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Support growing for Faith to End Poverty

WELLAND — Do you want to help make poverty a high-profile issue in the Oct. 6 provincial election? If so, sign on to a campaign being launched next week.

Two groups, the Interfaith Social Assistance Reform Coalition (ISARC) and Poverty Free Ontario, are the movers behind a poverty-free Ontario campaign, Faith to End Poverty, that is attracting considerable support in communities across the province.

Its rallying cry, Let’s Vote for a Poverty Free Ontario, is the message on signs that will start springing up on lawn signs starting Thursday, Sept. 15.

Rev. Jim Mulligan, pastor of St. Kevin’s parish, Welland, said the initiative does not target one political party over another. He describes it as “non-partisan” because all three parties in the legislature and their leaders supported the Poverty Reduction Act, whose intent was to make Ontario poverty free.

St. Kevin’s, 303 Niagara St., is one of two sites in Welland riding that will be distributing the campaign signs next week. The other is Bridges Community Health Centre,177 King St., Port Colborne.

The Let’s Vote for a Poverty Free Ontario signs, as well as campaign buttons, will be available at both locations from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

A sign campaign, it is hoped, will help make poverty a more visible issue during the campaign, Mulligan said in an interview.

But its organizers also want supporters to “grill” candidates who come to their doorsteps and in other face-to-face opportunities about their and their party’s views and plans for ending poverty in Ontario, Mulligan said.

Mulligan knows first hand the toll poverty is taking on people in the Welland area. His parish has a food bank that is struggling with an increased caseload and growing demand on its resources. His parishioners are generous in their support, he said, but it is becoming the norm to issue special requests for various non-perishable foods because supplies run out quickly.

In tandem with the sign campaign, a prayer vigil, ecumenical in nature, is being held at St. Kevin’s Sept. 15 at 7:30 p.m.

Mulligan said Bishop Gerard Bergie of St. Catharines diocese will preside at the service, with Rev. Chris Fickling of Central United Church, Welland, sharing a homily reflection. Fickling, a member of The Tribune’s community editorial board, authored an eloquent column with poverty as its theme, This is what poverty felt like (July 7). Mulligan said Fickling’s homily is sure to be “moving and challenging.”

Lori Kleinsmith of Bridges Community Health Centre said that while there are many important issues in the provincial campaign, “one that is of urgent concern is poverty.”

She said 1.7 million people in Ontario live in poverty.

“Only a few years ago, many of these people never imagined that they would be unemployed, losing their homes, applying for social assistance and visiting food banks. Our shrinking social safety net, along with the recession, has created many poverty traps,” she said.

Media conferences will be held simultaneously in many communities across Ontario the morning of Sept. 15 to launch the election-style sign blitz.

By JOE BARKOVICH/Tribune Staff


Moving poverty debate to the front burner

WELLAND – Where is poverty in the provincial election campaign which gets underway officially today?

Health care, education, green energy and the economy rank as top issues for voters, according to news stories and polls.

While poverty is becoming higher profile these days, it still may not be a top issue in the minds of many Ontarians.

A concerted effort is being made during the campaign to move poverty from the back burner to the front for more people.

Front-line workers and volunteers already know that is where it should be.

Others may still be in need of convincing.

The initiative is being led by two groups: Poverty Free Ontario and the Interfaith Social Assistance Reform Coalition (ISARC).

It is making headway in the province with faith communities and social justice groups in more than 20 communities already on board.

In Ontario, 1.7 million people live in poverty, the highest poverty rate in the past 30 years.

Statistics tell the story of poverty in our province and it is not a pretty picture:

Ontario’s poverty rate is rising sharply. As evidenced by more than 400,000 people using food banks last year, up 28% from the 2008 total, 314,250;

At the current minimum wage in Ontario, a person working full-year, full-time earns $1,064 below the poverty line;

One-third of all children living in poverty in Canada in 2008 were in families with a parent working full-year, full-time;

In Canada 50% of people living in poverty have some post-secondary education and 45% of the unemployed had a post-secondary education or degree.

I am not making up the numbers, they are provided by Poverty Free Ontario and are based on responsible research.

In addition, other reliable resources about poverty in Ontario and Canada are available and worthy of study. Three of the many include: Persistent Poverty, voices from the margins (the most recent book from ISARC, available at Welland library); Hunger Count 2010, a comprehensive report on hunger and food bank use in Canada with recommendations for change, from Food Banks Canada; and Fighting Hunger — Who’s Hungry? by the Daily Bread Food Bank. Both are available on the agencies’ websites on the Internet.

Though it was released four years ago, A Legacy of Poverty? Addressing Cycles of Poverty and the Impact of Poverty on Child Health in the Niagara Region provided startling, eye-opening statistics about poverty’s inroads in the region.

If anything, some of the findings and statistics in that study are probably worse today.

We need to be bothered by what is going on in Ontario — not just in big places like Toronto, but right here in our own backyard.

There are too many stories about how local agencies are struggling, groaning, under the workload and weight of poverty-related problems.

