Opinion: If you don’t want to see kids homeless in Calgary, support affordable housing

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The cost of food, gas and utilities is rising, which means parents facing poverty are being forced to make impossible choices between shelter, heat and regular meals.

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At the family emergency shelter Inn from the Cold, we have seen a sharp increase in demand. In the first three months of last year, about 10 families spent nights in the shelter. In the first three months of 2022, demand has nearly doubled. An average of 17 families per day are staying with us, and our shelter and support programs are bursting at the seams.

Homelessness has long-term effects on a child. Children who experience homelessness face barriers to developmental, social and academic opportunities, and are significantly more likely to experience homelessness in adulthood. With our shelters running over-capacity, demand outweighs the supply of local resources.

Here in Alberta, the need for affordable housing is especially critical because of our lacklustre investment in the sector. The provincial austerity budget isn’t adequate to maintain our aged affordable housing stock, let alone address the growing need. The recent federal “Housing Budget” will funnel $1.5 billion toward affordable housing projects across the country, and if the provincial government doesn’t match that investment, it’s our families that live with the consequences.

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Local non-profits like HomeSpace are taking on bigger, more ambitious projects, like converting a downtown Calgary office tower into affordable housing. Ten floors of long-vacant office space are being transformed into a new Inn from the Cold headquarters, including an emergency shelter, 82 units of affordable housing, childcare and wrap-around supports for families. But that barely scratches the surface. Calgary is building about 300 new units of affordable housing per year, while demand grows by about 2,000 units, with only 25 per cent of existing units being large enough for family living.

Inn from the Cold executive director Heather Morley has partnered with the HomeSpace Society to convert a 10-storey downtown Calgary tower into a new headquarters and affordable housing.
Inn from the Cold executive director Heather Morley has partnered with the HomeSpace Society to convert a 10-storey downtown Calgary tower into a new headquarters and affordable housing. Photo by Gavin Young /Postmedia file

In a 2016 study, over 44,000 Calgary families were using more than 50 per cent of their income on shelter. At Inn from the Cold recently, families tell us that about 75 per cent of their monthly expenses are groceries, rent and utilities. That is a thin margin on which to survive and raise a family.

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If the thought of kids without a home doesn’t pull on your heartstrings, perhaps it will pull on your purse strings. Homelessness is expensive. People experiencing homelessness rely heavily on social services like shelter, social programs, policing and health care. An individual experiencing homelessness costs these systems more in public tax dollars than a person in subsidized affordable housing. Whether you’re thinking with your heart or with your wallet, affordable housing needs to be a priority if we truly value families and children in Calgary.

Creating affordable housing is a community effort, and we need the support of the government, private sector and community to work in harmony. Here are a few things you can do to help:

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Voice your support. Contact your elected officials and push for affordable housing in your area. The next time affordable housing is proposed in your neighbourhood, champion the cause. The same goes for high-density zoning changes. NIMBYism is one of the biggest challenges housing providers face. When no one wants affordable housing buildings in their proverbial “backyard,” it pushes those parents and their children into potentially unsafe living situations or, unfortunately, into shelters.

Consider volunteering for your local shelter or social service agencies. Serve meals, collect donations or help a child experiencing homelessness with their homework.

Albertans have a rich culture of philanthropy, as demonstrated by the generous corporate support for our downtown project. Consider holding a fundraiser to contribute to one of many shelters or affordable housing campaigns. Families with safe, stable homes foster a thriving community.

Heather Morley is the executive director of Inn from the Cold family emergency shelter. Bernadette Majdell is the CEO of affordable housing provider HomeSpace.

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