Calgary shelters, services struggling to keep up with rising demand, advocates say
Inn From The Cold director says calls for support have increased more than 55%
Hannah Beaton began living in a shelter when she was five years old. Her mom was a single parent struggling to afford rent and daily expenses.
Eventually, Beaton says, things "took a turn" and her mom had no other option besides Inn From The Cold, an emergency family shelter in downtown Calgary.
Twenty-four years later, Beaton volunteers at the same place she says gave her young self hope for a different life.
"I sometimes see young girls that were my age there, and all I want to do is tell them that it's OK," she said, her voice cracking.
While Beaton's path changed when she was adopted by her grandparents, she understands that not every kid can be as fortunate.
And these days, there seems to be a lot more kids and families needing help.
More than 50 per cent of the people helped by Inn From The Cold each year are children, and the number of families in need is growing.
"We've seen more than about a 55 per cent increase over last year in calls for support," said Heather Morley, the shelter's executive director.
"Of the families who are calling us, double the number of people are facing situations of eviction, and those are pretty critical — that's a pretty crisis situation."
She said that with rising grocery costs and gas prices, Calgarians have felt their finances tighten.
"For some of us, we can manage that squeeze, but way too many families live so close to the brink that … a workplace injury, an illness, hours being cut at work — and all of a sudden folks can't afford their rent anymore."
Beaton and her mom stayed in affordable housing before turning to Inn From The Cold, but Morley believes that Calgary is in a uniquely difficult position among Canada's major cities.
She said that just over a 10th of the affordable housing units required are provided.
"If you have four kids, trying to find a three-bedroom or a larger home that you can afford is almost impossible," Morley said.
About 70 per cent of Inn From The Cold's more than $2-million budget comes from money raised around the community. The rest is funded by the provincial government and Calgary Homeless Foundation.
With that cash, they're able to help up to 20 single parents and families at a time. But in a city of more than one million people, even Morley recognizes their ability to provide support is limited.
"In a city like Calgary, you know, in a province like Alberta, in a country like Canada, to know that families, children are experiencing homelessness is pretty tragic."
Keeping up with need
Other services in the city are also feeling the pinch.
SORCe Calgary, a multi-agency collaborative that connects people experiencing homelessness with services in the city, has recently had to cut back on some of its own programs.
Using funding from the federal government's COVID-19 response, SORCe was able to deliver more than 1,100 pieces of identification to unhoused Calgarians.
"You really need that ID in place to be able to fulfil that part of your wellness plan or your housing plan," said Kevin Blanchette, senior director at SORCe Calgary.
Eventually, the federal dollars ran out, and the ID program came to an end.
Blanchette said 85 per cent of the clients who applied for the ID service followed through to the registry, a number he says reinforces the need to meet vulnerable people where they are.
"It's really important to remember that that person that's standing right beside you could be going through so many significant things, and they may or may not be homeless or they may be employed or may not be employed."
Shelters not always the solution
In 2021, a third of the 16,854 clients who connected with BeTheChange were sleeping outside. And 1,073 of the clients were youths.
Chaz Smith, who founded the street outreach group, says there are numerous barriers that prevent people from choosing to go to a shelter.
"Some of these rough sleepers that we're seeing were couples, some had pets, some had safety concerns," Smith said.
Morley also thinks of other barriers, including what she calls a lack of co-ordination between non-profits, government and communities.
"We spend far less to house someone than we do on all the emergency services and sort of the instability that can happen around that issue of homelessness."