Guelph poverty relatively invisible

BY JOY STRUTHERS

Some poverty in Guelph can’t be ignored, whether it is the woman who lives in a tent on the side of the road with tarps covering her bicycle and trailer of belongings, or the people gathered in front of 40 Baker St. smoking cigarettes, huddled together on a bitterly cold day.

A young woman asks for change at the grocery store and an older woman asks for rides and money and has a specific story when she approaches people. Most people pretend they don’t see them.

An older man who walks through downtown picking up cans and litter used to talk to people, but now usually stares through them.

These are not the only people living in poverty. The majority of people who struggle aren’t visible, so it’s hard to calculate how many people in Guelph live with less. Many individuals and families live in government housing or pay market rent and can’t afford the necessities of life.

Some go from living with friends to depending on significant others, never having anything of their own. These are the people we don’t see struggling; people who have limited or no incomes, who rely on city services or family and friends.

Randalin Ellery is the co-ordinator of the Guelph and Wellington Task Force for Poverty Elimination. She believes it is hard to define poverty and says although the government uses a low-income measure, the number of people living on a low-income is unknown because the last National Household Survey was in 2011.

“I’m hesitant to share statistics because they’re so old,” Ellery said.

The 2016 survey information on income will be released in September of this year, so then organizations can move forward with a better idea of the people who need help.

These people are varied and include individuals with physical health and mental health issues as well as those with substance use problems who are vulnerable. Some are on social assistance like Ontario Works or the Ontario Disability Support Program. Many have dependant families and get additional benefits from the government as long as their taxes and paperwork are up-to-date.

“Single males who are on OW are probably the worst off compared to maybe a two-parent family that is receiving ODSP and child benefits as well,” said Ellery. “I’m not saying one situation is better or worse than the other, but we can’t kind of group everyone together.”

Ellery also acknowledges that people not on assistance are struggling financially. They are termed the working poor.

These people are making minimum wage or slightly over minimum wage and struggling to get above the low-income cut off, she said.

Some people start out homeless or in absolute poverty, living on assistance, and are able to work their way up to a better lifestyle.

“I think of poverty in terms of a continuum,” Ellery said.

The biggest problem is the lack of affordable housing.

“We have the lowest vacancy rate in Canada … That means there’s not a lot of availability,” said Ellery. “People who are low income are competing with students for housing in our community.”

Market rent is not affordable for people on OW or ODSP.

“The assistance received is extremely inadequate,” Ellery said.

Government housing is not ideal for many people as the conditions and neighbourhoods might not be safe.

Matthew Ford grew up in Guelph and lived in a housing complex with his family.

“When I was 16 our house was foreclosed on, and we went to housing,” he said. “There was so many drugs, and drinking, fighting and gossiping.”

His parents had split up and his family was struggling. His mother ended up in a better building eventually and did receive disability funding.

Living in poverty was hard for Ford as a teenager.

“For me, it was always hardest to keep up appearances to not look poor,” he said. “It meant a lot of choices … I couldn’t even think about college or university because we needed to survive.”

At 38 years old Ford has worked for a great part of his life and returned to school to further his education but continues to feel the effects of living in poverty.

“I still have trouble thinking I deserve things, and feel guilty if I have something nice because I know others still struggle,” he said.

Jason McCrossan, 42, and his family live in a housing complex. The rows of brick townhouses are plain and the property is quiet because of the freezing temperatures outside. He is a single father to two young children that he fought to get custody of.

“I’m not working right now,” said McCrossan. “I’m making sure the kids get a proper upbringing until they both go to school. Once they go … I’m going back to work or back to school.”

He tried to get his children away from their mother when she started using drugs again after a long period of sobriety, and the children were apprehended by Family and Children Services and put in foster care.

“They treated me like I was the bad guy,” said McCrossan. “I fought for 16 months and finally got them back.”

During this time he had very little help. He finally got support through the Drop-in Centre and worked at the shelter, Stonehenge Therapeutic Community. He volunteered, took parenting classes and worked, did everything possible to get his family back.

Then he was able to get subsidized housing and funding from Ontario Works, but for most of last year, McCrossan did not receive any child benefit money because of an error made by a worker when they filed his paperwork.

“$342 a month with two kids was not cutting it … Without the food bank I don’t even know what I’d be doing right now,” he said.

He did finally get child benefits and feels very fortunate.

Some people are not able to get housing and don’t feel so lucky. Karen Wayne has lived most of her life in poverty and although she is on ODSP for many health issues, at 55 years old, she is fearful for her future.

“I’ll be like this ’til I die,” she said.

She pays market rent for a small apartment which takes up her monthly rent allowance as well as most of the portion of money she gets for her basic needs.

“I had a phone hooked up, but I can’t even afford that right now,” Wayne said. “I can’t afford clothes. I have to go shopping in my daughter’s closet.”

She owes approximately $2,500 to housing from many years ago and unless she pays off what she owes she can’t apply. She also has difficulty getting food or using any services available in the community.

“I don’t use the food bank because I have nobody to go pick it up and I can’t lift it. I can go to the Salvation Army if I have someone to help me or Hope House … but I can’t carry the food home,” said Wayne.

Because of the debts she owes to OSAP, housing services and other businesses for phones and cable she can’t get credit. She can’t work.

“What happens when I turn 65?” Wayne said. “I don’t know.”

Advocate and volunteer Tina Brophey, 50, said getting out of poverty is almost impossible because of the punitive nature of the welfare system.

“You must prove your need everywhere,” she said. “You can’t just say you’re hungry, you must meet eligibility criteria. Welfare takes every dollar you earn depending on your situation and once you hit the limit all benefits are gone.”

You can’t ever get ahead because you can’t save or make money while receiving some forms of assistance.

“There’s no hope,” said Brophey.

Brophey has Crohn’s disease and after having three surgeries is now on an intravenous drug treatment. She receives ODSP which includes some medical benefits.

She spends about 75 per cent of her money on housing, then the rest on a phone and food. She visits local food pantries and other community services in order to eat and get basic needs like clothing. She spends as much time as she can giving back.

“I volunteer as the co-ordinator for Community Volunteer Income Tax Preparation at the Drop-in. Last year I did 750-plus individual returns,” said Brophey, who completed a course in tax preparation.

She also co-facilitated the last round of a program called Advance your Voice which helps people living in poverty learn to express themselves publicly so they can advocate for others.

Brophey takes part in the poverty task force and also supports grassroots initiatives like the Out of Poverty Society at 40 Baker St. which is run by Edward Pickersgill, 72.

Out of this location Pickersgill and longtime volunteers have been running a food program called Our Place Supper Club throughout the week as well as an art gallery on the weekends where people can come in and paint, enjoy the shelter and even get something to eat. Because of recent funding issues they are unsure of what will happen in the near future.

The people who depend on 40 Baker St. are a mix of those who have no homes and those with more stable living conditions but have little money for basic needs. Many have health and addiction problems.

40 Baker is different because it is not funded by the government and relies on donations from people in the community.

“Part of the problem is what I call the professionalization of poverty, where there are groups that are heavily funded … Then you have the grassroots initiatives that are very, very difficult to fund,” said Pickersgill.

Money is provided to some places and not others, and doesn’t necessarily help certain people.

“They pour money into the professionalization rather than into the hands of people who actually have the lived experience of poverty,” he said. “They don’t look at the people who are in it with judgment. They don’t look at them with rejection.”

Pickersgill wants people to know that they are welcome to come in and find support at 40 Baker as long as they are open in that location.

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