A reason to dream; a Calgary without poverty

Post Date: Thursday, June 06, 2013
I am very proud of the work done by everyone involved in creating the Calgary Poverty Reduction Strategy. Over the past year, Cathy Williams and Steve Allan stewarded a process that involved many Calgarians to create a plan that could end poverty in our city. It's a plan that is very needed, and one that can work. Here is the op-ed that Steve and Cathy published earlier this week that illustrates the strategy and how we can have "enough for all".

- Mayor Naheed Nenshi

For a year we have been talking to people in Calgary about poverty. Many think we dealt with the issue when the 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness was launched five years ago. While that is a great initiative, homelessness is the tip of an iceberg. Poverty is its underpinning, and costs Calgarians greatly in terms of human and financial capital. Now that the Calgary Poverty Reduction Initiative’s (CPRI) strategy has been unanimously passed by City Council and the United Way Board, we want to share the dream of a more connected and supportive city, which we will all realize through working together over the next several years.

The CPRI strategy is based on a principle of challenging the way we view people living in poverty. We're good at charitable giving, and this is to be lauded. But if charity worked, we would see the number of people needing assistance going down. Unfortunately, we are not making progress. In addition, all levels of government spend substantial amounts of money on poverty-related issues (social assistance, education, training, healthcare, etc). But again, if this funding worked as well as it should, we would have solved the majority of these issues decades ago.

The CPRI has approached poverty differently. We focused on changing the structures that alleviate poverty, and rebuilding them to deal with the root causes of poverty and vulnerability. We believe that by changing the lives of people living in poverty, we all benefit—through safer communities and enriched communities—where every Calgarian has a chance to participate and add to the city’s quality of life.

Let us show you, instead of tell you, with a true story.

Meet Julie: Julie is raising seven children, and she and her husband are doing this admirably in a three-bedroom rented bungalow. Like the majority of low-income Calgarians, they are both working. Also, like most working Calgarians, they are adamant about not living on handouts. They simply want a chance to earn a decent living.

“The problem is,” says Julie, “We just can't catch a break on any front." Without the new poverty reduction strategy, nothing may ever change.

Now imagine Julie's situation with the strategy implemented. She would still generously take in her sister’s three children, after their mother becomes lost to addiction and their birth father commits suicide. But now Julie has a place (one place) to go for help: she goes to the neighbourhood community hub.

There she talks to a trauma worker. She only has to tell the difficult story once, and the kids (and she) get the help they need promptly. While at the hub, she is also connected with the community kitchen, as well as the affordable, co-operative daycare. Small, but significant, events happen when Julie bumps into neighbours at the hub, like a kind offer to clean the house a few times.

Julie stays strong throughout all of this because she and her husband work for companies with good living wages and benefits, including time off to deal with personal matters. Julie is grateful for the financial literacy program she and her husband took at the hub the year before. Because of this training, and some good financial understanding on their part, they have built up an emergency savings fund. Now that her husband is going back to school to finish his apprenticeship, this cushion of savings is proving quite important.

On the weekends, her husband spends some time at the hub’s co-op wood shop, where his skills are proving useful as the community builds an addition to the space. It has got him thinking about bringing a car-sharing co-op to the community as well, so that he and other families can transport large groups of neighbourhood children to soccer games inexpensively.

The children do well, because they see their parents doing well. They begin to dream of what they want to do with their lives. They are realistic about hard work, but it all seems possible. The family begins to relax. They begin to heal.

Most importantly for Julie is her awareness of other families in need; those she meets at the hub. She appreciates so much what was given to her, and she is always looking for an opportunity to give back.

All this helps the family bounce back quickly and is—in the philosophy of the CPRI and the newly approved strategy to end poverty—all about resilience and living in a city where there is enough for all.

Reprinted, with permission, from The Calgary Herald.