As The City Grows Taller

Taken from the Roof of the Calgary Drop-In, Dec 2011
Taken from the Roof of the Calgary Drop-In,
Dec 2011

Warm and snug in my car, I look out at the snowy landscape and wait for a red light to change to green. On the other side of the street, construction crews and equipment busily transform a once empty lot into a sparkling new high-rise apartment condo. A billboard promises to deliver an exceptional quality of life to investors smart enough to arrive at that prestigious address.

In the crosswalk, a man shambles slowly across the street from the other side of the road. I cannot see his face. He is huddled into the protective shield of a blue and brown blanket clenched tightly in one dirt caked hand beneath his neck. He walks in front of my car towards the sidewalk, each faltering step leading him out of the line of traffic towards the safety of the curb. As he reaches the curb, he stumbles against the concrete lip separating him from the safety of the sidewalk.

The light turns green. The man stares down at the ground measuring his next step.

In the curbside lane to my right, a well dressed man in a sleek, dark blue car grows impatient. He honks his horn and motions expressively at the blanket enshrouded figure to get out of his way. The man pays no attention. Slowly, methodically, he lifts one foot up and onto the sidewalk and then the other. The crosswalk cleared, the dark blue car roars away as I too move on, the image of the blanket enshrouded figure growing smaller and smaller in my rearview mirror as snow drifts down and covers up all sign of our passing through the intersection of each other’s lives.

Such is life in Calgary. Contradictions. Juxtapositions. And homelessness.

Where once a boarding house offered affordable shelter to single men and women, a skyrise soars into the air with its promise of the good life to come. A man who possesses everything grows momentarily impatient with someone who has nothing and leaves him in the dust of his passing by. Forgotten. Dismissed. A nobody left in the past.

This is Calgary growing taller in another boom. Good times. Affluence. Rising buildings. Rising prices. And homelessness.

In “Homeless: A Prevention-Oriented Approach.” (John Hopkins University Press, 1992), Rene I. Jahiel, MD, PhD. writes: “In general, the events that make people homeless are initiated and controlled by other people whom our society allows to engage in the various enterprises that contribute to the homelessness of others. The primary purpose of these enterprises is not to make people homeless but, rather, to achieve socially condoned aims such as making a living, becoming rich, obtaining a more desirable home, increasing the efficiency of the workplace, promoting the growth of cultural institutions, giving cities a competitive advantage, or helping local or federal governments to balance their budgets or limit their debts. Homelessness occurs as a side effect.”

Calgary. Soaring skylines. Growing up. Changing lives. And homelessness.

We talk of ending homelessness and in the same breath widen the gap between the haves and the have nots with our conviction that growth and prosperity are intrinsic values of our society; at all costs. We plan for the future where everyone will have a place to call home and at the same time create more homelessness through our insistence that bigger is better. Bigger cities. Bigger homes. Bigger incomes. Bigger lives.

We tear down buildings that once housed low income Calgarians without consideration for where they will move on to and call it, progress. We displace renters with condo conversions and call it, free enterprise. We displace and disenfranchise those who struggle at the fringes of our society to fit in because they can’t keep up with rent increases and higher costs of living and call it, the future.

I waited for a red light to turn green and witnessed the city growing taller as a homeless man, huddled into his blanket, grew smaller in my rearview mirror.


I originally wrote this piece in 2007 where it appeared in the no longer active, Drop In Calgary blog HERE. I have edited it slightly and am fascinated by how seven years later, the cycle has once again kicked in — with the boom in our economy making it harder and harder for those on the margins to find a way home.

13 thoughts on “As The City Grows Taller”

  1. LG

    well writ!

    sadly, I think, too many resources aimed at helping the homeless situation are directed to discussions of causes and not enough pointed at solutions

    there is a job opening out there – the Calgary Homeless Foundation are searching for a new CEO

    don’t you think you should have your hat in that ring?



  2. We do not seem to have such an issue with homelessness in Australia. It does exist; however, our social welfare system tends to look after most of the disadvantaged. I thought Canada did the same, so it baffles me as to why homelessness still exists to the extent it does.


    1. The challenge here is lack of affordable housing — and government policies years ago that took the focus off housing as a federal responsibility. As well, provincial governments closed down mental health beds with the belief that putting people into community was better — challenge is, they didn’t have the supports needed and thus, many became homeless. According to the police, it was almost an over night 50% rise in homelessness when they shut down beds.


Real conversations begin with your comments. Please share your thoughts.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.