Long wait lists, tight rental market, stereotypes cause struggle
Single mother Briana Di Massimo said that only a couple of short years ago, it was nearly impossible to make a comfortable home in Calgary for herself and her now three-year-old son Aidan.
"It got to the point where I was living in a household with eight other people — pretty much couch surfing with my son because that was the only thing that I could afford," the young mother recalled.
Di Massimo is not alone. Women in marginalized groups, including single mothers, face additional struggles when it comes to reaching financial stability and finding a home.
Tight vacancy rates in Calgary, made worse with last year's flooding, have made it even tougher for some to find a home — especially single mothers.
A 2012 report by the Calgary Poverty Reduction Initiative Women's Constellation stated that, "Poverty is a leading cause of social exclusion in Calgary." Adding, "Statistics show that single-parent mothers are seven times more likely to be below the Statistics Canada low-income-cut-offs than double-parent homes."
Calgary Housing Company, which is a City-owned corporation, provides subsidized housing to low-income Calgarians.
Di Massimo put her name on the waiting list as soon as her son was born, she said. But when she was told there would be a two- to four-month wait, she went out and started job hunting around the city.
Finding a home did not go according to plan, but finally after applying four times over the span of two years, she finally got in.
Di Massimo said she did not receive housing sooner was because her information had been submitted or received incorrectly. She said it took the complaints and efforts of her social workers, her teachers and herself to finally secure subsidized housing.
Judy Wilkins, manager of client services at the Calgary Housing Company said the company can not actually give citizens an estimate on wait times due to the nature of their waiting list.
"It's based on incomes, its based on family composition, what their current living situation is and how much rent they're paying," said Wilkins.
During that two-year wait for subsidized housing, Di Massimo said she had no choice but to leave her mother's home. When landlords found out that she had a child, they often didn't call her back. The one time that she was able to rent, Di Massimo attributes to the fact that her boyfriend at the time had signed the lease; but money was tight.
"I either bought Aidan diapers and formula, or got a bus pass," said Di Massimo, adding that she would sometimes go without food to ensure her son got what he needed. With rent at $900 and Di Massimo only making $1200 per month, there was not much leeway in her budget.
Di Massimo was then placed in a home with the Calgary Housing Company but soon faced problems as she said some residents were abusing drugs and alcohol. She did not stay for long, but said that living in the subsidized housing gave her a chance to get back on her feet and she is thankful for that.
Some supports in our city include:
For now, Di Massimo and her son Aidan are back living with a friend to create a more sustainable living environment.
Amanda St. Laurent is a program manager at the Calgary Urban Project Society (CUPS), an agency that serves Calgarians living below the poverty line.
"Right now there just simply isn't any (housing), and obviously when the availability goes down, the rent goes extremely high," she said.
St. Laurent said that there are many social support systems in our city that can provide assistance to single mothers and families that are struggling, but adds that she can see how some adjustments need to be made in order to accommodate rising numbers and women in varying situations.
Alberta Works is another support that helps low-income Albertans cover their basic costs of living and find and retain jobs. But St. Laurent argues that this often is still not enough for single-mothers in Calgary.
"Currently that allowance that you get through [Alberta Works] is just simply not going to pay for market rental housing—it's just not going to pay all the bills," said St.Laurent.
She added that although she thinks Alberta Works is a great social support, it does not work for everyone because the service provides Calgarians with the same amount of money as citizens living anywhere else in Alberta. While some people may need less of that money, many living in areas where there is a higher cost of living may also need more.
When a service like Alberta Works cannot provide all of the support an individual or family needs, Calgarians can turn to organizations such as Calgary Housing Company, which St. Laurent said currently has a waiting list of approximately 3,500 people. CUPS is another social resource that has a large waiting list as well.
Cathy Coutts is the executive director at the Women in Need Society, a not-for-profit agency that works with women and their families who are in low-income situations.
"Calgary specifically has an extensive support system where numerous agencies work together to help women and their families," Coutts said.
For example, the Women in Need Society collaborates with over 65 other agencies to refer women to the right resources and supports that can help them meet their individual needs.
Although Coutts prides Calgary on the services it provides, Di Massimo said that the problem is that the waitlists are too long, and many mothers, especially the younger ones, are not aware of the services that are available to them.
Not only are some Calgary mothers struggling to find or maintain housing, but the same problem arises for some people living outside the city.
Ivory Harder, a 20-year-old single mother, lives in Winnipeg, MB with her young son.
Harder said that she had wanted to move to Calgary for some time after facing problems finding housing in Winnipeg, but this was easier said than done.
"With my second apartment, managers were wonderful but the other tenants were dangerous, loud, and there was a lot of illegal activity going on. I felt uncomfortable having my son there any longer so we quickly left," Harder wrote in an email to the Calgary Journal.
"One apartment I checked out was perfect for us, but the landlord refused to give us an application because of my age and marital status," she wrote. "She told me she did not feel I was a good fit for their community because she didn't want any parties in the building. She assumed because I was a young parent that I would not take care of the suite and would behave irresponsibly. It made me furious."
Harder is still hoping to relocate from Winnipeg to Calgary. She said she would appreciate the fresh start, the larger city, the better opportunities and the family atmosphere — but certain factors made her hesitate.
"I don't feel I would be able to afford living in Calgary from the price range of the apartments I found. I feel it would be too much of a risk packing up to move there," she wrote.
"It's frustrating because I feel I am trapped here, for the time being."
Harder plans to wait until the next school semester to start working towards a degree and begin to gain more security and independence.
Although single mothers around the globe face individual struggles, Di Massimo said she thinks there is one commonality.
"It all comes down to society judging single moms. Teen moms, especially," Di Massimo said.
"I still get looked down on and I still get judged anywhere I go."
Although there is a certain stigma that can come with being a single mother, there are women that disprove these stereotypes everyday and only a portion of people who hold single mothers to these negative representations.
"We live in a city where we believe that everyone should have access to basic items — that no one should go without those basic necessities to get through the day," Coutts said
"I know now that there are these services out there," Di Massimo said.
"But it's been hard and continues even at 21 with my own car, with a good job and after graduating high school," she added.
- By DEJA LEONARD