Ali Hammington stands in the garden of Alberta Avenue Community League

Ali Hammington: serving the community as Alberta Avenue Community League president, 2019-2021

Ali Hammington only intended to move to Alberta Avenue for six months. Through a friend, she was offered a good deal on an apartment and planned to return to the University area once her lease was up. She laughed and said, “Six months later, you couldn’t drag me out of here.” 

Alberta Avenue is one of the economically poorest neighbourhoods in Edmonton. It also was number one in Edify magazine’s “great neighbourhood” list in 2020. This contradiction stood out to Hammington. She said, “One of the things that really surprised me when I moved here is there’s all this great art activity going on, but there’s not so much going on for poor people.” She asked herself, “How can this be?” and said, “That is actually why I became president—to lead with the intent to integrate all members of the community, not just the middle class homeowners.”

Hammington was elected president of the Alberta Avenue Community League for the 2019 to 2021 term. Hammington laughed, “I scared the crap out of them. Even Steven [Michos – who has been facility caretaker of the league for 12 years] admitted it. About a year later, he said, ‘We thought you were nuts. We thought this was all just gonna go to hell.’”

She responded to Michos, “I know what I’m doing. That doesn’t mean I don’t make mistakes. But thank you for trusting me.”

Community members who were leery of the changes Hammington wanted to make came to Hub Nights on Thursdays to help, despite their initial nervousness. Hammington said, “Given the dynamic of the neighbourhood, when somebody shows up and says, ‘We’re gonna start inviting poor, hungry homeless people into the hall once a week ….’ I get where the concern comes from.”

The Covid pandemic derailed Hammington’s original vision for community health. She had intended that the league be a community gathering spot, where different programs, classes, and activities were offered. In March of 2020, all social gatherings were stopped by public health restrictions. Hammington said the league began providing the emergency food pantry “because it was legally the only service we were allowed to provide. We knew that there were a lot of hungry people.” 

Given the socio-economic realities of the neighbourhood, access to food is precarious. Thirty per cent of community members work hourly wage jobs in sales, service, and arts—occupations that were hit hardest in the March to May lockdown. While in theory, people should have an emergency fund, for the 47 per cent of people in the neighbourhood who live on incomes between $833 and $2,500 per month, that is virtually impossible. After the lockdown started, it was nearly a month before people who were laid off due to Covid had access to the federal government’s CERB (Canadian Emergency Response Benefit) program. While pandemic restrictions were difficult for people across Canada, the effects were felt more keenly in poorer communities. 

Given the socio-economic realities of the neighbourhood, access to food is precarious. Thirty per cent of community members work hourly wage jobs in sales, service, and arts—occupations that were hit hardest in the March to May lockdown. While in theory, people should have an emergency fund, for the 47 per cent of people in the neighbourhood who live on incomes between $833 and $2,500 per month, that is virtually impossible. After the lockdown started, it was nearly a month before people who were laid off due to Covid had access to the federal government’s CERB (Canadian Emergency Response Benefit) program. While pandemic restrictions were difficult for people across Canada, the effects were felt more keenly in poorer communities. 

Hammington shared what led her to pushing forward with the implementation of Hub Night. “I’ve got to tell you a little story here. Throughout my career, I’ve had a lot of interest in mental illness and addictions.

“I’m a real fan of Dr. Gabor Maté in Vancouver. He is the one who says, ‘the opposite of addiction is not sobriety—the opposite of addiction is connection.’ “

“And I have this idea that we had this big building and all these resources—we find those people who are just lacking connection in their life and not offer to serve them like the welfare agencies do, but to welcome them into our family and to help them find a role as a volunteer, even if it’s a minimal role. That is what builds self-esteem. That’s what builds confidence and it has been so successful. Probably a dozen of our food pantry clients are actively involved in volunteering for Hub Nights. They cook meals, they make bannock, they sort, they hand out food, they sort clothing, and they feel like they’re part of a team.”

Community volunteers operated an emergency pantry for Edmonton’s Food Bank out of the community league from March 2020 to July 2021. Hammington was critical of the paperwork involved. “Their relentless demands for more and more data and proof and identification from clients is what holds us up every night.” She continued, “Part of the problem with welfare agencies is: ‘it’s us and them’.”

