Canadians are in the thick of an ongoing affordability crisis. Inflation and the cost of housing are pushing family budgets beyond breaking points, and people are accessing non-profit community services more than ever before. Every day, individuals and families in precarious situations are turning to our social sector to cope, connect, and recover.
But Karen Young, president and CEO of United Way of Calgary and Area, knows that the affordability crisis doesn’t end with individuals—it is hitting the helpers and the agencies that serve our community just as much.
“That keeps me up at night,” says Young. “I worry that the pressures facing our social sector will be too much. We are in a perfect storm that threatens the very existence of some agencies and the critical services they provide.”
“Prior to the COVID pandemic, it’s fair to say that many agencies were just getting by,” adds Young. “Now, they have unprecedented cost increases themselves while also trying to meet the increased demand for their services thanks to the affordability crisis.”
In its 2023 edition of The Giving Report, Canada Helps shares that 57.3 per cent of the more than 3,000 charities it surveyed said that the demand for their services outstrips their capacity. In a 2022 survey of 331 Alberta-based non-profits, CCVO found that 68 per cent reported an increase in demand with 74 per cent reporting an increased level and complexity of need.
“The persistent gap between capacity of organizations and demand for services and programs raises questions of how the sector will cope moving forward,” writes Karen Ball, president and CEO of CCVO, in the organization’s alarm-sounding report Too Essential to Fail.
“In more than 30 years of working in this sector,” says Ball, “I have never seen things so dire. Our community is facing concurrent crises, and it is difficult for us all to see the light at the end of this tunnel.”
Karen Ramchuk, president and CEO of the Women in Need Society (WINS), is on the front lines of how decreased affordability is affecting women, families, and the organizations that help them.
“A lot of organizations aren’t OK,” she says. “I know of at least two organizations we partner with who have had to close their doors. That means we must pick up the slack to help even more women and families in need. More people are turning to us, and we have that much more demand.”
WINS is also experiencing dramatically increased utility and real estate costs. These are major considerations for the organization’s balance sheet as WINS also adapts to provide more basic care items to women and families to fill the gap left by shuttered organizations.
“This is incredibly important work, but we are getting stretched thinner and thinner,” says Ramchuk. “We’re crunching numbers daily to be as efficient as possible with our operation, but we are on the verge of having to make hard and difficult choices about how we help people if we cannot raise more revenue.”
Beyond increased demand, most social service agencies are pointing to an increased complexity of the issues facing the people they serve.
Robyn Romano, CEO of Distress Centre Calgary, says that, in past years, Calgarians would call the 24-hour crisis line with one or two issues. “Now people are calling with five or six different issues in one call. These are interconnected, so it’s difficult to just address one and hope the others work out.” This means that urgent, mental health calls are taking much longer with staff needing more debriefing support and “time to breathe” between calls.
“Anyone who chooses to work in this industry is choosing to make their career as a ‘helper’,” says Romano. “But right now we need to do more to help the helpers.”
Who helps the helpers and who cares for those who care is part of what gives Karen Young those sleepless nights. “We choose careers out of public service because we are optimistic,” says Young. “We have a foundational belief that we can make this world better.”
“In the midst of this perfect storm, I can see a bit of sunlight. It’s the light that comes from realizing that, while we have a serious problem facing our social services sector, we have the capacity to solve that problem. As a sector, we are partnering and collaborating to develop new and better ways to serve our community. We are tackling systemic issues that plague both our society and our sector. Ultimately, we are coming together to make it through the storm to calmer waters beyond.”
Calgarians can support the urgent work of community agencies by donating to the Community Impact Fund. This fund is the best way for Calgarians to make an impact in this period of crisis where adaptability and urgent response is critical. Through the Community Impact Fund, United Way is funding agencies and programming in the four focus areas of socioeconomic well-being, mental health, social inclusion, and healthy relationships.
In addition to the urgent need for resources, United Way and its social sector partners are creating solutions and partnerships to better serve people now and into the future. Watch this space for a story about how we are working together to make things better.
The affordability crisis is causing a ripple throughout our social sector. In part 2 of our ongoing series, we explore the toll on mental health supports.