Fort McMurray's middle class feels pain of Alberta downturn

As the price of oil collapses, a growing number of middle-income households are struggling to survive the economic slump.

Community rallies around those in need as unemployment rate hits 9%

Jaime Hammond is among a growing number of people in Fort McMurray who are now struggling to get by. 1:14

Jaime Hammond was desperate for diapers. Again.

"Size 5 diapers please and thank you," the Fort McMurray mother posted recently on a local Facebook page. "Have 2 left & need some to last till tomorrow!"

In October, Hammond's husband was laid off from his carpentry job. As money ran out and bills piled up, she turned to the food bank for help.

"I cried," said Hammond. "It was hard because you've never been in that situation before."

My biggest fear is being homeless.- Jaime Hammond, Fort McMurray mom of 2

Now she often searches for diapers and baby wipes for her one-year-old son, plus all the other necessities.

"Sometimes it gets depressing. But you have children — you have to stay strong for them," said Hammond. "My biggest fear is being homeless."

Prescriptions and the dental work her four-year-old daughter needs are now out of reach. When the job went, so did the family's health benefits.

"It feels like you're helpless," said Hammond, who moved to northern Alberta from Newfoundland as a child. "I know there's a lot of resources out there that can help you in the situation. But for yourself inside, you just feel helpless."

Food bank use up 72%

As oil prices continue to tumble, the Hammonds are among a growing number of once thriving families in Fort McMurray now just trying to survive the latest downturn.

Nowhere is that struggle more evident than at the local food bank, where the wait time to get in has stretched from a day to a week. 
'Middle-income earners are being hit on so many fronts,' says Wood Buffalo food bank executive director Arianna Johnson.

The agency reduced the size of its food hampers three times last year in an effort to keep up with a whopping 72-per-cent jump in demand. It handed out 3,977 food hampers in 2015, compared to 2,313 a year earlier.

Among those in need are 15 former donors who have now become clients. More than 100 of those clients own their own homes.

"Middle-income earners are being hit on so many fronts," said Arianna Johnson, executive director of the Wood Buffalo Food Bank.

"The cost of housing isn't coming down as quickly as the earnings are coming down. The cost of food is going up."

Johnson said many can't sell their homes, or can't afford to. "So they're just doing whatever they can to get the mortgage paid and keep their families fed."

'Your heart bleeds with them'

For 6,384 people last year, that meant turning to the Salvation Army. The agency assisted 10 per cent more people than a year earlier, often with mortgage payments, utility bills and medicine.

"But we're also finding that we need to be there as a shoulder to lean on and encourage hope and just lift people up where we can," said executive director Major Stephen Hibbs.
Wood Buffalo Salvation Army executive director Maj. Stephen Hibbs says people have required help with bills, mortgage payments and medicine, but also just need a shoulder to lean on. (Stephen Hibbs)

He said many clients came to Fort McMurray to better themselves and create stable lives for their families, but now their savings are depleted and they're liquidating to pay the bills. 

"The reality is, that's where a lot of people are at this point," said Hibbs. "Your heart bleeds with them." 

Evidence of Fort McMurray's new reality is everywhere. Once-packed restaurants and hotels have cleared out and work at downtown construction sites has come to a standstill. For Sale signs have sprouted like weeds in residential areas.

The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, which includes Fort McMurray, saw its unemployment rate reach nine per cent in January, two points higher than the national average and a 40-per-cent increase compared to a year earlier.

'Our community is so giving'

A local Facebook page called YMM Helping Others has become a lifeline for an increasing number of people in need of baby items, food, clothing and other supplies.

That's where Jaime Hammond found her diapers, and some relief. For a few days at least.

Members also post photos of free items up for grabs. They're snapped up quickly.

Kristin Burhoe started YMM Helping Others two years ago to help struggling families over the holidays. More recently, she recruited help just to keep up with demand, noting many are struggling because of cuts to overtime.

"Now we have requests every day for someone that's hard on their luck," said Burhoe, adding many are families with young children. "A lot of people are asking for bottles just to help pay the mortgage or the bills."

When a request goes up, "somebody responds instantly," said Burhoe. "I just think our community is so giving."

After Hammond's first post, someone dropped off $300 worth of groceries.

"I wasn't even expecting that," she said. "All I asked for were some groceries — if anyone had spare. I was actually really overwhelmed."

Still, Hammond said she has much to be grateful for, which she posts about regularly on Facebook, along with inspirational quotes and mottos that keep her spirits up. She hopes by sharing her story, others will realize they don't have to struggle alone.

"It might be scary at first to ask for help," she said. "And no one likes to seem like they're needy. But there's a lot of great people out there that are here to help the ones that need the help."

andrea.huncar@cbc.ca    @andreahuncar

About the Author

Andrea Huncar


Andrea Huncar reports on human rights, immigrant and Indigenous communities and the justice system. Contact her in confidence at andrea.huncar@cbc.ca


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