage of affordable housing options throughout the community," he told VICE. "There are 3,000-plus people on the waitlist just for Calgary Housing [the city's affordable housing agency]. There has to be a significant building of new units, and that starts with funding."

Money's obviously a key aspect of the conversation. Over the past 25 years, federal investments in affordable housing have plunged by almost half. The Homeless Hub estimates that 100,000 units haven't been built in Canada over the past two decades as a result of the lack of funding.

Calgary will likely receive additional funding due to the federal government's recent commitment of almost $800 million nationally over two years to the construction and repair of affordable housing.

But there's also a very real concern that that real estate developers and business moguls operating in Calgary aren't much concerned with solving the housing crisis even though it could help reduce their tax burdens by cutting down on costs associated with social services, healthcare and crime.

Take, for instance, the recent and rapid "revitalization" of the East Village, a bougie wonderland located a stone's throw from the DI that's filled with sparkling condos, "walkable streets," and the so-to-be opened National Music Centre.

Over the years, gentrification efforts have displaced homeless people via a poor-bashing "public behaviour bylaw," deployed dozens of beat cops, and closed a 189-bed shelter and two of the city's three public washrooms (for reference, public urination or defecation results in a $300 fine thanks to the aforementioned bylaw, which maybe seems a bit like entrapment).

Then there's the ever-present and idiotic controversy over secondary suites, a popular form of housing that's still illegal in Calgary because many city councillors and suburban developers are more interested in propagating dumbass conspiracy theories about declining property values and parking availability than increasing desperately needed housing options for low-income residents.

In a similar vein, the Mustard Seed was required to relocate all emergency shelter services from the downtown to a warehouse in a far-off industrial park in order to ensure a "positive urban experience" following the signing of a "good neighbour agreement" in 2011.

Kirk notes clients can't leave once they arrive at the warehouse shelter because the community doesn't want homeless people wandering around: "I can't go to Tim Hortons for a coffee, I can't go to a corner store to get cigarettes."

For him, such "segregation" serves as a strong indicator of the city's attempt to confront homelessness as a simple numbers game instead of a human rights issue, and makes it even more difficult for people to hold on to housing once they finally manage to secure it.

"If someone can feel like they're a human being in a shelter who is worthy of dignity and respect, then you have someone who is housed who feels like they're worthy of dignity and respect," he concludes. "Otherwise, all you're doing is housing someone who doesn't feel like they deserve housing because they've been dehumanized so much for the past couple of years."

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