Calgary outdigs Edmonton in accessing funds to help seniors shovel

· The Pulse

As a fresh dump of snow blankets the city, an advocacy group says Edmonton is not doing as well as Calgary at helping low-income seniors access $1,300 per household in provincial funds to help pay for snow removal and similar services.

It's a question of coordination, not favouritism, said Sheila Hallett, executive director of the Edmonton Seniors Coordinating Council, noting the effectiveness of Calgary's Fair Entry program, which helps qualified seniors access the provincial Special Needs Assistance program.

"The way it works in Calgary, they'll help the person access that pot of money and they get the snow, or (lawn) mowing, or housekeeping organized," Hallett told Taproot. "If the snow-removal company goes to the senior's house, they clear the snow, there's no interaction between the senior and the company, the senior just knows someone's showing up, they're getting their walks cleaned, and out of that $1,300 (provincial pot), however much they're needing to pay for that, goes right to the city to pay the company. And if there's any overage charges, the city covers it."

A low-income senior in Edmonton must do all of this organizing, paying, and applying for reimbursement themselves, Hallett said. Though the provincial money is open to anyone who qualifies due to age and income, Hallett has seen internal Calgary research that shows 51% of the dollars go to Calgary residents, 27% to the rest of Alberta, and just 22% to Edmonton residents.

"It seems like because they've got this program in Calgary, it really does get more people accessing that benefit," Hallett said.

Efforts and discussions are ongoing to change this in Edmonton. But the pathway to success looks challenging due, in part, to a council directive known as OP12 calling on administration to cut $60 million from the budget and reallocate a further $240 million to core services.

Coun. Erin Rutherford told Taproot she put forward a motion in November to fund a two-year pilot of snow clearing programs for seniors, as well as those with long-term disabilities and temporary mobility challenges. "Unfortunately … it was not funded and I personally feel that this is a big miss," Rutherford said in an email.

Rutherford also noted recent discussions about OP12 have made such a program even less likely. "That being said, I still want to see this advance," she said. "We need to do better on this issue … This kind of program is a great example of ensuring we are leveraging resources from other orders of government for community benefit and leaves no one behind as we progress our city."

A photo of a city sidewalk with snow cleared from most of it and a portion left unshovelled

Seniors can face $100 fines for not clearing their own sidewalks, and are likely to remain house-bound due to snow and ice, say advocates who want Edmonton to replicate what Calgary does to access provincial dollars for snow clearing. (Tim Querengesser)

Hallett is pushing for Edmonton to follow Calgary's lead by intentionally accessing the $1,300 in provincial dollars for each qualified senior household, organizing city-contracted snow clearing, and covering overages. "We liked the idea of the program (Edmonton has discussed), but (we said) we think you need to build in that overage charge, like Calgary does," she said.

Why is something as simple as snow clearing so important? Icy walkways leave many seniors feeling forced to remain indoors during the winter rather than walking in their community, adding to the hidden tragedy of social isolation, Hallett said.

Services such as cleaning, snow removal, and yard maintenance allow someone with low or fixed income to remain in their home even if they don't have a friend or relative to help them. The seniors council's research shows that 20% of low-income seniors in Edmonton have no one to turn to in times of crisis.

"We want people to remain healthy," Hallett said. "And we have to think about how we help them connected, and part of that is trying to address any barriers that keep them from being able to do that. People increasingly say they want to stay living in communities … The city worries about walkable communities, and this is just part of that. It's another piece of the puzzle for helping keep people mobile, healthy, engaged, and part of an active community."

There is a pervasive belief among Edmonton leaders that volunteers and voluntary organizations like community leagues can fill gaps that governments don't, Hallett added. "One of the city councillors had said, 'You know, there's a lot of good people out there that that could help people shovel their walks,'" Hallett said. "Well, that's true, but it's not something that person can count on."

Rutherford's forecast that OP12 budget constraints might limit a program from getting off the ground feels like a potential lost opportunity, Hallett said.

First, it could mean seniors will still realize less help to clear their own sidewalks and remain in their homes, she said. But further, it could mean Edmonton is not figuring out more efficient ways to do more.

Calgary's approach "is a smart way of doing it," Hallett said. Were Edmonton to follow it, "they could be potentially saving on some budget."