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Online Exclusive: Homelessness in Calgary examined

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Torrential rainfall and a flurry of near-freezing winds rush down Stevens Avenue, providing little refuge to the occupants of the crowded alleyways. As winter descends upon the city, the effects of the present homeless crisis are evidentas as shelters reach full capacity and people are forced to bear the cold in the streets of Calgary.

Biennially, the City of Calgary conducts a count of those currently homeless within city limits and this year's estimate showed a 32 per cent increase over 2004 figures.

"There are currently 2,670 males and 766 females without a permanent place of residence," said Homeless Awareness Calgary coordinator Bonnie Malach, noting the figure includes 145 families.

With this massive increase in homeless persons in Calgary, shelters are desperately trying to facilitate everyone in need, said Malach. Yet as cold weather conditions sweep through the city, extreme bed and housing shortages are taking effect in every facility in Calgary, including Inn from the Cold, who has had families sleeping on office-level floors.

Last week alone, the Drop in Center turned away hundreds of hopefuls into the pouring rain, just to have them settle down on the lawn out front, said Drop-in Centre adult care worker Shawn Singer.

"Emergency accommodations need to be found immediately, whether it be in an old building or community centre," said Singer.

Although the shelters always receive support in the form of donations and assistance, the most current concern is the need to find space to accommodate such a large group, said Singer noting that during the summer homeless often live in campgrounds, but winter weather creates a desperate scramble for housing.

Alberta Alcohol and Drug Abuse Commission coordinator Cheryl Houtekamer understands the difficulty in predicting demand, and noted bed shortages are a seasonal occurrence, even in AADAC's addictions programs.

Furthering the problem, she noted that the city also needs to find further facilities for women and children who suffer from domestic violence. Separation in shelters is required due to an ongoing fear of violence and sexual assault to women and children, but with every vacant space in shelters occupied, it is almost impossible to separate by gender.

Singer said there is no sole cause for homelessness in Calgary, but noted Alberta's booming economy is leaving some in the cold.

"I believe this will be an ongoing trend," said Singer. "Everyone wants access to the oil supply, and as such are rushing to Alberta. Many come with no money, and are leaving families in search of a job, only to find there are little to no accommodations available."

Alberta is home to one of the lowest minimum wages in the country, leaving many living below the poverty line. The lack of rent control, paired with the current economic boom make it nearly impossible to attain reasonable housing options.

Today's job-market usually demands a post-secondary degree in order to make a decent living, yet tuition costs are at an all-time high. Those incapable of attaining such a degree due to mental of financial issues are almost guaranteed low income without adequate government support.

Houtekamer noted that education--like Calgary's Homeless Awareness Week--is neccessary to show youth the consequences of addictions early on, including how substance abuse is a factor in homelessness.

"To help those with addiction is very difficult," said Houtekamer. "Many do not seek assistance as they do not see it as a problem."

Addictions are often a factor in homlesness, she explained. Addictions can create financial issues and inability to hold a job, or substances are used as a release from the harsh reality of street life.

University students are not immune to addictions eaither, noted Campus Security alcohol and drug awareness officer Keith Uthe. He said addictions may begin as students are realize they are adults and free to make their own decisions

Alberta is the only province in Canada without a debt. It is obvious there is money available in various forms but we may need to reevaluate where it is being put, said Malach.

"We as a community need to come together to find a solution, not just a quick fix," said Malach.

The further the support for such initiatives, the better off the province will be, she noted. By having support for homeless people, it will allow them to restore themselves to the working class. From there, revenue will be raised for the province to replenish the money spent initially.

For more info on government petitions and how to help, go to www.homelessawarenessweek.ca

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