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Local advocate calls for further support as approved applicants to Calgary’s low-income programs surge

While Calgary's Fair Entry approved applications are big year-over-year, it's only up slightly compared to pre-pandemic numbers.

A return to pre-pandemic application numbers for the city’s low-income programs, coupled with continued rising costs for basic necessities, has a local advocate wanting further support from the city.

The city’s Fair Entry system screens applicants and connects lower-income citizens with subsidized programs such as low-income transit passes or property tax rebates.

In 2023, there was a 44.10 per cent increase in individuals approved for Fair Entry between January and July compared to the previous year.

Compared with pre-pandemic numbers in 2019 for the same time period, it’s 3.7 per cent increase. Due to the pandemic, there were drops in Fair Entry approved applications of -46.42 per cent (2020) and -11.63 per cent (2021) before they rose again.

The City of Calgary said a variety of factors have influenced the numbers, including acceptance of citizens approved for other provincial support programs like AISH or Alberta Works. Migration also has a big impact, with 40,000 additional people coming to Calgary in 2022. The city also cited a higher unemployment rate in 2023 (6.1 per cent) versus 2022 (5.1 per cent).

The ongoing issue with inflation over the past two years has also put pressure on Calgarians already struggling to make ends meet.

“Fair Entry does monitor application volume each month and comparisons are made against previous years’ volume as well as comparisons made against the overall poverty stats from the census to help monitor uptake and awareness of the program,” read a statement on the program from the City of Calgary.

Sue Gwynn, chair of Poverty Talks, believes that with the rising numbers of applicants post-pandemic, the city needs to focus on improving these programs.

“These programs are quite hit and miss a lot of the time. For example, a member of our Poverty Talks Committee actually challenged City Hall a few years ago because the original low-income transit pass was actually more expensive than the day pass. They did end up correcting it in the end,” she said.

“These programs are a double-edged sword. Some of these programs are really good, but the others are problematic.”

Alex Smith, a Calgary resident in the Fair Entry Program, wishes that the city would do more with the programs.

“I use the recreation fee assistance card, and it works for me. However, I see that other services in the program aren’t doing as much for other people. Some people need more help than others,” he said

“There are levels to this, and it’s important that all of our needs are addressed.”

Doing more to help

Gwynn also says that accessibility is a major issue with the Fair Entry programs.

“One major thing I would change with the programs is the amount of confirmation that you need to have to get into these programs. You need a tax return, and an Alberta ID card or passport. A lot of the people applying don’t have those forms of identification. They simply cannot afford it,” she said.

“There is no point in trying to help low-income residents, and then bar them from that help because they can’t afford to apply.”

The City said they regularly examine areas where they can improve the services, including the Fair Entry intake process. The annual budget adjustment cycle reports on upcoming fees and rates and business units have the chance to bring forward fee reduced programs.

“Fair Entry is solely responsible for the application process to determine financial and residency eligibility; individual business units at The City that are responsible for user-fee delivered services are responsible for the development of subsidy programs, ongoing ownership of the subsidy programs and any related growth in access or funding,” the city said.

“Upon approval to move forward with a subsidy, the business unit then works with Fair Entry to incorporate their subsidy program offering to the public.” 

Gwynn is also critical of how the city can better its approach to lower-income residents.

“I would like the city to use more money towards areas where it is most needed. I believe that some surplus money from Enmax could go towards lower-priced food, or building more affordable housing,” she said.

“The city could also put policies into place so that lower-income residents pay reduced fines for certain actions. I don’t think it’s fair that someone gets fined $400 for a 2-minute train ride because they can’t afford the ticket. That makes me lose faith in the city’s judgment.”

There are currently seven programs available within Fair Entry.

  • Calgary Transit Low-income youth and adult monthly pass (Calgary Transit) 
  • Calgary Transit low-income seniors yearly pass (Calgary Transit) 
  • Recreation Fee Assistance (Recreation & Social Programs) 
  • No Cost Spay/Neuter (Community Standards) 
  • Seniors Services Home Maintenance (Recreation & Social Programs) 
  • Property Tax Assistance Program (Assessment & Tax) 
  • Calgary Parking Low-income Market Permit (Calgary Parking)

  • with files from Darren Krause