Fort McMurray non-profits face huge demand as unemployment skyrockets

·3 min read

With unemployment numbers nearly doubling over the last six months, Fort McMurray's families are turning more often to the non-profit sector for help.

At the Salvation Army, the need for family services has grown significantly in the last few months.

Executive director Edna Olsen-Moman said there has been higher demand for assistance with rent payments.

In an average month, the Salvation Army typically spends about $3,000 helping out renters. But with the end of the three-month rent grace period, the Salvation Army has spent $12,000 this month trying to help people stay in their homes.

"The landlords are looking for payment, and [tenants] don't have the money," Olsen-Moman said. "That's through no fault of their own. It may be because they've been laid off. They've taken a reduction in wage."

The Salvation Army's thrift shop has been closed since March when the building was heavily damaged by the April flood.

Recently, Suncor donated $40,000, allowing the Salvation Army to open a temporary clothing drop off.

"Vulnerable people within our community would not have the clothing that they needed to keep warm this winter, and they didn't have the thrift store to access," Olsen-Moman said.

Now people can call in for winter jackets, children's boots or other clothing, and the Salvation Army will find something appropriate for the family.

11.4 per cent unemployment

In December 2019, Fort McMurray-Cold Lake had a 4.2 per cent unemployment rate. In September this year, that number was 11.4 per cent, according to Statistics Canada.

That increase in unemployment has been felt at the region's food bank.

Dan Edwards, executive director of the Wood Buffalo Food Bank, said the food bank has had about double the number of clients in the past months.

On average, the food bank is getting about 50 new clients a month. The biggest spike in clients was after the April flood, when there were 297 new clients.

"This is a long-haul race," Edward said. "Because COVID isn't going to just go away quickly."

He said now he's preparing for tax season, as people who were on employment insurance or CERB have to pay back some of the money.

Edwards said he does see a bright spot, in that there has been substantial community support for the food bank at this time.

'It became about … survival'

Rhonda Robinson is executive director for Choices, a non-profit that helps those with barriers or limitations find employment.

Up to Oct. 30, when the non-profit's contract with the Government of Alberta ended, Choices was primarily helping people with disaster relief, Robinson said.

With swaths of layoffs, the organization helped more than 150 clients get IDs and apply for employment insurance and CERB.

"It became about … survival," Robinson said. "Having the money to pay your bills, to buy your food."

When the program ended, about 45 per cent of the organization's clients were looking for work and Robinson worries what's going to happen to them now.

Mayor Don Scott was not available for an interview, but he said in an email the region needs a federal government that understands that economic recovery runs through the development of natural resources, like the oilsands.

"This change in perspective would certainly go a long way to enabling better job creation in the region," Scott said.