Homeless population jumps beyond 4,000

 

Homeless population jumps beyond 4,000
More families need help: Calgary report
 
Kelly Cryderman
Calgary Herald

Debbie Reid, left, and her boyfriend Mike Nault say life on the street is emotionally draining. They've been homeless for eight months.
CREDIT: Ted Rhodes, Calgary Herald
Debbie Reid, left, and her boyfriend Mike Nault say life on the street is emotionally draining. They’ve been homeless for eight months.
Diane David, who is homeless, walks along the Bow River west of the drop-in centre swaddled in her sleeping bag. She is one of a growing number.
CREDIT: Ted Rhodes, Calgary Herald
Diane David, who is homeless, walks along the Bow River west of the drop-in centre swaddled in her sleeping bag. She is one of a growing number.

Calgary’s homeless numbers are growing significantly faster than the city’s general population, leaping 18 per cent since 2006 according to this year’s count.

 

As of May 14 there were 4,060 homeless Calgarians, up from 3,436 in 2006.

 

Officials cannot explain it, but the rate of homeless families jumped dramatically, rising to 197 from 145 in 2006 — a 36 per cent increase.

At City Hall on Tuesday, officials said there’s a glimmer of hope in the homeless count.

 

"It’s kind of a good news, bad news story," said Tim Richter, president and CEO of the Calgary Homeless Foundation. "The good news is the rate isn’t going up as much as we would have expected it to go up, but that’s not great news.

 

"There are some interventions that are working fairly well, things like the province’s Homelessness and Eviction Prevention Fund.

 

"(The provincial fund) did about 11,000 grants last year, keeping people in the housing that they’ve got," Richter said, adding that rentals are easier to come by than two years ago.

 

Like Richter, Ald. Druh Farrell said the homeless rate may also not be growing as fast because people aren’t moving to Calgary in as large of numbers as before.

 

"This just isn’t a city of engineers, it’s a city of people who earn just above minimum wage. And that’s what helps keep the engine running. And if we can’t attract those types of workers, then we have a problem with the workforce in the city," Farrell said.

 

"People outside of Calgary are getting the message that Calgary is unaffordable."

 

News of the increase in homelessness comes a day after the Alberta government turned down a $2-million request from the Inn From the Cold agency to help fund a permanent shelter for families.

 

The government said the project’s planned location in the Beltline is inappropriate, with crime and drugs in the area — but Inn From the Cold notes there are condos being developed just steps away.

 

The city has conducted a homeless count every two years since 1992, and in 2006 saw the numbers increase by 32 per cent compared with 2004.

 

The city counts people in shelters, transitional housing and those with no homes in the custody of law enforcement officials.

 

It estimated the number of people living on the street.

 

Many homeless people are working-age, white males, although aboriginals are also an overrepresented group.

In recent years, greater Calgary’s total population has grown by more than three per cent annually.

The city in many ways has been a victim of its own success.

 

As thousands of migrants poured into the city over the past number of years, housing costs have spiralled out of the sight for many of those at the lower end of the income spectrum.

 

Low-wage jobs are plentiful, but Alberta does not have rent controls. The average rent for a two-bedroom unit in Calgary is now $1,100 a month, up from $808 in 2005.

 

Many of Calgary’s homeless are employed — as many as 60 per cent staying at the Mustard Seed Street Ministry, said operations manager Floyd Perras.

 

Spurred by rising numbers, civic and business leaders have formulated a 10-year plan for ending homelessness.

The province has followed up with tens of millions of more dollars for affordable housing and the creation of a Secretariat for Action on Homelessness.

 

Richter said he hopes the numbers start to decrease as early as 2010.

Mike Nault, 40, who hails from Winnipeg, said he has been living on Calgary’s streets with his girlfriend Debbie Reid, 45, for eight months.

 

Sitting just outside City Hall on Tuesday, he said he believes the number of homeless has increased even since they arrived.

 

"The stress level of being on the street is just phenomenal," said Nault, who regularly works temporary construction jobs.

 

Reid said she drinks up to two dozen beers a day because it’s "depressing" being homeless. "You turn to self-medication."

 

Eithan Carter, 29, said he lived on the streets for three years, but has been living with his brother for the past several months, and now works part-time.

 

He said the new push by the city and province to combat homelessness — along with media attention to the issue — has helped bring more services and sympathy to Calgary’s homeless.

 

"I lost everything because I didn’t have any supports," Carter said, noting he got treatment for his bipolar disorder at the Elbow River Healing Lodge.

 

Relatively few cities in Canada conduct homeless counts like Calgary’s. But this spring, Metro Vancouver — which has at least twice Calgary’s population — released a preliminary number of 2,600 homeless, a 20 per cent increase from the count done in 2005.

 

Sharon Stroick, a social planner for the City of Calgary who co-ordinated the count here, said you cannot compare the Calgary and Vancouver numbers because different methodology was used. For instance, she said Vancouver researchers did not count those in transitional housing.

 

On the same day in May as the city was conducting its homeless count, the Calgary Drop-In Centre and other social agencies spent the evening doing their own counts and talking to people sleeping on the streets. That report is expected in August.

 

As for Inn From the Cold, the agency said it still plans to open its permanent shelter for families, after receiving interim financing from a philanthropist.

 

But controversy is swirling over the government’s decision not to fund the shelter.

 

"They’ve got billions for other priorities," said Liberal MLA David Swann, who called the government’s decision "short-sighted."

 

Earlier this week, city council approved a report from the housing sub-committee that called for the council to consider a "toolbox of incentives" that might include cash to help people convert an illegal suite into a legal one, expanding the number of neighbourhoods where secondary suites are allowed, waiving property taxes for affordable housing projects and moratoriums on condo conversions.

 

kcryderman@theherald.canwest.com

– – –

Homeless in Calgary

 

18%: Increase in homeless population since 2006.

4,060: Estimated number of homeless people in Calgary. (Slightly less than the entire population of Jasper.)

197: Homeless families, a 36 per cent increase over 2006.

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