Fighting inflation on a fixed income: These Calgary residents use faith, friends and a free breakfast

·5 min read
Inflation is at an 18-year high. Four Calgary residents share how they're coping with inflation on a fixed income or low wages. (Elise Stolte/CBC - image credit)
Inflation is at an 18-year high. Four Calgary residents share how they're coping with inflation on a fixed income or low wages. (Elise Stolte/CBC - image credit)

A senior celebrating his "magnificent" free breakfast, a single-mom who says only faith in God keeps her from going crazy, and a monk hoping for a raise on his disability stipend.

These Calgarians are among hundreds of thousands of Albertans who are trying to cope on small incomes as inflation hits an 18-year high in Canada.

According to government figures, more than 280,000 people in Alberta receive provincial stipends, either because they are low-income seniors, have a disability or are struggling to find work.

This support is no longer tied to the cost of living since indexing was paused in 2019.

Many others work low-wage jobs where pay has not increased to match the increased cost of gas, food and utilities.

CBC Calgary spoke with four people in these situations to get a read on how they're doing. Here are their stories.

Elise Stolte/CBC
Elise Stolte/CBC

Frank McLoone

Frank McLoone visits The Alex Community Food Centre for a free breakfast every Friday morning, wowed by the quality and effort put in by the volunteers and red seal chef.

"Roast zucchini and onion with a hint of ginger," he reads on the menu board and grins.

"These places find us. It's magnificent."

McLoone, who is in his 70s, has no private pension, only what the government provides. But with free breakfasts and events such as the recent free city festival in nearby Valleyview Park, he says he's thriving.

The reason, he says, is subsidized housing.

"There's an equation attached to our income that is so attractive to help us thrive. It would be fabulous if that same equation could be attached to young families who are paying exorbitant rents and huge, huge mortgages," said McLoone.

"At the instruction of the Alberta government, (the housing provider) looks at our total income from our tax return on Line 150. And for housing, they take a third of our total income and give us two-thirds as disposable income."

Elise Stolte/CBC
Elise Stolte/CBC

Rita Abraham

Rita Abraham works in housekeeping at a local hospital. But despite working for almost a decade, she still gets only part-time hours. That means paying the bills is tough.

She pays $930 in rent to Calgary Housing, but after that, there just isn't ever enough for food, gas and school fees.

She counts on the free food she gets from Humanity Promise, a recently-formed food charity that receives donations through Community Kitchen.

"Sometimes we get vegetables, bread, chicken, onions — a lot of different things," she said.

Living this way throughout the pandemic has been very stressful. But she says her faith has helped.

"You know, if you don't have a faith, you will run crazy," she said. "When you see your kids like this, you have to say: 'No. Let me just keep going and then the rest, God will make it.' Without faith, it is very hard."

Elise Stolte/CBC
Elise Stolte/CBC

Karma Tséwäng Gyurmey

Karma Tséwäng Gyurmey, a military vet and Buddhist monk, lives in a small apartment in the Thorncliffe neighbourhood. He's been getting a disability stipend through the Alberta government for six years, which comes in at about $1,700 a month. Rent eats up almost $1,000.

He stretches the dollars by buying brown rice, oats and other staples in bulk through a co-op that gets warehouse prices on organic foods. But with his electricity bills rising, he's had to cut back and buy less fresh produce.

Inflation has him hoping politicians will increase support and tie it to the actual cost of living again, since that indexing was paused shortly after the provincial government changed in 2019.

"It's not a huge raise, but when you're talking about a monthly income of under $2,000, every dollar can make a difference," he said. "I'm hoping we can get our indexing back and soon. We're coming up to January; it would be really nice to get a raise."

Elise Stolte/CBC
Elise Stolte/CBC

Tina Garstad

Tina Garstad works as a floor-level manager at an athletic store. She says the vast majority of people in retail are making minimum wage, or just above that. Many struggle to get full-time hours, and the money woes now come on top of rude customers spitting and yelling when asked to wear masks.

Federal support helped during layoffs, but now the tax bill on that support is coming due. "When you make minimum wage and have to pay back money … it's a worry."

Garstad saves money by cooking beans, maximizing points when grocery shopping and by not having a car. She walks to work instead. She also relies on a vibrant friend network for advice when she runs into a problem, such as recently when a dentist wanted her to pay $1,500 up front for a root canal.

She put out the call for advice and then realized — not only was her dentist charging 50 per cent more than the Alberta fee schedule — but many other dentists accommodate patients with direct billing and payment plans.

"I was having a total conniption," said Garstad. "There's nothing wrong with asking for a little help, and asking your friends if they know where you can access a certain service. Or if they just know how to listen. Sometimes that's the kindness that matters."

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