How four Calgary seniors are getting by during tough economic times

As he plucks his banjo from his usual spot on Stephen Avenue, Andy Mitchell doesn’t hesitate to greet to people walking by.

“How you doing, Andy?” one man asks him.

“A lot better now,” Mitchell shoots back without missing a beat. “I missed you!”

Mitchell is a Stephen Avenue regular. He has been busking here for over 40 years, and he recognizes many of the passersby, whom he calls his “associates.” He smiles at children and trades cigarettes with the driver of a delivery truck in between playing cheerful banjo riffs.

“You look more like your mother every day,” he calls to a woman, who waves back.

Mitchell has played on sidewalks all over the world, but Calgary is his home. The 65-year-old spent many years here as a stonemason and carpenter, and helped renovate several of the historic buildings on the street where he now busks almost every day. The change that gets tossed into the banjo case propped open in front of him supplements his pension through the Canada Pension Plan, but Mitchell says that, like many Calgarians, he’s been feeling the pinch of the economic downturn in the last few months.

“Times have changed, and I feel that,” he says. “I can feel people holding back the amount of money I get.”

Wayne Walker uses a cane to shuffle down Stephen Avenue. He was a cook for a catering company that served the oil and gas industry out of Grande Prairie until last year, when he was laid off. A few months later, Walker fell in the shower and broke his back, and has since had to rely on his meager pension for income.
Photo by Madison Farkas
Much of the media coverage on the recent economic downturn has focused primarily on the impact in the oil and gas industry, but these hard times are also affecting people who weren’t that well off to begin with. Mitchell isn’t the only senior relying on social assistance that has felt these effects. His friend Wayne Walker worked for a catering company out of Grande Prairie until he was laid off about nine months ago. Seven months later, Walker slipped in the shower and broke two vertebrae. He hasn’t gone back to work since.

“Should we blame it on the government?” Mitchell jokingly asks him.

“No, it’s not the government’s fault, it’s my fault,” Walker replies, pointing to his cane. “I shouldn’t have fell down.” He’s 72, but Walker says he would love to go back to work if he had the chance.

“I’ll work at McDonald’s if I have to,” he says. “I have my old age pension, but it isn’t much. I have to be very careful. I’m used to making as much a week as I get a month now.”

Walker and Mitchell are both currently living at the Calgary Drop-In and Rehab Centre. Mitchell thinks it’s unlikely that he’ll ever go back to work in a field that puts his two degrees to use.

“It’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” he says. “It doesn’t matter that I’ve got a BA and a Bachelor of Science — I’m out here busking for nickels and dimes just to make ends meet. I’ve worked hard all my life, but that doesn’t matter now, just like it doesn’t matter for this gentleman.”

Jim Meeker collects bottles to earn extra money alongside his pension. He’s living on the street right now, and will be heading back to Eau Claire tonight to sleep over a grate. Meeker isn’t worried because the weather has been so warm recently.
Photo by Madison Farkas
He gestures to Jim Meeker, the man who has been his quiet shadow for the last 20 minutes. Meeker is living on the street right now. He spent most of his youth working odd jobs both full- and part-time around the city, and now collects bottles to bring in extra cash. Now that he’s 65, he has some income coming in through the Canada Pension Plan, but Meeker says he’s been having trouble claiming the full amount that he qualifies for.

“I didn’t work much back in the 60’s and 70’s, and I don’t have a tax record for certain years, so they think I left the country,” he says. “I have to tell them that I’m a Canadian-born citizen, and I’ve only ever left the country once in my life, for a week’s vacation. I don’t have the records because I was staying with my cousin and with some friends during that time.”

Meeker is in the process of filling out the forms to claim his full pension, which requires a detailed record of where he has lived. He will be sleeping over a vent in Eau Claire tonight, but he says he isn’t worried. This winter has been a warm one, not nearly as harsh as those he endured in the early ‘90s, and he has plenty of blankets. “I carry mine with me all the time,” he says. “I’m like that Linus from Charlie Brown.”

As Mitchell continues playing his banjo, Mike Holloway, another “associate” of his, ambles up to the group. Like Meeker, Holloway has experience living on the street — in fact, the 60-year-old is able to point out a few doorways and benches within sight of where he now stands that he used to call home.

Alongside homelessness, Holloway had some additional struggles: he was an alcoholic for over 30 years, and in June 2004, he became one of four victims of a random stabbing in Calgary. He spent several years in and out of various shelters and transitional housing programs in the city and around Alberta for a few years after the attack, but eventually returned to stay in Calgary, where, in 2007, he sought help from the Calgary Dream Centre, a residential and reintegration service. It helped him get back on his feet.

Mike Holloway whistles the Shirelles’ old standard “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” above the din of Stephen Avenue’s Wednesday afternoon crowd on Jan. 27. One of Canada’s only professional whistlers, Holloway performs at parties and events around Calgary. A former alcoholic who used to live on the street, he knows first-hand what it’s like to deal with the stigma of homelessness and addiction.
Photo by Madison Farkas
Since coming back to Calgary, Holloway turned to an unlikely place to make his money: professional whistling. He started out busking as a whistler, and his unusual talent won him the Country Gospel Music Association’s national award for Whistler of the Year in 2009. Since then, he has performed at everything from community Christmas parties to Calgary Vipers baseball games.

While he is now much better off than he was a few years ago, Holloway still remembers what it’s like to face the stigma associated with homelessness.

“Don’t look at homeless people as different,” he advised. “Look at them as someone else you can talk to, or someone else who might be struggling.”

Holloway says this is especially true for those people with addictions. “Many people don’t consider the mindset of the people who have addictions – alcohol, drugs, gambling, anything,” he explained. “Whatever someone’s addicted to has control of their mind. When I was homeless, if I had my beer, I was content, even when I was sleeping on the street. But if there was a time when I didn’t have a drink, I couldn’t think rationally about anything. That was the only thing that mattered.”

Holloway is now living in an apartment, which he rents through the Horizon Housing Society, which provides affordable supported housing. Jordan Hamilton, manager of external relations for the Calgary Drop-In and Rehab Centre Society, says getting off the street and into housing can sometimes be easier for homeless people during an economic downturn.

Andy Mitchell and his friend Jim Meeker sing “Worried Man Blues” on a warm January afternoon on Stephen Avenue. People clap and cheer as Mitchell strums the flourishing final riff on his banjo, but none of them toss change into his waiting banjo case. Mitchell blames the economic downturn for the fact that his busking earnings have been lower than usual recently.
Photo by Madison Farkas
“We’ve actually seen a two per cent decrease in Drop-In Centre use year to year because rent prices are coming down, and fewer people are coming to Calgary, so the number of available apartments is increasing,” Hamilton says. “So for some homeless people, economic downturns actually help. Rather than competing with 20 people for that apartment, now maybe they’re the only person seeking it, and they’re able to get it.”

The trade off, though, is that while housing may be cheaper and more available, food is more expensive. “People often can’t afford both,” Hamilton added.

While Andy Mitchell and his friends sometimes struggle to make ends meet, for the most part, they’re able to keep a positive mindset, and Mitchell says they have a unique perspective on the downturn.

“The rich, they live in their ivory towers,” he says. “When those towers crumble, they don’t know what to do, like ‘how am I going to live without all my toys?’ We know what it’s like to not have the toys, the extra things, so we don’t need them.”

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mfarkas@cjournal.ca

Thumbnail by Madison Farkas.

The editor responsible for this story is Michaela Ritchie, mritchie@cjournal.ca