Friday, June 15, 2007

Just whose boom is it?

Like many Calgarians I have witnessed Alberta's boom and wondered where on earth I can find it in my life? Across the board, my cost of living has increased while my income has not kept pace. While I'm not complaining, I don't see my bank account leaping upward every month with the price of oil.

In a province perceived by most Canadians to be the land of milk and honey, Diana Gibson, Research Director for the Parkland Institute, an Alberta research network situated within the Faculty of Arts at the University of Alberta wanted to find out, just whose boom is it? Her report, The Spoils of the Boom: Incomes, profits and poverty in Alberta, (June 2007) released June 13 by the Parkland Institute, clearly shows that the discrepancy between perceived and actual wealth is a fact of life for low income Albertans and for the 'squeezed middle'. Her research showed, for example, that over half of Albertans surveyed by Environics Research Group in March 2007 stated they were not benefiting from the boom ( According to the survey, one-half either felt worse off (17%) or "about the same" (34%).

On Thursday, June 16th, Ms. Gibson provided an overview of the report's findings to an audience of approximately 50 Calgarians who met at the Drop-In to hear her speak. Ms. Gibson was joined by a panel of three individuals involved in poverty reduction and homelessness, Connie Johnson, Interim Director Vibrant Communities Calgary, Chris
MacFarlane, Director Poverty Reduction Coalition and Dr. Linda MacLean, Manager Special Projects, Calgary Drop-In & Rehab Centre. The moderator for the evening was Bob McInnis, Executive Director of Brown Bagging for Calgary's Kids.

Is it a figment of our collective imaginations?

According to Ms. Gibson, the boom and its impact on average Albertans is not a figment of our imaginations. The boom exists, but the average Albertan is not benefiting from its largess. Using Alberta's Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as a standard measurement of economic growth, Ms Gibson stated that GDP increased by approximately one third between 1991 and 2003. Average incomes stayed the same.

In addition, to support her findings, she conducted an analysis of ten Alberta based oil and gas corporations. The analysis revealed that average revenues in 2005 for the ten companies considered were $5.2 billion each; an increase of 26.5% over average revenues in 2004. For the period of 2003 to 2005, average return on investment increased by 21.7% for 2003 and 23.1% in 2005. For these ten companies, the trickle up trend ensured that average salaries and bonuses increased, especially when stock options of up to $7.4 million are included. Average dividends also increased by $213 million in 2005, up by 28.6% over 2004.

So, where is all the wealth going?

According to the study, record amounts of GDP are going to corporations, not to individual Albertans -- unless they're in the top 10 percent income bracket that is. For these folk wealthy enough to be in the 10% group, trickle up trends abound in boomtown. As do unprecedented corporate profits and revenues. In February, 2007 Statistics Canada released a report stating corporate operating profits had reached their second consecutive record high in 2005, led by the oil and gas sector. The bulk of these monies benefit foreign corporations and foreign shareholders. According to Statistics Canada, close to half of the assets and over half of the revenue in oil and gas extraction in Canada are foreign-owned.

And the poor get poorer.

For all the upside, there is a downside. Those most affected by the downside of the boom are those who can ill afford it. While current unemployment rates show that more Albertans are working and fewer are living below the low income cut off (LICO), for the 56,000 Albertans receiving social assistance, the boom has become the bane of their existence.

Our rapidly expanding economy, with its soaring real estate prices, tight labour market and strong immigration are putting the 'easy life' out of reach of the average joe. Homelessness is being fueled by one of Canada's lowest minimum wages and non-inflationary indexed social assistance incomes are impacting the lives of those who cannot look out for themselves without a little help from the Province. In their Cost of Living Fact Sheet, published by Vibrant Communities Calgary, the average monthly cost of living in Calgary is $1,769.16. A family of three with one minimum wage earner would come up short every month by $702.16, just for basic necessities.

According to the National Council on Welfare, "Lone parent families in Alberta, Canada's richest province, received just $12,326 -- only 48 percent of the poverty line." Struggling to exist on fixed incomes, these individuals and families are being hit hard by the boom's sky-rocketing rent increases and the ricocheting affect of daily cost of living adjustments.

In her concluding remarks, Ms. Benson stated that for the past few years, Alberta has been experiencing "dramatic uncontrolled growth." In her report she concludes by stating that "Average Albertans are less well-off than they were previously and those whose incomes are rising, are making gains because they are working more hours, not receiving higher wages. For those Albertans at the bottom, their incomes are falling; social assistance rates are at 50% of the levels of the 1980s, minimum wages are not keeping up with inflation and are still amongst the lowest in the country. Homelessness rates have been skyrocketing and increasing numbers of Albertans are at risk of homelessness. Middle income Albertans, already the hardest working families in the nation, had to work more hours to get ahead."

