More homeless are working: stats
But some fear impact of downturn
Ray Lowe relaxes at the Mustard Seed’s shelter before heading off to his job as a truck driver. He works afternoons, driving a truck to Edmonton and back, and sleeps in a special area for shift workers in the Calgary shelter.
Photograph by: Grant Black, Calgary Herald, Calgary Herald
An increasing number of Calgary’s homeless have been working on a regular basis, show statistics collected by two of the city’s largest shelters, but there is concern those numbers will drop as the economy worsens.
Statistics collected by the Mustard Seed Street Ministry and the Calgary Drop-In Centre show that between 60 and 70 per cent of homeless Calgarians work at either full-or part-time jobs as they try to save enough money to move into a place of their own.
"It’s rough at times, really rough at times," said Ray Lowe, who sleeps at the Mustard Seed’s Foot-hills shelter and works from 3 p.m. to 3 a.m. every week day driving a transport truck between Calgary and Edmonton.
Lowe, who has been homeless off and on for about a year, is one of dozens of people staying at the shelter who work full-time.
According to statistics collected by the Mustard Seed, two-thirds of its clients–1,144 of the 1,740 people surveyed from April to December–are employed. Of those, 650 have permanent full-time jobs, while another 203 have regular part-time work. Others have casual jobs as day labourers.
Similar numbers have been collected at the Calgary Drop-In Centre, although officials at the downtown shelter have already started to notice a change in recent months.
"We are noticing a downturn because the kinds of work they do are most affected by the economic situation," said executive director Dermot Baldwin, adding staff are noticing fewer casual placements through the centre’s employment office. "It’s certainly scary for guys who rely on day labour."
There has also been a 40 per cent drop, he said, in the number of people who use the centre’s wood shop, which is often used by contractors who need day labourers.
"Generally, we’re among the first . . . to notice it," Baldwin said. "We’re a barometer."
For those homeless Calgarians who find casual work down at cash corner, they’ve also started to noticed a difference.
"It’s not really busy," said Collin, a drop-in centre client who declined to give his last name.
Another man, who called himself Joe, said he’s still working, but acknowledged "it’s slow."
Indeed, figures released Friday showed Alberta isn’t immune to the recession.
According to Statistics Canada, the province experienced the biggest decline in jobs in Canada, with 16,000 full-time jobs disappearing in December, while the unemployment rate in Alberta climbed to 4.1 per cent. It is, however, still the lowest in the country.
Colin Tessier, transitional services manager at the Seed’s Foot-hills shelter, said staff haven’t yet experienced any downturn due to the economy, noting there are still some help-wanted signs in the Foothills Industrial area where the shelter is located.
"It’s always been very consistent," he said of the percentage of clients who work. "It’s always between 60 and 70 per cent of our population.
"Usually half of that is full-time, permanent employment. Some of it is temporary work."
Tessier said they started collecting the employment data because it’s their goal to get people in their own place.
"We have no interest in warehousing people."
One of the biggest reasons people become homeless, said Tessier, is still due to the lack of affordable housing for people in Calgary.
"Making $15 or $18 an hour doesn’t get you very far,"he said. "There’s something wrong when a person can be working their butt off at a full-time job . . . and are still not able to find a reasonable place to live."
Two-bedroom apartments still cost more in Calgary than any other major Canadian city, but the rents have come down slightly in recent months.
Still, the latest stats showed the aver-age cost of a two-bedroom unit is $1,148 a month, while one bedrooms cost an average of $951.
Lowe, who moved to Calgary from Drumheller to be closer to his sister after his parents died and his wife was killed by an impaired driver, said he could likely afford about $800 a month in rent.
But he hasn’t been able to find a place close to his job in the Foothills Industrial area.
Lowe lost his first apartment after the building was sold. Then he stayed in a rooming house in Forest Lawn for a short time, but he left because the other people who lived there partied all of the time and he couldn’t get any sleep.
Still, he’s hoping to get into his own apartment by February through the Rapid Exit program, which works directly with landlords to find low-cost housing for homeless Calgarians who are ready to move out on their own.
"A lot of people don’t know I am homeless," said Lowe, noting they are often surprised when they hear he works 12-hour days–particularly because there is often a perception that homeless people don’t want to work because they are lazy. "That’s what I used to think," he added