Thousands in Hamilton need help this season

A combination of cuts and economic conditions means your neighbours need you more than ever this year.

Mario Biscak is a vital part of the complex machinery that puts the right gifts in the right hands each Christmas across a community that has always given from the heart, but is especially overburdened this year.

This is Biscak’s sixth year on a team that starts work in November in an empty downtown warehouse to ensure that shelves are built, tables laid end to end, and gifts and groceries assembled for free shopping at the Wesley Urban Ministries Christmas Store.

“My experiences are just unbelievable,” said Biscak, blessed with good fortune that separates him from the more than 5,000 Hamiltonians who accessed the Christmas program last year.

“It literally tears you apart emotionally, inside. You want to cry. The number of people who have so very, very little, the need is just unbelievable.”

“Despite all the progress we’ve seen in Hamilton, economically the levels of low income haven’t changed. There are thousands of families that aren’t participating in this recovery.”
Bryan Webber
YMCA, vice-president of financial development

Like thousands of other people in Hamilton, Biscak is giving back through one of the city’s well-established nonprofit organizations that distribute Christmas food and gifts. They are all experiencing higher than normal demand this year.

This city is among Canada’s most generous — Hamiltonians give $40 more to charities annually than the national average of $260 — but more is needed, the agencies say. Recent cuts in social program funding by the province, lack of affordable housing and static wages that have not increased to meet the cost of living have stranded many families.

“Despite all the progress we’ve seen in Hamilton, economically the levels of low income haven’t changed,” said Bryan Webber, vice-president of financial development for the YMCA. “There are thousands of families that aren’t participating in this recovery.”

Hamilton is coping with funding cuts that are using up the city’s reserves of cash, normally held for emergencies to support food banks, shelters and people living in poverty. The provincial cuts led city council this month to approve one-time funding of $250,000 for emergency shelter beds. It also endorsed dipping into reserves in 2014 to cover an expected $2.1-million shortfall in homelessness prevention, cash for food banks and disability support programs.

Angela Dawe, director of community investment for the United Way of Burlington and Greater Hamilton, said front-line agencies that deliver programs are feeling a crunch.

“They’re seeing an increase in client needs, more clients accessing their services and because of that, their shelves are understocked or they are increasing their waiting lists,” Dawe said. “Youth is an area where we’re significantly challenged because of youth unemployment and individuals are struggling to service that group.”

It all leads to more demand on Christmas programs this year.

At the Hamilton Community Foundation, which last year granted just over $5 million to support all types of projects, applications for Christmas funding doubled this year under just one grant program, said grants manager Sharon Charters.

“This makes our job incredibly difficult,” Charters said. “It also does speak to the enormous need out there.”

Hamilton traditionally responds with compassion, said Sheree Meredith, the foundation’s vice-president of philanthropic services.

“A lot of people have a deep sense of belonging here. And I think there’s a growing commitment to make long-term change.”

People in Hamilton are especially sensitive to need at this time of year, making it possible for Good Shepherd, Mission Services and other nongovernmental agencies to collect the money and goods that make Christmas better for people living in poverty.

Sometimes, a small donation makes the biggest difference.

A top priority for Living Rock, for instance, is hundreds of new socks. Youth living on the street don’t have access to laundry, and can drop in to the Rock for new socks every day, something that comforts and heals. There were 29,000 youth visits to Living Rock’s food bank and meal programs last year.

Shelters across Hamilton regularly turn people away and have trouble getting even the most basic supplies. Bus tickets, toiletries, diapers, socks, underwear, towels, pyjamas and certain foods — snacks, coffee, tea, and kids’ lunch items — are in demand.

And for teenagers anywhere in the city, gifts are desperately needed. Most Christmas programs want cash to buy retail gift cards for 13- to 18-year-olds because donated merchandise doesn’t always translate into gifts of equal attraction for teens.

“We just want to bless them with a little bit of a gift,” said Julie Conway of Living Rock. “It’s great when we can offer youth similar gifts. Gift cards are something they love.”