City of Calgary and United Way launched new group this year

“This has the potential to have an enormous impact on the future fabric of this city. We just have to get it right, but I know we will.”

Those are the poignant words of Mayor Naheed Nenshi during a council meeting earlier this month in which the new Calgary Poverty Reduction Initiative was discussed.

The purpose of the meeting was to evaluate the progress of the initiative. Cathy Williams, co-chair of the group conducting the research on this project asked for an extension in the timeline.

The accumulated research will be assessed in mid-June 2013, instead of earlier in the year as initially proposed.

Alderman Gael MacLeod, Ward 4, said at the meeting that she is already impressed by the amount of research that has been accessed already.

But Loreen Gilmour, director of poverty initiative and research at United Way, said that some of the more immediate goals of the project are yet to be defined.

The Poverty Initiative was officially launched in January. Led by a team of influential people from across the city, known as the Stewardship Group, the next 18 months will be dedicated to collecting data, research and coming up with ideas on drastically reducing poverty within Calgary.

“They have gathered together some of the best thinking in this area,” Nenshi said. “They really have a good Stewardship Group in place representing every element of the community and I’m really looking forward to their work.”The Poverty Reduction Initiative, a research study being compiled by the City of Calgary and the United Way, will now report its results in June 2013.
Photo illustration by: Celeste de Muelenaere

The list of Stewardship Group members paints a clear picture that the city is taking poverty rates very seriously. Steve Allan, co-chair of the project, has won numerous awards for is work in the community, including garnering recognition as Calgary Citizen of the Year in 2006.

Similarly, Derek Cook, executive director of the Stewardship Group, spent the last 12 years working for the city in the field of poverty-related issues.

Cook agreed that some of the best minds in the city are working on the initiative.

“I am very happy with the level and calibre of leadership we have here,” he said.

Cook added that poverty is more than just homelessness. He acknowledged that the statistics they are working with are a few years old, but still suggested that poverty is a major issue affecting about 130,000 Calgarians.

“A fairly significant portion of our population,” he said.

Cook further explained that a common myth about poverty is that people who suffer from it are either homeless or receiving welfare. But Cook warned that this is not the case. The majority of poverty in the city is somewhat invisible, albeit persistent, he said.

“A very small fraction of those people are homeless, the vast majority are not, and probably two thirds of those are not receiving social assistance at all,” Cook said.

“The face of poverty in Calgary is really the working poor. Poverty is much more than homelessness.”

Gilmour agreed with Cook that there are “a lot of definitions around poverty.” But she explained that the United Way focuses on “vulnerable groups.”

In essence, these are working class people who find themselves in a vulnerable state where they could lose their home, are in trouble of defaulting on their rent, or have to choose between buying groceries and paying other bills.

Gilmour said that not only does the United Way have a seat on the Stewardship Group, but the organization is also providing research, helping to identify key projects and community investments, as well as co-funding the initiative with the City of Calgary.

Jointly there is a $400,000 investment allotted to the project, with each party putting in an equal amount.

Nenshi added that this is not just another case of throwing money at the problem in the hope that it will go away. The purpose of the Poverty Initiative is to find the root cause so as to prevent individuals and families from going down the road of poverty.

“I hope that about 18 months from now we’ll have a really thoughtful plan, slash roadmap on how we can reduce poverty,” Nenshi said. “And that will involve governments at different levels, the private sector, and the many, many non-profit partners we have that are already doing work in the area.

“I’m hopeful that some interesting big ideas similar to what we saw in the homelessness work will come out of this.”

cdemuelenaere@cjournal.ca