downtown

This week I visited Calgary’s YWCA temporary location to drop off donations.  I was amazed to walk into a room FULL of supplies and volunteers!  In talking with one of my favourite people in the city, Elsbeth Mehrer, who works at the YWCA and actively speaks for women and poverty, I was moved by her response.  Filled with gratitude for all the help and support, she also had some notable thoughts that got me thinking.  I went home to email her for her to expand on these thoughts for the blog you are about to read.  

Elsbeth writes:

It’s been overwhelming and gratifying to see Calgarians come together during this crisis. Truly, the response has confirmed the spirit of the recently-approved Calgary Poverty Reduction Strategy: “my neighbour’s strength is my strength.”

That being said, it does make me melancholy to see such an outpouring of response now when there are many Calgarians who live in tenuous situations year round.

There is no doubt that the massive and tragic destruction of homes will be life altering for people in neighbourhood all over the city. I do sincerely grieve for them.

However, I hope that as my beloved city recovers from this epic flood, that the city to emerge will be more compassionate to it’s vulnerable contingent. Many who never thought “homelessness” could happen to them have now had the experience of fleeing for their safety and relying on others to meet their basic needs. Many have woken up without the simple things – a change of clothes, the medications they may need, the dignity afforded by a door of their own to close and lock – they may otherwise have taken for granted.

With images on our screens and all over the paper, it’s impossible to ignore the gravity of this circumstance. 100,000 people – 10 per cent of the population – was evacuated. The 10 per cent of Calgary that I typically spend time thinking about are not the same 10 per cent but rather those 100,000 citizens who live in poverty, struggling to meet their basic needs.

Images and stories of poverty are rarely on the front page. Not “dramatic enough”? Hardly. I think the contrast comes when we consider that flood victims were caught by surprise, were going about their daily business and WHAM! got bowled over. Poverty, family violence and so called “social ills” often come on dramatically, just like a flood: a dangerous partner, a sudden illness, job loss, a health or mental health crisis. But how many of us truly, in our heart of hearts, see vulnerable people as “blameless enough”? We talk about “choices” as though everybody gets to make the same ones and then quietly (or not so quietly) shame vulnerable people for their poor planning, their poor budgeting skills or their bad taste in guys.

All year round, the YWCA works very hard to supply the vulnerable women we serve with the housing and shelter, counselling and educational opportunities they need to move from a place of merely surviving to a circumstance in which they can thrive. To meet the needs of our women, we often seek gifts of new clothing, hygiene supplies and diapers to support our clients. We ask often and are underwhelmed by a trickle of items much of the year. This past Sunday, after the rivers rose, we opened the doors of the Marda Loop Community Hall for 2 hours and were inundated by nearly $30,000 worth of such gifts. It was awesome.

What is coming in more slowly but is more critical than ever are gifts of cash. The YWCA needs cash donations to support operations at the best of times and never more so than in a time of crisis. Certainly, the extraordinary costs related to flood evacuations and facility recovery were not in the business plan. And, while we are grateful, we can’t pay our staff in toothpaste.

The flooding will have a profound impact on vulnerable populations in both short and longer-term ways:

In the short-term, both the YWCA Sheriff King Shelter (a 21-day crisis shelter for women and children fleeing family violence, in Inglewood) and the YWCA Mary Dover House (a downtown short-term residence for homeless women) needed to evacuate, ripping people who already thought life couldn’t get much lower into even more tenuous circumstances. Like other evacuees, YWCA women leaving the flood zone did so with few of their limited possessions and have been living en masse in unfamiliar places. Other agencies including Inn From the Cold, the Drop In Centre, Calgary Women’s Emergency Shelter as well as a number of low income residences for seniors in the East Village, Downtown core and Bridgeland are in similar straights.

Longer-term, the housing situation in Calgary is about to get a whole lot worse that it already was. Before the flood, women served by the YWCA faced a difficult time in Calgary very tight rental market finding suitable apartents. Affordability was an issue as was discrimination: we often hear about Aboriginal and Immigrant women being turned away. With near 1 per cent rental vacancy, landlords had been reluctant to rent to women who had been homeless.

As more Calgarians need to seek rental accommodations while their homes are restored, we should anticipate vacancies to tighten further and prices to escalate (above the previously unattainable $1,100/month average for a 1-bedroom place) further pricing vulnerable populations out. This will be very difficult for people living on low income.

Deb Runnals of the Kerby Centre adds; The flooding is going to impact the limited number of affordable housing options in our city simply by slowing down building as the city refocuses on repair and taking resources that are already stretched and demand that we become even more creative with where to spend and how to raise our dollars.  As we open our shelter doors to assist those who had to evacuate, we are reminded of how blessed we have been during this flood and of our responsibility to those less fortunate.

I love Elsbeth’s passion for those living in poverty.  After hearing this, I thought about how Christmas time creates high volumes of volunteers and donations for organizations such as the YWCA.  What if we could make efforts to take care of one another as a way of life?  Perhaps a flood could be a great awakening to the idea of loving our neighbours?  Perhaps it can open our eyes to the organizations that advocate year round for those who found themselves surprised by circumstances that left them less fortunate?  My deepest prayer is that this horrible terrible events will only continue to call out the heroism we have seen in Calgarians to not be forgotten, but become a way of life in our city.