Roughly 115,000 Calgarians in 40,000 households could be on the brink of homelessness, according to a new paper from the UCalgary School of Public Policy.
The paper, authored by UCalgary Professor of Economics Dr. Ron Kneebone and Senior Research Associate Margarita Wilkins, and funded by Vibrant Calgary, evaluated cost-of-living and economic data going back to 2016.
Based on the data collected, the paper asserts that approximately 115,000 Calgarians are at risk of becoming homeless. It does note that the estimate is based on the 2016 data and that 2023 could likely be higher given higher housing and food costs, balanced by slightly higher wages. FULL STUDY AT THE BOTTOM OF THE STORY.
“While the authors suggest that the at-risk population is likely higher now than it was in 2016, they note that even were this not true, the 2016 estimate of approximately 115,000 people living in 40,000 households ought to be more than enough to spur policymakers into acting,” the paper reads.
Dr. Kneebone said that they were motivated to find out the number of at-risk Calgarians at any given time, as they’d noticed between 300 and 400 Calgarians each month fell into homelessness and into a shelter system.
“Every once in a while, three- or four hundred of them fall into homelessness, and then they’ll rehouse themselves, but then something else will happen,” Dr. Kneebone told LWC.
“They’ll fall into homelessness, again, maybe some different people, but there must be a big hunk of people out there who are on the cusp all the time. We decided we’d try to figure out how big that number is. That’s what motivated us to do this.”
The data pinpoints Calgarians that have already made major changes to cut costs: Reducing food spend, finding smaller (crowded) accommodations, making use of the food bank or other charities to help, and forgoing spending on anything that’s not a necessity.
“Then, how much income would they have and on that basis, we said, if that number is 90 per cent or more of your income, you’re at high risk of homelessness,” Kneebone said.
“As it turns out, there were about 40,000 households like that.”
Surprising numbers: Vibrant Calgary
Lee Stevens, Policy and Research Specialist with Vibrant Calgary said that she was surprised to see these numbers in the paper. What worried her more was that as the paper went through peer review, the number climbed.
“I honestly thought that it would be like under 100,000 – and just 115,000 is a bit mind-boggling,” she said.
Though a portion of the data is from 2016, she believed researchers tried to account for some of the different variables between then and now. Stevens believes the number is accurate and aligns with numbers they’ve put together on the number of Calgarians living in poverty.
She also said these are the number of people at extreme risk. There’s another larger group they would consider “at-risk” she said. It underscores how close some Calgarians are to being unhoused.
“One emergency, one crisis, one unexpected expense or event – that could be what lands you in the shelter,” Stevens said.
Both Kneebone and Stevens said there are two primary actions that could be taken to pull thousands back from the brink: Better income supports and rental subsidies. And, Kneebone said, more housing stock through a long-term housing plan.
“I can reduce that risk by pulling you back from the brink by reducing your expenditures or increase your income by a little bit and that will be enough to pull you away from the brink,” he said.
“I’m not going to make you terribly better off.”
Stevens said many food bank recipients already also receive social assistance.
“That’s precisely because the rates are so low,” she said.
“I mean, they’re so far from the poverty line. They’re not really easy to access either. You pretty much have to get rid of all the assets you have and be in a really deep dark pit before you qualify for social assistance.”
City of Calgary’s role in housing
Recently, Calgary city council approved the City’s housing strategy. The strategy contains dozens of recommendations and actions to help address both the market and non-market housing situation in the city.
Ward 8 Coun. Courtney Walcott, who drove much of the conversation around the housing strategy, said that a new council Advisory Committee on Housing would oversee accountability for the application of strategy and provide a communications conduit with those handling the issue on the ground.
The new housing committee, made up of market and non-market housing providers, plus those Calgarians with lived experience is being recommended by city administration at the Oct. 30, 2023 Community Development Committee.
“We had some success with the task force with the different groups of experience and that success led us to the housing strategy and how groundbreaking it was for us to be able to make some of these significant changes,” Walcott said.
“Time is going to shift our landscape and we’re going to need to make sure that we’re present and ready for those shifting landscapes.”
He said there could be a natural overlap between the new committee’s work and what was presented in Dr. Kneebone’s research. Walcott said they’ll be able to hear firsthand what is contributing to people ending up in poverty.
“Automatically, when research like this goes on in the future, we’ll have a group of people spooled up already with all the data available to tell their part of the story when you’re looking at the big picture,” Walcott said.
Both Kneebone and Steven expressed some skepticism over another committee being pulled together to hash out housing issues. Kneebone said having current information is great – he relies on it for much of his work. But, they know what the issue it, now it’s time to fix it.
“What’s more important is, actually it’s no mystery what the problem is,” he said.
“We know what the problem is. What we need to do is act on it.”