Spring has sprung in Calgary, and with the warmer weather have appeared buds on the trees, birds we haven’t seen since our arrival, scores of people exercising every evening along the river path on bikes or skates or jogging or pushing strollers or leashed to dogs, and joining all of this rebirth and renewal comes an immediately discernible increase in the homeless population.
In the past two weeks, I’ve seen more homeless walking along the river path, and the telltale signs of their passage down to the riverbanks, which are now free of ice and ready for nighttime inhabitants.
There is a growing problem with homelessness here as many of the inner-city neighborhoods undergo gentrification, pushing the homeless out of their traditional hangout spots, particularly near downtown. On any day, walk along the riverfront and you find yourself among the multitude of homeless who are hanging out along the river’s edge.
For the most part, they are harmless and respond to a friendly smile with a comment about the dogs. But not all are friendly, and the locals say that some of the new influx are downright violent, whether due to mental problems, drug use, or battling for territory. Rumor has it that one particular group from Africa is especially violent, among the homeless and in the local gangs. They are changing the timbre of the generally easy-going welcome of Calgarians.
Downtown, at Olympic Plaza across the street from where Tom works, the homeless who sleep in the shelters down the street gather during the day and evening in the plaza, cadging for coins or filing into the Tim Horton’s in Tom’s building, getting warmth and nourishment.
Across the street is the new City Hall, where the Police Chief has his office. Almost daily, skirmishes break out among those on the street, sometimes involving knife attacks or brutal physical altercations. And they don’t just attack each other. Locals and tourists have been accosted in broad daylight on busy city streets.
Homelessness is a fact of life in every city in the world, I imagine. And I have no idea how cities are supposed to best deal with that population. Programs abound, but they never seem to be enough to house or help these folks. And even as more shelters are planned in the inner city, business owners are speaking out, decrying such shelters near their places of business, attesting that shoppers will avoid the area of shelters are built.
Not all who live on the streets are there against their will. We’re seeing an increasing number of youths and young adults who seem to opt for the freedom of the streets, almost as a rite of passage. They wear name-brand clothing and have iPhones and expensive headgear, so they aren’t dredging what they own from trash bins. It could be drugs that drive them to the streets, but somehow they are finding money for luxury on those streets. We’ve seen their numbers spike in the past month, as though they, like the Canada geese, are returning to Calgary for the summer.
Oddly enough, people in the province of Ontario are complaining to their local politicians and to the media about getting Calgary’s homeless, now that Calgary is enduring tough economic times. Calgarians respond that they’ve been accepting and helping the homeless from all over Canada until now. But as the funds dry up in the city, the homeless are seeking greener pastures elsewhere.