While Ms. Gibson acknowledged that the scope of the report could not provide an in-depth set of policy recommendations to address all of the issues raised, it did set out brief, general recommendations in five key areas that Albertans could and should be lobbying the government to take:

1. Address the crisis and work towards poverty elimination -- take immediate measures to address poverty and homelessness and implement long term strategies to eliminate poverty.

2. Democratize -- Develop counterbalances to offset the disproportionate weight of oil and gas extraction companies on government police.

3. Rent Controls -- Take action to protect lower income Albertans from the downsides of the boom by pacing the development in such a way that growth in Alberta is slowed to a more orderly, manageable pace.

4. Capturing a greater share of unearned profits -- Implement measures that will curb the flow of extraordinary and unearned profits going to foreign corporations.

5. Progressive taxes and corporate taxes -- The government's current reliance on volatile fossil fuel revenues to fund social programs needs to be addressed through reinstating progressive taxes that capture more of the riches at the top end of the income scale.

For the participants at the session, Ms. Benson's comments were supported by the three panel members who all agreed -- It is not the time to point fingers. It's time to take action and make a difference in the lives of those for whom the only difference the boom has made in their lives, is the speed at which they're falling behind and the distance they have to travel to hit rock bottom and .

If you are interested in reading the Parkland Institute's report, The Spoils of the Boom: Incomes, profits and poverty in Alberta, (June 2007) visit their website at: or call, 780-492-8558.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

You ask "Why?". I ask you, "What Are We Prepared To Do?"

Today I received an email from a woman who asked really tough questions. I wanted to share her letter as it provokes deep thinking, and it asks the question so many ask, "Why?"

At the bottom of her email, I have also included my response. "Why?" is always a tough question to answer. For every answer, there are a thousand more paths we can take to find another "Why?" Perhaps, rather than ask why, we need to look at, What is it in our society that has left so many people at risk of being abused by homelessness? What are we prepared to do about it?

Hello Louise,

Today, I have found your booklet in my mail box. After reading it, I could not keep myself from writing you and ask you “Why?”

“Why do thousands of immigrants from different countries come to Canada, to Calgary and manage to find job and place to live?” “Why do many of them hardly speaking English finally find employment and pay taxes?” “Why do many of them having degrees and being doctors, economists, teachers, engineers in their countries, agree to work in the kitchen, in retail, in construction?”

In your appeal for support you are telling that all these homeless people have their own story, but you don’t tell any.

However, I can tell you a lot of stories about people who come to Canada hardly speaking English and who found a job in construction for 22$ per hour, I can tell you stories about doctor who works in the library, about math teacher who works in the retail store, financial director who works in construction, about people who go study again and work part-time, who struggle for new and better living in their new country.

Answer me, Louise, “Why people who were born here, who didn’t have to leave their friends, their parents, their language, who mostly look strong and fit, can not find job and place to live?”.

I live in the downtown, and in our building there several apartments are vacant right now. Single apartment costs about 900$ per month. So why do these people can gather in a group of four and rent it? If they find employment in construction, like many immigrants do, it won’t a problem for them.

I admit that people can find them themselves on the street for different reasons. One of my friends who came to Canada as a refugee was living in Calgary Drop-In and Rehab Center for some time, but it was for short period of time, than he found a job and left that place.
Being from Eastern Europe I have been to many countries. I have not seen so many panhandles and homeless people like in Calgary in any of 9 European counties I visited. In many European countries panhandling is prohibited. So, maybe we should use their experience in it?

Maybe the answer is simple, Maybe drugsand alcohol is the only thing that interested them in this life. And maybe even Drop-In centers with their support help them continue this way of living.

What do you think Louise?

Below is my response:

Thank you for your thought provoking letter. I'm challenged to find the 'right' answer and so am going to write what is true in my experience of having worked here for just over a year.

One of the things that struck me in your letter was your comment that many of the immigrants who come here are doctors, economists, teachers, etc. In their experience, they have had the advantage of education, of life-skills that are focused on self-improvement, rather than self-destruction. For the majority of our clients at the Drop-In, one of the biggest stumbling blocks is lack of education and life-skills. Many of them never received an opportunity to believe in themselves, to recognize their own competencies by succeeding at school, university, trade school. While the immigrant doctor may take a job working in construction and recognize it as a 'step-down', for many of our clients, working in construction is a step-up from where they've been in life. And it's a tough step to take without life-skills. The jobs they do find provide subsistence living, with little margin for independent living.

