One Small Thing

I am Laura Ip, the Resource Development Coordinator at YWCA Niagara Region.

If you’ll indulge me for just a moment, I’d like to open with a bit of my own story, because I hope – when I’m finished speaking today – it will have helped to drive home the point that living in poverty is not about being a certain kind of person. It can happen to anyone. And it can happen at any time.

It can happen to anyone. And it can happen at any time. 

I have a college diploma, four college or professional certificates, and a university degree.

I have lived in poverty. I have used food banks. I have been on welfare. I did not finish high school.

I was living independently of my parents when I was 15 years old. I couch surfed until I was 16, so I could qualify for social assistance and not be put into foster care. I tried to hold down a part-time job and finish school at the same time, though, so that I would have to reply too much on social assistance.

Even at 15, working 20 hours a week at K-Mart – which tells you how long ago this was – and in grade 10, I was judged and criticized for “milking the system.” Given a variety of things that were going on with my family, it was not safe for me to live with one of my parents, and I was struggling with depression and anxiety at the time.

For three years, until I met my now ex-husband, I lived in poverty. I barely made rent some months; I took the bus to work and school – until school became too much to handle and I focused on working; I got my food from Project Share – usually after standing in the grocery store for an hour or more trying to figure out how to make the little bit of money I had stretch for the rest of the month.

I worked at least part-time the entire three years.

More recently, after working several contract jobs – sometimes for up to five employers at a time – and doing freelance work, I was there again. I had enjoyed the contract and freelance arrangement, because it meant I could mostly make my own schedule around the kids; however, the contract work had started to dry up and the freelance work was becoming really tough. It became clear to me that I needed to seek full-time employment.

There were months when I ate noodles and cereal, so the kids could have the fruits and vegetables and proper lunches for school.

There were months when I ate noodles and cereal, so the kids could have the fruits and vegetables and proper lunches for school. There are all the times I told the kids they couldn’t have some simple, inexpensive little thing because Mommy couldn’t afford it. There were all the jobs I was turned down for, because I was overqualified – having gotten that university degree – though none of the employers ever raised it during the interviews.

Things were getting uncomfortably familiar financially, and I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. As a single mom, I was relatively sure that my ex-husband would help me out if the situation became dire, but I knew it was going to have to become dire before I could even ask for that help.

Fortunately, after more than a year of searching and getting turned down, the job at the YWCA came up.

Fortunately, I landed the job.

And then, I felt mom guilt, because I was often leaving for work before the kids went to school and I wasn’t getting home until after they returned from school. (I had spent the last ten years being home for them at those times.) I was having to ask their dad to take them overnight, so I could attend very early or very late meetings and events.

And it was a woman who was staying at the shelter who – during my second week on the job – said some things to me that I really needed to hear. A woman who was living in an emergency shelter took time out of her day to realize that I was struggling – I still don’t know how she knew – and empathize with me and offer advice; to tell me that I was making the right choices for me and my children.

But let me now get into what I actually prepared to say today.

Delinquent, entitled, loser, worthless, irresponsible, slacker, trash, sponge, incompetent, hoodlum, bad parents, breeding machines, welfare bums, “why don’t they just get better jobs?,” “why don’t they get an education?,” and let’s not forget lazy….

Essential Collective Theatre’s production of POOR hit on these and other stereotypes of people living in poverty.

It’s so easy to judge other people’s lives and choices without having a single clue as to what their story really is.

Marlene. A woman who was staying in our King Street emergency shelter. Marlene uses a wheelchair. She needs it because she lost her left leg (and also the use of her left arm) after suffering a stroke. During a surgery to have her appendix removed. Marlene wasn’t able to return to work. The housing Marlene had wasn’t accessible and she couldn’t find housing she could afford that was accessible. She couldn’t afford the home healthcare assistance she needed. And education? Marlene has three Bachelors of Arts – psychology, criminology, and philosophy.

Marlene ended up homeless due to a series of events that were beyond her control and which no one could have foreseen.

If Marlene’s story doesn’t drive home the point that any of us could end up homeless, I don’t know what would.

YWCA Niagara Region is the only agency that provides both emergency shelter and transitional housing across the entire Niagara region.

YWCA operates two 20-bed emergency shelters for women (one on King Street in St. Catharines and one on Culp Street in Niagara Falls); one 15-bed emergency shelter for men in Niagara Falls, which houses single men and single dads with their children; six emergency family shelter units throughout Niagara for single- or dual-parent families; on-site transitional housing for women – with or without children; and nearly 70 off-site transitional housing units across Niagara – from Fort Erie to Grimsby.

In addition to all of this, YWCA Niagara Region provides a variety of programs.

