“It’s too cold and I have cancer!” A man hollers from the front of a 20-person line up outside One Executive Place, a building where the Alberta government rents space on Crowchild Trail.
Every day, struggling Calgarians line up to apply for a government income support program called Alberta Works, and sometimes they’re forced to wait outside in sub-zero temperatures. They say they’re frustrated with standing outside before the building opens.
Recipients of Alberta Works are required to line up to get an appointment time for the day, which is handed out on a first-come, first-serve basis. During the appointment, they meet with a government employee to discuss their financial needs.
According to Alberta Works, qualified applicants may receive $635 per month for a single person. Single parents can expect about $880 per month under two conditions: they have no main income source, and qualify for income support.
One potential recipient was a man who loudly complained about the -12 C degree weather during the early morning of Jan. 6. He refused to give his name, but says he had been waiting in the cold since 6:30 a.m. He reminded fellow applicants, “Don’t bite the hand that feeds you.”
If applicants don’t get there early, they might not get seen by the administration, and would have to come back again. The government declined to say how many people Alberta Works sees in one day.
Calgary has had severe winter weather in 2014. January saw an average low of -9 C, while February had an average low of -17 C, and in March it was -14 C.
On the morning of Jan. 28, it was -11 C at 6 a.m. When the Calgary Journal arrived around 8 a.m., the security guard at One Executive Place had already allowed some people and children to come inside the building to wait. The front foyer was filled.
“It’s a little colder, so I’m going to do that,” says the guard, who cannot be named for security reasons. “If it weren’t for the fact that there is a considerable amount of wind, I wouldn’t do that. They have to wait till 8:15 a.m.”
At 8:15 a.m., a security guard tells applicants they can start entering the elevator to head up to Level 3 to make their appointments for that day.
Before everyone goes up, a man is turned away because there are already too many people ahead of him. He yells that he has been turnedaway three days in a row, and leaves angrily.
Brenda Wadey, a spokesperson for Alberta Human Services, would not confirm whether applicants were turned away after waiting in line because of a limited number of spaces.
Cassandra Kellar says she also waited outside on cold mornings to make her appointments.
“I have fibromyalgia and I broke my back four years ago in a car accident,” she says. “I wish we could go inside and sit down on cold days. It’s ridiculous.” Kellar adds she’s had to reapply at least 10 times due to her situation, and every time she has had to stand in line outside to get an appointment.
Over three days in January, the Calgary Journal handed out an anonymous survey to people waiting in line, which ranged from 15-20 people.
A total of 26 people took the survey, and 23 agreed with the following: “I wish there was a warmer place to wait” and “I wish there was somewhere to sit while waiting for an appointment.”
Wadey says she couldn’t comment about the line-up outside of One Executive Place, but says, “sometimes it’s a matter of managing the volumes.”
Wadey says the government doesn’t do pre-booked appointments.”We work on a first-come first-serve system for the initial meeting.”
The Canadian Federation of University Women, an advocacy group for homeless and impoverished women, heard about the treatment of people seeking government support and said they were surprised.
Susan Miller, president of the federation says, “If indeed people are having to line up like cattle in cold weather just to get an appointment regardless of the condition they’re in we wouldn’t consider this respectful and we would not consider this helpful.
Libbie Jennings, a spokesperson for building owner Great-West Life, stated in an email: “While we understand the situation and empathize with those affected, the building is not in a position to safely accommodate both large groups and the needs of visitors and tenants before the building opens.
“We appreciate that this has been a particularly cold winter. We applaud the Commissionaire’s compassion, and support him continuing to use his judgement on an exception basis.”