I agree. There are those for whom the 'street life' is a way of life they've adjusted to, become accustomed to and thus go from day to day surviving in this life without giving a lot of consideration to making plans to get out of the life. It's not a great life, but it is the life they know. Fear of change. Of facing what has brought them down keep them from looking up.

There are those for whom their addiction is what has led them to the street. And they can't see a way out of it because their addiction blocks them from seeing there is a future better than their past.

There are those for whom mental disorders hinder their ability to cope with life outside and so stay inside the Drop-In. For these individuals, we do not have the capacity nor ability to meet their needs. But, as there are no programs or facilities in the province that will do it, we do it as best we can. It is not a great solution. It is what must be done to ensure they are safe.

For others like your friend, the Drop-In is just a stepping stone on their journey. Unfortunately, these days the stepping stone is becoming more and more of a platform as they struggle to find a place to live that is affordable.

Yes, there are apartments out there for rent that four people could share. One of the challenges our clients face is that as soon as a landlord hears they currently reside at the Drop-In, the landlord is more than likely to take another applicant. Given that the vacancy rate is so low, it's easy to find renters. Why not pick someone who is not labeled 'Homeless'?

You ask, “Why people who were born here, who didn’t have to leave their friends, their parents, their language, who mostly look strong and fit, can not find job and place to live?

I admit it is a complex question. One of the things I believe is that no matter how fit they look on the outside, if they are homeless, then they are not fit on the inside. They do not believe they make a difference, let alone can make a difference. Approximately 50% of our clients have jobs -- homelessness is not about jobs, nor in many cases housing. If it were, everyone would be working and living in their own home. All of our clients once had a home, a way of life different than what they are currently experiencing. Homelessness is not about 'my home', it's about my life.

At the Drop-In, we do attempt to provide people programs and resources that will help them move beyond the challenges of homelessness back to 'main street'. And we do have successes. The sheer number of people entering through our doors, however, keeps increasing as the lure of Calgary's wealth attracts people from across the country. We manage the increased number of people needing our services with limited resources, resources that have not increased with the growth of the homeless population in our city. It is a challenging situation.

While there is some truth in your answer, Maybe the answer is simple maybe mostly these people the way they live. Maybe they are just not well organized and self-disciplined to come to work on time, to follow the shifts. Maybe This kind of “freedom” is more close to their hearts, there is also a misconception of what is true for the individuals existing in this life. There is no dignity in being 'homeless'. There is no room for mistakes. No safety. No security. There is no sense of self-worth, of belief in the limitless possibilities of your life. There is no place to go to kick back, relax, just be without someone interfering, crowding you, taking up the same space. There is no privacy in homelessness. No aloneness. Homelessness is on display for everyone to see. We see it every day on our streets. We see it in our parks, along the riverbanks, the bike paths, the walking trails. Homelessness is everywhere. When you are homeless you are labeled, and you learn to walk with the label.

There is something very numbing, very nullifying about being labeled, Homeless. In the process, you lose all sense of yourself. All belief in your abilities. The shame of being homeless pushes you further back and you lose track of where you were going until you come to believe this is the only place you can be.

Do we at the Drop-In contribute to 'the homeless problem'? We do not invite people to the Drop-In. They come because they have no where else to go. I believe we give people hope. We give them an opportunity to catch their breath, to find their balance so that they can move on, out of here to somewhere better. The Drop-In is not the solution for anyone. But what is the solution? Thus far, no one has come forward with a solution that works better. And so, we continue to greet people who walk through our door, where they're at. We continue to provide opportunities for them to discover where they want to go. The rise in individuals experiencing homelessness is not unique to Calgary. It is apparent all across Canada.

Is what we do perfect? No. Are there better ways? Probably. Does what we do work? Yes. We serve people in need. We provide them shelter, food, and the opportunity to search for different pathways in their lives. When there are enough rehab spaces and treatment facilities for people with addictions, assisted living spaces for those with mental disorders and facilities for senior's who have lost their homes, the Drop-In will no longer be needed. When family violence no longer forces women and children to run for their lives, or divorce no longer tears families apart, or sexual abuse no longer rips apart a child's innocence, destroying their self-worth, homeless shelters and services will no longer be needed. That would be an awesome day.

Until then, we must continue to serve those in need so that we provide a safe place for them to come until such time that they can find a place of their own to call home.