In Fort Erie, we offer the W.A.R.M. program – Women’s Addiction Recovery Mediation. In St. Catharines, we have the stomt program – Sex Trade on My Terms – where women who are engaged in survival sex work can drop in to warm up, get some food and a hot drink, or just talk. The program provides a safe space for women and is free of judgment and oppression.

Just two weeks ago, we held our 10th annual Power of Being a Girl conference, which we put on for grade 10 girls across Niagara to talk about issues like bullying and body image. We also offer a variety of Skills Development programming throughout Niagara throughout the year, including Anger Solutions, Step Up to Leadership, Brighter Hours in Brighter Days, women’s employment and pre-employment programs, a civic engagement program called Y Act Up, and several programs for elementary and high school girls and boys – to name just a few.

Last year, we served:

  • 1,254 women in emergency shelter;
  • 39 men in emergency shelter;
  • 444 children in emergency shelter;
  • 71 families with 247 children in emergency family shelter;
  • 36 women in on-site transitional housing;
  • 158 women, men, and children in off-site transitional housing;
  • 27 women in supported transitional housing; and
  • served 59,835 meals to the women, men, and children staying in our emergency shelters – on a budget, for those meals, of just $50,000.

At the YWCA, we work toward social change to create a community where people’s basic needs, including safe housing and nutritious food, are met.

There is no textbook case for who finds themselves using our services or the services of any of the other agencies in Niagara. There was Marlene. There was the nurse who lost the use of her legs in a car accident – she’s the one who said those things I needed to hear. There are women and children who have left unsafe home environments. There are refugee families. There are women and men who have turned to substance abuse to cope with other abuses they’ve suffered. There are dual parent families caring for children with disabilities when one parent loses their job.

Not a single story the same as any other story.

Poverty is the condition of a human being who is deprived of the resources, mean, choices, and power necessary to acquire and maintain economic self-sufficiency and participate in society.

Poverty is far more a problem of systems and barriers in those systems than it is of the people who live in poverty.

While it is not only women who live in poverty – one in 11 Canadians live in poverty – make no mistake about it. Poverty is heavily entwined with gender inequality. Poverty is a women’s issue.

One in seven Canadian women live in poverty.

More than 50% of lone parent families headed by women are poor.

The poverty rate for women over 65 is 19.3%, while that for senior men is 9.5%.

Thirty-five percent of single women who are on their own and under 65 live in poverty.

Women aged 35-54 who live with disabilities have an income of $17,000, 55% of what men with disabilities earn.

I could go on.

Women in every demographic – aboriginal women, women of colour, immigrant women, white women, old women, young women, women with disabilities, migrant women – all women are at greater risk of living in poverty than are men in the same demographic groups.

You might wonder – after I’ve said all of this – why YWCA Niagara Region, a feminist organization, operates a men’s shelter and provides other services to men and boys. The answer is quite simple. We believe men and boys are part of the solution. And many of the men and boys we provide services to struggle with the same systemic issues our women and girls do. Access to affordable housing and mental health programs, for instance.

The average stay for a man in our shelter is 70 days, four times longer than the average stay for a woman in our shelter. And that is because of a system that tells men they are weak if they ask for help.

What makes the men’s shelter that we operate unique from other men’s shelters is that – like our women’s shelters – the men have their own rooms. This may not seem like a big deal, but for one of our clients, it was a very big deal. He had been homeless for years and – due to mental health issues – unsuccessful in other shelters. He had taken to sleeping in the park and had been doing so for two years before he came to YWCA’s men’s shelter. He has now secured housing and is receiving aftercare support.

The difference?

He said having his own room allowed him to go to his room, be crazy all by himself, and come out when he was ready to cope with people. He didn’t have to work to hide his mental health issues from anyone – causing more stress and anxiety – because he had his own space.

In Niagara:

  • more than 70% of people living in poverty work full-time hours;
  • more than 5,400 children are living in poverty; and
  • the consequences of poverty – such things as healthcare, crime, lost productivity, and social assistance and programs – cost Niagara $1.38 Billion per year. Per year.

In Niagara, a mom who is working full-time at minimum wage is at risk of losing her housing. If her car breaks down – which, given Niagara’s transit situation, she desperately needs to get to and from work – she’ll have to make some very difficult choices.

There are women who have stayed in our shelters who ended up there for this exact reason.

A mom is working full-time at minimum wage and her car breaks down. She has to choose between paying her rent and fixing her car. She chooses the car.

Do you know why?

Because it means she can still get to and from work and, if she has to, she and the kids can live out of it.

The reality of people who live in poverty is that many of them are very good at hiding their challenges.

