Calgarians are turning to each other as the cost of living rises | CBC News

Moving is a difficult chore in the best of times, but for Annika Jesper, a Calgary resident, the task was almost impossible. She relies on government aid as an AISH recipient and suffers from chronic pain.

However, she’s also a member of an online community, one that helped her through the difficult day almost four years ago. 

“This group has saved me — literally saved me,” said Jesper.

CBC News has agreed to use the pseudonym she uses online to protect her privacy.

Jesper said one of the administrators of the group and her husband came to her rescue that day, adding they “helped me finish packing, clean up and move out.”

She’s part of the “Calgarians Helping Calgarians” Facebook group. Over 5,200 others are, too.

When people scroll through the page, they can see all sorts of requests for things like food, recycling and other needs, and responses from people coming to their aid. It’s not attached to any government program or business. 

Jesper’s story is just one example of a social mechanism becoming more common in Calgary called mutual aid. 

People are turning to each other for help with difficulties due to disability or social barriers, and for stopgaps in government social supports. Mutual aid is a way for the community to gather and help those in need. People can give, and take, as needed. 

And Jesper has given back as well. 

“I remember one time this girl was asking for money for food and instead I offered to pay for a pizza,” she recalled.

But Jesper said, as someone on a fixed income with a disability, it’s been harder to offer help as the cost of living has risen. 

“The increase in prices, it has to stop or there’s going to be a lot of people dying, and I say that quite literally,” she said.

“I know my next rental increase is going to be close to 20 per cent. I don’t know where I’m going to come up with that. A lot of us face homelessness.

“We’re not capable of being homeless because we’re not mobile, or some people are not able to communicate properly. It’s really scary.”

Group usership jumps during pandemic

The Facebook group is run by sisters Kathy Fyfe and Sharon Moore. Moore got involved with the person who founded the page 10 years ago. Then took it on herself and invited her sister to join.

“We both care a lot about the community and we care about people. So I was happy to step in and work with her, and the two of us work really well together. It was a happy accident,” said Fyfe. 

Kathy Fyfe and Sharon Moore are sisters who run a Calgary-based Facebook group.
Sharon Moore, left, and Kathy Fyfe. Moore says her community-help Facebook group has increased in usership in the past four years since the start of the pandemic. (Sharon Moore)

Both women are retired and donate several hours per week to running the group. They handle new applications to join, monitor posts for inappropriate content, and handle other issues that arise from members. They say the group’s membership spiked in 2020. 

“It was exhausting. We were getting requests for 30 and 40 members a day,” said Moore. “It’s definitely settled down, but we still get lots of regular requests.”

To ensure people are not getting taken advantage of, the group doesn’t allow people to ask for monetary help, post GoFundMe pages or anything about a business.

The women have seen requests for help become more severe in recent years. In one instance, they delivered food to a working man who was living out of his truck and needed help.

What do the numbers say about mutual aid?

As the cost of living rises, demand for non-profit services is increasing, and they’re struggling to keep up.

Last May, 27-per-cent of Albertans who took part in an Ipsos survey of Canadians said they expected to access charitable services for basic needs in the following six months. 

More people are turning to crowdsourcing for help. GoFundMe, an online platform that allows people to raise money, says it recorded a 274 per cent increase since 2020 in Canadian campaigns that mentioned “cost of living.” That was a jump from 77 campaigns to 288. 

“There’s an increasing number of groups that are mobilizing to support each other,” said Katrina Milaney, a professor in community health sciences at the University of Calgary. 

Milaney says mutual aid is nothing new but has become more prevalent within the past couple of years with the increase in the cost of living. 

“There’s an increasing demand for services. Mental health issues are through the roof, unsafe substance-use is through the roof, and the funding that’s going to our social service sector is not keeping pace with the demand for services.”

Out of necessity, she said, normal people are stepping up to help, and mutual aid can be a quicker solution without barriers. She said it also provides a sense of autonomy to people who are accessing it. 

Katrina Milaney is the Associate Vice-President of Research and a professor in Community Health Sciences at the University of Calgary. Jan. 6, 2020.
Katrina Milaney says mutual aid efforts are on the rise to address the gaps in social supports as the cost of living increases. (University of Calgary)

“There’s a sense of empowerment when people can mobilize and find their own solutions when they’re having difficulties finding solutions in other ways,” said Milaney. 

“There’s some flexibility and some adaptability when you set the rules and the parameters around what supports can look like.” 

United African Diaspora is a mutual aid group in Calgary serving the Black and African community. It started in the summer of 2020 to address issues caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“The start of our collective was a response, for sure, to seeing how our communities were affected by COVID,” said organizer Prudence Iticka. 

She said some newcomers have trouble accessing the support they need when they arrive, and a lot of the group’s work aims to address that. 

“We serve a lot of refugee newcomers,” she said. “Until they’re accepted, they don’t have access to any of these different organizations that exist. We have a lot of newcomer mothers … who require a lot of necessities for new babies.” 

Iticka said she has spent several years volunteering for non-profit organizations. Her group aims to serve people with dignity, something she believes can be lacking in other social supports. 

“Something that really bothered me was just the barriers that I saw. Even feeding someone was like a process,” she said. “Someone’s hungry, let’s go feed them. It was like ‘someone’s hungry. Let’s sit down, analyze it.'”

Prudence Iticka says she's noticed a heightened need for mutual aid since the start of the pandemic, and hopes more people get involved with running and organizing them.
Prudence Iticka says she’s noticed a heightened need for mutual aid groups since the start of the pandemic, and hopes more people get involved with it. (Terri Trembath/CBC)

Iticka said she sees mutual aid becoming more common, but she would like to see more people, especially those accessing it, get more involved. She said mutual aid isn’t a charity, where people are only on one side, either give or take — everyone should be involved in its operation. 

“The whole point is to grab that person’s hand to come and work with you,” she said. “Grab their hand and pull them into the work. We are losing the ‘mutual’ part in mutual aid. It is now becoming just ‘aid.'”

In Milaney’s research, she works with community organizations and people with lived experience in Calgary and Alberta. The goal is to figure out where barriers are being created for people when accessing social supports, and where government policies don’t address these issues. 

There are potential risks to mutual aid.

Calgary police say they have not seen reports of particular scams from social media groups, but say they are aware of people who do take advantage of charitable efforts, and warn people to use critical thinking when getting involved.

Milaney says depending on the forum, the risk varies. She said monetary-based websites like GoFundMe can hold a higher risk. 

“That’s a little bit different than a group of grassroots people or a group of lived-experience experts coming together to support each other,” she said.

“Obviously there’s a bit more of a risk, and certainly we’ve heard some stories of people who create, you know, false issues.”

Iticka thinks mutual aid can be a sustainable solution to social scarcities. 

“I think people need to open up themselves to doing things in a different way,” she said. “A group of people can make significant change in society.”

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