Poverty Feature by Sylvia Hernandez-Rassavong

Lisa Rose greets me with a smile as she walks down the wooden stairs of an old home. A reusable bag filled with bottles of cleaning solutions hangs off her right shoulder. Every Saturday, she voluntarily cleans a friend’s home as a personal effort to give back to the community. Ten minutes later, we walk through her narrow backyard as the backdrop of graffiti from a neighbouring building catches my eye. Rose’s dog, Duke, jumps on her as she walks in.

I walk into the kitchen and the dining area, both crammed in the same room. She cleans and prepares lunch and dinner for herself and her son, while sharing the struggles of making ends meet. Rose is poor even though she works. She’s part of the working class who, like many Canadians, doesn’t make enough to meet the costs of living such as groceries and bills.

Rose, 42, has lived in Brantford for about five years. When she arrived, her only source of income was Ontario Works (OW). Three years ago she got a retail job that she kept until about eight months ago, when she quit due to workplace bullying. Rose struggled to get Employment Insurance benefits because she quit and had to fight to eventually receive assistance.

Michelle Smith, an employment counsellor at Career Link, says 46 per cent of their clients, who are unemployed and looking for work, have no source of income. Only 11 per cent of clients receive income from OW.

Currently, Rose has a regular job in customer service. She’s one of the few who managed to get off welfare and support herself and her teenage son, but it is challenging.

“Is it worth it to work at $10.25 an hour when the cost of living has gone up? Or is it easier to sit back and be on welfare? I sometimes question that,” says Rose. In a way, she says it is easier to be on welfare because there are benefits that can help with the cost of medication and food, and transportation isn’t a necessity because of unemployment. But “in the long run, it’s better to work because at some point you will be able to get ahead,” she says.

Marc Laferriere, practicum coordinator for the social work program at Laurier Brantford, used to work at Grand River Community Health Centre where he often saw people wishing they were back on OW for the reasons Rose mentioned. “We have this whole new class of the working poor that’s growing,” says Laferriere.

Even if people are working, the minimum wage is not keeping up with the cost of living. Reverend Barry Pridham, of Sydenham United Church, who is also on the Brant Brantford Roundtable on Poverty (BBROP), advocates for a living wage or a guaranteed annual income. He says something needs to be done so people can “have their integrity, their decency [and] pride that they are making enough.”

Aboriginal people face similar struggles. “A lot of oppression and challenges face First Nations people before they even get a chance to look at economic development and a way out of poverty,” says Sherry Lewis, community programs manager at Brant Native Housing. She says the government uses laws and regulations to inhibit their economic development, which limits job opportunities. Most job opportunities are minimum wage.

“There’s lots of effects when you don’t have enough money to live on, barely have enough for a roof over your head and get some food on the table—there’s nothing left for extras,”  says Lewis.

Rose says, “Even with me working now, we don’t have cable. I can’t afford cable.” She does have the Internet and Netflix, but she sees the Internet as more of an investment rather than a luxury. It can be useful for job searching, staying in touch with her daughter in Newfoundland, reading and learning new skills at little or no cost. She also has an Internet-enabled phone line.

Another challenge Rose faces is being on a gluten-free diet due to medical reasons because it’s expensive. “When I look at the addictions side of [poverty], I can understand why [poor people] use drugs because if you’re on coke, it’s an expensive habit, but if you’re on coke, you’re not hungry so you’re not eating. So there’s more [food] in the house for the kids.”

Rose recalls, “When I was on OW, my rent portion was $378 and my rent was $700, [so] you’re taking the rest of it out of your grocery money, out of your bill money to cover the cost of rent.”

According to Hunger Counts 2013, a Food Banks Canada report, 50 per cent of households using Canadian food banks receive social assistance, 11.5 per cent have income from current or recent employment and 16.4 per cent receive disability-related income assistance. Youth and children make up 36.4 per cent of those using food banks, adults over 65 make up 4.3 per cent and 11.3 per cent of people assisted are Aboriginal.

 “The two biggest growing segments of the food bank population in Brantford are the working poor and seniors,” says Laferriere.

Gloria Ord, community support facilitator at the Grand River Health Centre (GRHC), is involved with the community garden project in Brantford. “When you can grow your own food, it’s definitely healthier and it can save you money,” she says. This gives more options than those people receive at the food bank, which is often not fresh and not as healthy.

“The only thing we can do is try to alleviate [poverty] by introducing good food, fresh produce,” says Ord. She says poverty is a bigger issue that a community garden alone can’t solve.

Laferriere says it’s easy to move down the socioeconomic ladder when “you lose a job, especially when 50 per cent of Canadians live pay cheque to pay cheque. People don’t want to talk about it,” he says.

There is a sense of denial. “Most people will say they’re middle class. They won’t say they’re working class or might not identify that they are poor,” says Laferriere.

The stigmas around poverty are so entrenched that even gatekeepers within social assistance programs often pass judgment on service users. Laferriere remembers one client who was initially denied disability benefits, even though he had serious mental and physical issues, because he presented well.

Rose has also seen those stigmas first hand. When she was a recovering addict, her addictions worker said, “Why are you even bothering? Once an addict, always an addict.”

Those words continue to push Rose forward. She will be going to college to pursue her career goals. “I want to be able to give back to my community. That’s the reason why I want to go to school and be a social worker.”

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