Calgary community centre says more staff, funding needed to help meet growing demand
SE Calgary Community Resource Centre helps people access food, clothing, employment and housing
A community centre in Calgary's southeast says it's struggling to keep up with the demand for food and help as more and more people struggle to navigate increasingly tough economic times in the city.
Some are long-time clients and community members. Others might be reaching out for the first time as their budgets and households finally collapse under the strain — and at the worst time of year.
A small, plastic Christmas tree sits on the countertop as a couple of volunteers sort through donated clothes in the basement of the SE Calgary Community Resource Centre in Ogden.
The centre is tucked away at the end of a quiet street, not far from the Millican Ogden Community Association.
Upstairs, people drop in and out. Some to stop and chat, while others come in need of more immediate help. It could be grabbing some milk and Cheerios for their kids' breakfast or accessing a computer for a while to help them find a job.
A table full of candy canes, tree decorations and Santas of different shapes and sizes gives families who can no longer afford to decorate their homes this Christmas a chance to feel festive.
The centre's manager, Lynn Mutch, says her clients love the Christmas decor, especially those who've lost their homes and possessions.
"We work with a lot of people who are unhoused or close to becoming unhoused," said Mutch.
"People are hungry. Even in a two-parent family now, where both parents are working, people are coming in for food," she said. "Then we have Afghan and Ukrainian refugees looking for food and gift cards to get by."
The centre has become a busy hub in Ogden, attracting people in bad situations, from new arrivals to people battling addictions, along with families just trying to keep their heads above water in increasingly tough economic times.
"It's very difficult for them to go to an appointment. They don't have a phone, they don't have email, they don't have self-esteem, they don't have the language," said Mutch.
Mutch says people visiting the centre can just walk in at any time and get the help they need but on their own terms.
"They get things done here. They get their taxes done, they get ID. And without those things, it's impossible for them to move on with their lives to get income support and housing," said Mutch.
She says more secure funding and the money for even one more staff member to add to their team of six would be huge for the centre. The agency is funded in most part by the city and provincial government, along with collaborations with other organizations and larger agencies.
"We turn people away. Every client takes time because it's not in and out in 20 minutes. So more staff would be great. Also, we have an incredible amount of people looking for emergency food. They open the fridge and they have no milk. They don't think in advance, because poverty does that to people. It stresses their brains," she said.
Mutch says one man they helped who had been living in a tent by the Bow River received a significant inheritance, which they helped him navigate and access. When everything was complete, he gifted the centre $19,000, which the centre has been using to buy food for others in need.
Talk to anyone who visits and they'll tell you it's a special place.
Paige Tyndall has been using the centre since she was a child. It's been a big part of her life — and in recent years, a lifesaver.
It recently helped her get clean and sober and escape addiction.
"They are my second family. They brought me to detoxes and helped me with everything from clothing, food. When I was in psychosis, they got me to doctor's appointments and gave me cab vouchers," said Tyndall.
"They never gave up on me, and they gave me my hope back," she said.
Tyndall says many people don't have a support system, and the resource centre plays that role for many of its clients.
"They advocate for me," she said. "And there's always friendly faces here."
Like other users, Tyndall now refers others to the agency and its services.
Others have different challenges, like starting from scratch in a new and expensive city.
Luza Zapata needed programs for her kids.
"We don't have family or relatives, and this place can help us," said Zapata. "I had two small kids and was by myself."
"If you don't have food or don't have clothes for the season or weather, they can help you with that. If you don't know how to look for a job, they can help you with that," she said.
Zapata says she's been using the centre for eight years and describes it as a second home.
Some people just drop by to chat with familiar faces and check in with volunteers and staff who've helped them in the past.
Others might need milk or bread and use the centre to survive day to day.
Rhoda Edwards came to Calgary two years ago after arriving in Toronto as a refugee.
"I had some challenges," she said. "I was alone here and from Day 1 they were fantastic."
"When you come into this centre, it's like family. They don't just help with items, they show empathy and they care. They made me feel like a Calgarian even before I had my stuff together."
Most recently, the centre helped Edwards get housed in a seniors home and out of a bad situation living in Forest Lawn. She says she would never have been able to do it without help.
Edwards says, as a refugee, getting a level of grassroots support not offered by other organizations and not being treated like a case number made her feel cared for.
Mutch says it's those success stories that keep her and her team going.
She tells one story of a homeless man in trouble with the police and addicted to opioids who became a client. He was asked regularly if he felt ready to go to detox, but he never was. The former bike mechanic started helping the centre restore donated cycles for kids in the community.
"One day, he came in quite broken. We sat on the back step and he said he was finally ready," Mutch said.
Mutch said they arranged and covered the travel costs for him to go to detox away from the city. Then he moved away to a neighbouring province to continue his recovery close to family.
"Now he calls me every week. He's been been clean for six months now and is working in a bike shop. From an economic point of view, we got him off the street and away from petty crime. It's worth it from an economic point of view and from a human point of view."
Mutch has many more stories with happy endings, some much more straightforward.
"To know a mum got to give her kids breakfast that day or that a kid got winter boots — the little things, that without this place would not happen — that's what keeps us going," she said.
She says that with more funding and donations, the centre would turn fewer people away, providing an opportunity for more individuals and families to make their own success stories and move forward in their lives.