She illustrated her frustration with an example. “We’ve got a family with nine kids, they’ve got to provide ID for every one of those nine children every time they come through the door. The Food Bank demands it and if you don’t do it, they won’t give us food.”

Hammington said Edmonton’s Food Bank assured league organizers that the food recipients received from the league’s emergency pantry wouldn’t affect a recipient’s normal hampers from the Food Bank. 

“And that was a lie. We had a 73-year-old lady who was denied her monthly food hamper on the grounds that she used our pantry too frequently.” Hammington advocated hard for the woman. “I demanded that they immediately give her a support worker to find out if she’s being financially abused, or if it’s Alzheimer’s or what’s going on. They said yes, but they never followed through.” Hammington’s team skirted the system to protect the woman. Hamminton stated, “She comes every Thursday, and we don’t write down her name.”

“That gives you an idea about how I feel about some of these agencies,” Hammington stated.

Hammington explained the woman might have all kinds of reasons why she’s accessing food. “Why don’t you ask her what they are? They [the Food Bank] are rigid. They are an industry. They have the funds. So many staff. Massive amounts of money.” She concluded, “Lots of people are making a living off of helping people when it’s just so much easier to give the hungry people food.”

Hammington’s critiques extended to other social services. “Right now we have a multimillion dollar homelessness industry. But none of it is going to the homeless people.”

She illustrated with an example from her personal life. “I’ve got a guy living next to me. He’s been housed under a government program [his rent is paid for three months]. His friends are coming around to get in his apartment, 24 hours a day. They’re ringing my buzzer. They’re knocking on the windows. They’re leaving messes in the hallway that he refuses to clean up. The caretaker told me: ‘As soon as the three months’ rent is gone, he won’t pay his rent, we’ll throw him out.’” 

Once he is evicted, he will again be homeless and will likely end up going through the whole homeless-to-housing process again. “And then he’ll become another statistic and be another check mark for somebody else.” 

Despite the considerable number of social service agencies with their facilities located on or near Alberta Avenue, there were not a lot of services actually offered in the community. This was highlighted in the first year of the Covid pandemic. “I really thought what became obvious was the lack of social programming on the Ave.” Hammington said one example was how Arts on the Ave set up their programming so that families can help other families who needed groceries. 

(Arts on the Ave, which produces the Kaleido and Deep Freeze arts festivals, pivoted during Covid to provide connections between Alberta Avenue residents who were experiencing food insecurity and those who had resources to spare.)

“Imagine if people that moved into this neighbourhood came over here [to the community league], and we gave them a free membership. And all of a sudden, they have resources, they have places they can come to us and say, ‘Where do I get clothes? Where do I get food? How can I access mental health supports? How can I make friends?’

That is ultimately my goal for this league: to be the place where people come so that we can help them start healing. We can give them the resources. We meet the need. We can give them opportunities to make friends with a large variety of people and to be part of something and once you’re part of the community, we’re chipping away at your addiction because you’re building connections.”

Hammington shared what brought her to this point in her career. She’s worked with battered women, and with street kids and children in danger of prostitution. Her turning point came when she worked for the HIV Network. “I had all these clients who qualified for AISH who were homeless. The reason they were homeless is because they didn’t have a damage deposit, even though they had enough to pay rent. They just didn’t have a damage deposit. Meanwhile, they were paying me $25,000 a year to fill pointless housing forms. They were going to be dead before their turn came up, because back then AIDS killed people. We had a million dollar a year budget. And we had guys 16 [years old], my clients who were homeless because they couldn’t come up with $300 for a damage deposit. It was disgusting.”

After Hammington moved to the Alberta Avenue community, she decided to run for the position of president of the community league. She said, “I knew exactly what I wanted to do. The very first change I made as president was to remove the fee for memberships.” She emphasized, “It was a nominal fee:10 bucks per person, 20 bucks for a family. For most people, it’s hardly anything. To poor people, it’s far too much.” She continued, “I wanted to make the league more accessible to more people in the community to bring in the newcomers, the [Indigenous] people, people who maybe don’t know what a community league is for.” 

She clarified, “You and I grew up in a Canadian city; we know [what a community league is]. And yet, people from other countries or who grew up in reserves will walk past this building a million times and have no idea what it’s for. It’s outside of their range of experience.”