The reality of people who live in poverty is that many of them are very good at hiding their challenges. We don’t know that they’re getting their food from Community Care, or that they’re having dinner at Out of the Cold, or that they’re living out of their car or at an emergency shelter, because they continue to show up for work; their kids continue to show up for school; and because they are too scared to tell anyone for fear of judgment and being labeled.

Poverty is an extremely complex issue.

We know that people who live in poverty suffer from more mental and physical health issues. We know that everyone who has come through our shelters has suffered some kind of trauma at some point in their life. We know that people who live in poverty are further challenged by access to transportation and childcare.

Imagine being a single mom without a vehicle and only being able to find shift work. Imagine the transportation and childcare nightmare that would involve.

It is because of issues like these that we engage in advocacy work. We are part of the Niagara Poverty Reduction Network, along with other agencies, businesses, and individuals throughout Niagara.

The Niagara Poverty Reduction Network is working on calculating and advocating for a living wage in Niagara; advocating for and educating people about a Basic Income Guarantee; supporting and helping to promote a regional inter-municipal transit system; and working on issues around affordable housing that is also safe and secure for the people who live in it.

To address and alleviate poverty, we need to address systems and the barriers created by those systems. We push people to find better jobs and to stop relying on having their income supplemented by social assistance and then they find jobs that at least get them off social assistance and we pull or significantly decrease the childcare subsidy they were receiving, leaving them in worse financial shape than where they started. We scrutinize and in several instances make people dispose of savings and assets before they can access social assistance. Get rid of RRSPs or sell cars that are deemed too valuable. Just bought a new car right before you lost your job? Sell it, buy an old beater, and hope it doesn’t break down. We force people into the worst possible financial situation before we deem them to be worthy of help.

OW and ODSP rates are seriously inadequate to the extent that some agencies don’t offer budgeting workshops, because they feel it would be insulting and grossly unfair to tell someone how they should spend the $5 or $10 they might have left at the end of the month.

We need to educate people about the complexity of poverty and help them to understand that the issues are interconnected. Fixing one issue – providing affordable, reliable, efficient transit across Niagara, for instance – will go a long way, but it does not resolve issues around access to childcare (available spaces and flexibility of timing) or the availability of affordable housing, for which there is currently a waiting list of more than 10,000 people. Even if no one else applied starting today, it would take up to 10 years to clear that waiting list.

 

 

We have such a narrow view of what people living in poverty should have; need to have to live a good life that we begrudge people who live in poverty for buying ice cream for their children. We lose our collective mind when we see people with cell phones or think they shouldn’t pay for Internet access (ignoring that these are also necessary tools for finding jobs and housing). And if a mom and her children are dressed in clothes that seem out of her price range, we criticize her priorities and decision-making ability. Never mind that those clothes will make it easier for her to find a job, what with the importance of first impressions and all; and will decrease the chances of her children being bullied, because they’ll fit in with their classmates better. And those clothes? They’re probably second-hand. Ironically, we’d criticize that same mother for not taking care of herself and her children if their clothing wasn’t in good repair or fit well.

We think that people who live in poverty should pay their rent, buy groceries, pay their utility bills, and that’s it. If they dare to meet a friend for coffee at a local café, we could go on for hours about how entitled they are; about how they’re milking the system.

The importance of social inclusion and community engagement cannot be overstated. We know that isolation leads to or exacerbates mental health issues. It can lead to the creation or worsening of substance abuse. If isolation wasn’t a bad thing for people, shunning never would have been a thing.

Before I wrap up, I want you to give some thought to what something like a Basic Income Guarantee could do to help alleviate – it would not completely eliminate – so many of the issues I’ve touched on.

Now, bear with me, because I don’t have numbers to work with. We’ve not been recommending numbers in Niagara, rather we’ve been advocating for our governments to start having meaningful discussion about a basic income guarantee.

But, given that most people who live in poverty already work part-time or full-time, imagine we revamped our social spending programs to provide a minimum income to everyone over 18. It would be enough to cover most basic necessities. Again, remember, most people are already working in some capacity. At some point, as people earn more employment income, it would start to be taxed back, but not dollar for dollar. And it would always be there, reducing the worries of downsizing, layoffs, seasonal work, illness, and so on. People wouldn’t have to dispose of savings and assets to receive it.

Imagine what knowing you had a bit of a security net could do for your stress levels in our current economic climate.

Again, it’s not a silver bullet, but the right basic income guarantee arrangement could do a lot of good in reducing poverty.

I will close by saying that we need to stop with the judgment and criticism and trust the vast majority of people – maybe especially those living in poverty – are truly trying to do the best they can with what they have. And for those who don’t have enough to provide for themselves, we simply must step up to help in the ways we can to support them with food, clothing, shelter, and include them in our community, all the while continuing to advocate for significant and long-term social change.

It takes all of us, because it could happen to any one of us.