'Our next pandemic': Calgary's housing fragility takes a heavy toll on mental health

When Ashley Laduranteay lost her condo to foreclosure — which she bought with money her mother left behind when she died — it triggered a mental health crisis. (Karina Zapata/CBC - image credit)
When Ashley Laduranteay lost her condo to foreclosure — which she bought with money her mother left behind when she died — it triggered a mental health crisis. (Karina Zapata/CBC - image credit)

WARNING: This story discusses suicide and contains distressing details.

The second time Ashley Laduranteay checked into Rockyview General Hospital's crisis stabilization unit, it was mostly for a warm, stable bed.

It was October, and she had just become homeless after facing foreclosure on her condo. She's been navigating depression and obsessive compulsive disorder for years, but she says losing her home was her breaking point.

"I was ready to end it all. I felt like I'd lost," said the 28-year-old administrative clerk who now sleeps on a relative's day bed. It was her second visit to the crisis unit in two months.

"You never really think about how important it is to have just a bed, a place to sleep, a place that's comfortable and warm and there's light and you're safe," she said. "It shouldn't be something we can take away."

Karina Zapata/CBC
Karina Zapata/CBC

Laduranteay reached out to CBC Calgary through our text messaging community after we asked for people's stories on housing. Her story helped flag a pattern — others are also finding that unstable housing, and worries about their housing, has a major toll on their mental health. It might even be the trigger for a crisis.

As the rental market gets tighter, that's ringing alarm bells for local experts across mental health and poverty sectors, who say the issue needs to be addressed and resourced now.

Last year, the Distress Centre's crisis line received 2,486 calls about shelter or housing. Mental health was a concern with 41 per cent of those calls, and suicide was a concern with 25 per cent of them.

For their 211 line, Mike Velthuis Kroeze, director of programs and performance with the centre, says they've seen a 17 per cent increase in calls or texts from 2021 about shelter or housing.

"It is unfortunately much more common than anyone would want to see," he said.

Rent increase is the last straw

Elaine, who asked to be identified by her middle name, also texted CBC Calgary in late December, when she was going through a mental health crisis.

Months before, the 67-year-old was terminated from her job after taking an extended medical leave when she caught COVID-19.

Then her rental company said it's raising her rent by 25 per cent in April, for the apartment suite she's been living in for 13 years.

"That was the final straw that just tipped the scale for me. I just went, 'I can't do this anymore.'"

Dealing with her former boss, worrying about when employment insurance would kick in and now figuring out how to keep a roof over her head — Elaine says she contemplated suicide for the first time that night.

Bryan Labby/CBC
Bryan Labby/CBC

After she told a friend, they called Calgary police for a wellness check. Officers gave her a food hamper and connected her with the Distress Centre's Mobile Response Team.

That de-escalated her crisis and she has started seeing a counsellor. But a month later, she's still looking for work. It'll take a good job to afford $1,425 rent on her own, and the April deadline is looming.

"I've been working since I was 15 years old. I never thought I would have to fight for survival like this," she said.

"What's going to happen to me? I will probably be out on the street."

Local experts see looming mental health crisis

Meaghon Reid, executive director of anti-poverty group Vibrant Communities Calgary, hears personal stories and compiles economic indicators to track both the city's housing issues and mental health.

She says the two are deeply intertwined. Poor mental health makes it harder to cope with housing problems, and housing problems can make people's mental health worse.

"This problem is much deeper and much more pervasive than we have [appreciated] over the past few years," said Reid.

"I think that is our next pandemic. It's a mental health crisis and I'm not sure that we're ready for that."

She says about 44 per cent of Canadians are one paycheck away from financial disaster, and 48 per cent of Canadians are losing sleep because of financial stress — a large part of which involves worrying about paying rent.

Meanwhile Calgary's tight rental market is expected to get worse this year with vacancy rates dropping and rents increasing. On Friday, the website Rentals.ca reported another increase — rents for two-bedroom units in Calgary increased by 18 per cent to an average $1,850 in the last year. Additionally, record high numbers of people have been moving here from out-of-province and internationally.

At the same time, rising interest rates mean others are struggling to get or pay mortgages.

"This is now middle-income earners; it's a lot of people," said Reid. "We need some solutions geared towards everybody on this one."

Falling through the cracks

As for Elaine, she'd love to see politicians asking more questions of the companies jacking up rents. And she wonders if the provincial or federal government could create an emergency fund to help when the threat of losing a home triggers a mental health crisis.

Laduranteay says her struggle with mental health played a role in her losing her home, in addition to the loss of the home sparking a crisis. When her depression worsened, she struggled to care for her home properly. As she was recovering, the condo board took her to court for $30,000 in upgrades to the unit.

When she couldn't pay, the bank decided to foreclose on the condo. She had to give up her cats.

Submitted by Ashley Laduranteay
Submitted by Ashley Laduranteay

She says people in her position — who work stable, full time jobs but still aren't able to afford a home — are falling through the cracks of the system. She can't get access to the new temporary provincial affordability payments because she's single with no children.

She's been looking into transitional housing, but says most resources are for people who are experiencing addiction or are fleeing domestic violence.

"I should hypothetically be able to pay for a house, pay rent, but the prices are just so high," she said.

"There have been times I've seriously considered, should I just take up doing drugs in order to qualify for a house? … I want that space again, that freedom again."

Resources for Calgarians in crisis

  • If you or someone you know is struggling, here's where to get help:

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