As part of her inclusion plan, she hired Chubby Cree, an Indigenous drumming group. Every Tuesday during the summer of 2020, the sounds of drumming and Noah Green’s powerful voice echoed across the Avenue. Hammington said, “This was to let the Indigenous people know that this is a place where they’re welcome and they would come in to see what was going on and then we’d sign them up for memberships. This was a way to keep connecting.” 

At first, Hammington felt that Covid derailed the vision she held for a more inclusive community league. “I thought it was going off the rails and I was really disappointed. In retrospect, we’ve had so much time to make real connections and the bad things turn into good things.”

With the closure of many businesses, Hammington said, “The situation around homelessness was really exposed. It got to the point where I [as president of the community league] had to advocate to get a public washroom put on the Avenue because of all the people pooping in alleys because they have nowhere else to go.” The facility was placed across the street from St. Faith’s church. It was two porta-potties in a fenced area with a part-time attendant. 

Hammington said, “It’s not what I wanted, but it’s the best that the City would give me.” She continued. “However, we do have a board member currently working on a more permanent project.”

Inside the league, while Hub Nights were no longer what Hammington envisioned, there ended up being positive results. “People were stuck at the door waiting for all their paperwork to be processed [to access the Food Bank’s emergency hamper program], but that meant there could be a volunteer at the door chatting with them, finding out a little bit more about them, and making connections. In the course of running the food pantry over this time, we have built tremendous connections and brought in a lot of clients as volunteers, which was my original goal: to take these people who are struggling and let them support each other, instead of…who’s receiving services and who’s giving it, we’re all doing this together.”

“In a way, the pandemic was great because the line I’ve used all the time at the food pantry is, ‘Hey, we’re all doing our best.’ We’re all doing our best. That always calms people down.”

On Thursday nights from March 2020 to July 2021, the community league operated the emergency food pantry for people and their pets. (The Alberta Lost Pet Locator, a non-profit organization, provides free pet food to low-income pet owners.) In addition to the people and pet food bank, the people who were initially using the food pantry program volunteered to cook a hot takeaway meal. In the spring, there was also a tax preparation service. (In order to qualify for any government benefits, from child tax credit to CERB, Canadians have to have filed tax forms.) The league also partnered with a local non-profit called GiveBack Edmonton. 

Hammington laughed and explained. “the lady who runs it is very independent and won’t do anything the government tells her. She gets all these donations of clothing into her garage. She recruits local poor people who aren’t working to come in and sort everything and they can take what they need. Some of that gets distributed to Water Warriors and goes into the homeless camps. Some of it gets distributed to the Bear Clan [Patrol]. Some of it, especially the children’s clothes, gets distributed to us so we can give away clothing and housewares for men, women, and children.”

Blackboard sign in the Alberta Avenue Community allows community members to share their hopes and fears.

Hammington described the offered services. “This coming Thursday, we’re [having] a barbecue. If they’re going to be standing outside in a line in hot weather for two hours, at least we could feed them, right? So technically [under Covid public health restrictions], the food pantry is the only thing we were allowed to do, but we were able to slip in those other things.”

Hammington concluded, “At the same time and of course, the most important service was recruiting volunteers and giving people an opportunity to work with us.”

Hammington was looking forward to the continuation of these community services once Covid restrictions were lifted. “Our bannock ladies and our cook have said that once they’re not doing weekly takeaway meals anymore, they are really excited about coming in to teach bannock making because everybody loves their bannock and thanks them for the recipe. Our cook wants to continue doing collective kitchens and accessing donated food and helping show people how to prepare it. We’ve got guys that are growing beets and cucumbers [in the community garden, attached to the league] so they can teach pickling classes in the fall. Everybody has a skill they can share, no matter who they are.”

Despite the initial shock of businesses being closed and employment for many halted, Hammington said that she doesn’t think the strong public health measures initially instituted to prevent the spread of Covid increased the level of poverty, or the difficulties, but rather “quite the opposite.” She said, “What it did do was expose serious, serious inequities. All of a sudden people who were trying to scrape by with part-time jobs in addition to their full-time work were able to pay their rent [because of the monthly CERB payments of $2,000].

“That was a big difference,” Hammington continued, “that actually gave us quite a few volunteers, people that were able to actually come in and start working with us instead [of their time being consumed by low-paid employment required for survival].

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