Serving Calgary, Red Deer, Edmonton and surrounding areas

Homeless seniors

by Lilianne Fuller


As shocking as it sounds, seniors are becoming the new face of homelessness. More and more seniors are turning up at shelters and at communal meals.

Contributing factors to homelessness in seniors are much the same as those in their younger counterparts. Poor choices, economic downturns, mental health issues, and sheer bad luck are some reasons. But for seniors, other factors emerge as well. For example, if a spouse passes away a woman could become homeless because now she is the only one left to pay the rent or the mortgage. The onset of dementia can also play a part. The senior forgets to pay the rent, the taxes or the mortgage and before they know it, they are facing an eviction notice. The pain of a traumatic event can also trigger a person’s descent into despair, hopelessness and ultimately homelessness.

An example of this scenario is Jim. As a child he saw his mother murdered and this trauma stayed with him a very long time. At 50 he lost his business and lived in shelters for next 13 years. It was only after he entered counselling for drug addiction that he was able to come to terms with her death. One of the last shelter’s where Jim lived was operated by The Mustard Seed, a local non-profit society that takes its name from Jesus’s Parable in Matthew 13:31-32.

The roots of The Mustard Seed began as a street ministry undertaken by First Baptist Church in the 1970’s and early 80’s. The Burning Bush Coffeehouse was a drop-in centre for the homeless and in 1984 founder Pat Nixon planted The Mustard Seed in an old house in downtown Calgary. Today The Mustard Seed has grown with locations in Calgary, Edmonton and Red Deer.

The 2018 Homeless count found that while the overall numbers of homeless are down, a disturbing trend is emerging. The number of seniors in shelters is growing. It was reported that 5 percent of the homeless are seniors. John Rook, The Mustard Seed’s Managing Director (Calgary) & Director of Strategic Initiatives is all too aware of this trend. “Some people are saying that we have a senior’s crisis, and many are slipping through the cracks. Some shelters are saying that their shelter stayers over the age of 50 are as high as 23 percent,” he says.

The goal of the shelter is not to be a permanent solution. Instead it is to find a place other than a shelter for their clients to live. Rook explains. “In our shelter we have worked very hard to shift our thinking. While a bed and three meals a day are important, we believe that the purpose of a shelter is to support people on their journey to wellness, and on their journey to home. We want our staff to do everything they can to support people on their journey to home. Home should be a place of safety, the right size, in the right location, affordable, and happy for homeless people,” he says.

In 2016 a Wellness Centre was incorporated to help their clients even more holistically. Staff found that poor health is a significant obstacle for people who are working toward achieving stable housing and sustainable employment. Services offered to clients comprise medical care (doctor, physiotherapist, chiropractor, occupational therapist), spiritual care, counselling and help with addictions. In addition, there is help available with taxes and legal assistance.

When Jim turned 65 he applied for Old Age Security (OAS). An advocate at the Mustard Seed helped him with his paperwork. Now that he has OAS and a Guaranteed Income Supplement, he has a small apartment and volunteers at the university to share his story of homelessness and his journey to home with students. The students love to go on a street walk with him and he loves to introduce them to his street friends. He says that without the OAS and the help he received from The Mustard Seed he would likely be dead.
To learn more about The Mustard Seed and its numerous programs, visit or call 403-269-1319.