EDMONTON — Alberta's economic downturn is putting the squeeze on charities as growing numbers of unemployed seek help and others cut back on discretionary spending.
Demand is up at food banks in Calgary, Edmonton and Fort McMurray, swollen by people who have recently lost their jobs in the oilpatch or by others who were laid off last year and have burned through their savings and credit.
Capt. Pam Goodyear of the Salvation Army says requests for help are up by as much as 30 per cent in the province from last year. Smaller communities are being hard hit.
"It is people who have lost their jobs and never had to ask for help before,'' Goodyear said Monday. "Some are looking for emergency food, help with utilities, help with rent.''
Unemployment rate, food bank clients on the rise
Last month, Alberta's seasonally adjusted unemployment rate was 7.4 per cent — up from 4.6 for the same time in 2015. Some economists believe the jobless rate could grow higher this year.
The Calgary Food Bank said it distributed food last month for 13,000 people — a jump of 24 per cent from the previous year.
Shawna Ogston, a food bank spokeswoman, said the number of new clients was up by 43 per cent.
"It's your neighbour, it is your friend, it is your family,'' she said. "You have to wonder what 2016 is going to bring.''
Low oil prices also hurt charity funding
The oil slump is also affecting a major source of funding for the STARS air ambulance service in Alberta. For the first time in 23 years, the non-profit agency is predicting it will not sell all the tickets for its annual lottery that includes homes, cars and cash.
STARS, which is partly funded by the province, depends on lottery proceeds for about one-third of its budget. Last year, the agency netted $11 million from ticket sales.
"It is the economy and the lack of discretionary cash,'' said STARS president Andrea Robinson. "We are going to have to look at new ways of raising money.''
Some charities are reporting that cash donations from corporations and the public have been up, especially over the holiday season. The hope is that the donations will keep coming and will be enough to cover demand if the economy doesn't improve this year.
"Without being pessimistic we are definitely preparing for the worst,'' Robinson said.
Goodyear said the already frugal Salvation Army is planning to tighten its belt in Alberta for the coming fiscal year, which begins in April.
The charity is setting the same fundraising goal as 2015 and is already looking at how to spend what it raises to benefit more people.
People who need help may get a little less, she said.
"We are nervous about what is coming.''
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