Surviving the holidays for a number of Edmontonians has nothing to do with relatives overstaying their welcome or finding yourself laying on the couch after having too much spiked eggnog and Quality Street chocolates. When trying to get enough food for each day and scrounging up cash to pay all the bills on time is a daily reality, splurging on any extras during the holidays just isn’t an option.
The Christmas Bureau’s executive director Wendy Batty says each year the organization consistently delivers food hampers, toys and gift cards to just under 10 percent of Edmonton’s population. The goal this year is to raise $1.8 million.
“As the city grows, so does the diversity,” Batty says, adding that both immigration and cross-Canada migration drive many people to move to Edmonton. “What happens to a family who migrates here from across Canada is they had to have a stake—a lump of money to get them here. Then they need to get into an apartment of some sort.”
Batty says the Christmas Bureau’s clients are not in a position to buy a home, so if they can’t find a place to rent they might end up couch surfing with friends.
“Any stake that they had in terms of cash or resources when they came is used up paying a deposit, first month’s rent, utility hookups, maybe getting the kids into school, transferring of licence plates—there’s just huge costs associated with relocating. By the time Christmas comes, they may not have found that job yet or they’ve found an early entry job below their skill set and abilities, but that’s all they can find and their bills are piling up.”
Many immigrants face these same challenges along with adapting to a new culture, so the Christmas Bureau offers an option to families who might not be familiar with the traditional Canadian foods found in the hampers.
“Many of our new Canadians have not seen a turkey, they don’t know how to cook it; it’s not their food,” Batty says. “But it’s not about what you eat or when you eat it, it’s about having the opportunity to have a celebration with your family and food on the table. So for many of our families we send Sobeys gift cards and allow them to make their own choices.”
The majority of clients served by the Christmas Bureau are working-poor families. Batty says it’s a degrading thing for someone to have to say they’re part of the working poor.
“When you stop into the gas station to pay and see the person working there, they’re working probably just above minimum wage,” she says. “They may have a spouse and two kids at home to support, or even just kids. They’re working, yes, but when you think of the cost of utilities that have gone up in Edmonton the last couple of years, the cost of food, the cost of rent—we’re now on the verge of the next boom in the province and you just know that people will migrate here from across Canada and it’s the old supply and demand, it will push the rent prices up. Everything they earn goes into everyday survival. Most often they won’t have a car and will be bussing, and bussing is really expensive and time-consuming. I can almost guarantee they don’t have a benefit plan, so if someone’s sick, they’re paying for that. They’re probably in the hole every month and then along comes Christmas.”
Asking for help has to come from the client. Low-income families and individuals might have an application form sent to them from other organizations they have worked with, but their information is not given to the Christmas Bureau, so many end up not applying for help. Batty says they average between 60 000 and
64 000 people each year—this works out to 22 000 client units ranging from one person to families of 10. Many of the clients are retired and living alone.
“I think the second group we’re seeing a lot of is seniors who are outliving their pensions, outliving their income and they’re now at a case where they may own their home, but all of the income that is coming in from the pension is just to pay for the upkeep of the home,” says the Christmas Bureau’s campaign director Darlene Kowalchuk.
Twelve percent of the people the organization helps are seniors, but many seniors won’t ask for help as Batty says they’ve grown up with a “make-do” attitude.
As the outreach manager at the Edmonton Seniors Centre, Shirley Kilsdonk works with a lot of low-income seniors and has seen the depression that comes from being isolated and poor.
“The thing with the Christmas Bureau, the food bank, things like that, sometimes with their pride they won’t even apply for it,” she says. “We have a lot of low-income seniors and they always say ‘No, no. Somebody else could need it.’ But they need it.
“I had a lady that had so much pride that she wouldn’t even tell that she had mice in her house until we found out that she was actually sleeping and—she was telling me this story that they would crawl across her. But because of the pride she wasn’t willing to get help.”
Pride keeps many seniors from asking for help, but as everyday costs keep going up and their pensions remain the same, making ends meet and buying gifts and food at Christmas time will continue to be a heavy burden. And as the baby-boom generation heads into old age, it won’t become any easier to be a senior. Lending a helping hand to Edmonton’s low-income earners at Christmas time shows compassion exists, but consistently helping just under 10 percent of the city’s population shows there is a level of poverty that has not gone anywhere.