Some questions, offered here as food for thought:

Why do so many schools have breakfast programs to help children who come to school hungry or lacking proper nutrition get through the morning?

Why are food banks — our emergency food providers — continually searching for new ways to raise food to help fill their shelves? Why has their plight of more demand and fewer resources become a refrain with which we are too familiar?

Why do people on social assistance have to choose between buying food or paying the utility bills or monthly rent?

Why are new words creeping into our vocabulary? A generation ago, we did not know about much, let alone discuss, “food insecurity” but it is now part of regular usage. Why do we have families who live in the shadows of “food insecurity” — not having access to enough food to meet basic needs — day after day for some of them?

And so we have Poverty Free Ontario and ISARC embarking on a non-partisan initiative, Let’s Vote for a Poverty Free Ontario which, if successful, just may lift poverty a few rungs higher on the provincial issues campaign ladder.

Its sign campaign, being launched Sept. 15 in Welland and Port Colborne, is groundbreaking in more ways than one.

It will do much in fostering and promoting solidarity among people of social conscience. It gets off the ground in Welland at St. Kevin’s church, 303 Niagara St., and in Port Colborne at Bridges Community Health Centre, 177 King St.

Lori Kleinsmith, the health promoter at Bridges, says in a new release: “Finding a balance between charity and justice is not easy.

“Food banks and other assistance programs provide many ways of helping people manage conditions of poverty a little better, but do not truly address eradicating poverty. The persistence of poverty across Ontario reflects a failure of collective responsibility to create basic conditions health and well-being for all.”

Something to think about, and take action on, as we move into a provincial election campaign.

See story and photo about the Faith to End Poverty Campaign in Thursday’s edition of The Tribune.



A Poverty Free Ontario… is it possible?

The Social Muse – Michelle Gratton

Unfortunately, there will always be some people who truly believe the notion that people who live in poverty are considered to be “lazy,” “addicts,” and “system abusers.” Just repeating this sentence, I almost feel like my mouth should be washed out with soap!

The truth is, no matter how you break down the facts and numbers those living in poverty or below the poverty line; which according to Stats Canada is an annual income of just under $18,000 (before tax) for a single person in Cornwall, there is no way the notion could be deemed accurate. Here’s why…

Living in “deep poverty” is a term used to generally describe individuals and families in receipt of social assistance who either may or may not be able to work, and generally experience chronic cycles of hunger and hardship when the money provided runs out and is allegedly supposed to meet one’s basic needs. For example, a single adult on Ontario Works currently receives approximately $592 per month. Since numbers are where the money is at, at $592 per month; a whole $11,000 below the poverty line, this would be “equivalent to working full-time for $3.70 per hour” (Posen, July 2011).

“Working poor” is a term used to describe an individual who works full year, yet is living below the poverty line. Inexcusably, you will even find several households with two adults working full year still falling short of the poverty line. A full-time worker today earning minimum wage for the whole year still lives more than approximately $5,600 below the poverty line. Another false notion about people who live in poverty that too commonly exists is that the poor are considered “unintelligent.” Although an education is very important, a report released in October 2010 stated that over 50 per cent of low-income families in Canada had completed some post-secondary studies and 45 per cent of the unemployed in Canada had completed a post-secondary education.

Poverty is a great threat to overall community health and immediate poverty eradication measures need to be taken as the excuses for accepting persistent poverty are no longer credible. Poverty eradication is possible and means pursuing the lowest possible levels of poverty in the industrialized world we live in, both in incidence and in depth. Simply, if you work full year, full-time you should not be living in poverty. If people can’t work then there needs to be a set standard of dignity that supports all people to be able to live a quality of life beyond discrimination and despair. The idea of blaming the reasons for poverty on the behaviours of the poor is no longer tolerable. Taking a structural approach today and examining the adequacy of basic living conditions for all is what is required.

For more information, please visit www.povertyfreeontario.ca


How to improve Ontario’s social assistance system

In Greater Sudbury, the community came together to discuss the questions posed by the Commissioners.  A robust conversation that included recipients of social assistance, those who deliver the benefits and community agency staff who work supporting those who try to live on social assistance resulted in several recommendations to the commission.  Organizers speak with CBC staff. Click the link below to hear the interview:


Many faces of the homeless

CORNWALL – The definition of homelessness has changed – just ask Tim.

He has a roof over his head most nights, and a post office box for mail. But it’s been nearly a year since the 36-year-old Cornwall man had permanent shelter to call his own.

“I’m a couch surfer,” he says. “With social assistance, I can’t afford to have an apartment and eat.”

Tim, who didn’t want his last name published, receives under $600 a month from Ontario Works, or less when he collects a paycheque from odd jobs.

“I haven’t been working for two and a half weeks,” says Tim, a construction worker with more than two decades of experience.

The lack of steady income is the main reason he’s unable to get back on his feet, but it’s only one factor that led him to the streets in the first place.

His mother — “my best friend,” he says — died three years ago. He began drinking heavily, and dabbled in drugs. Last fall, he split with his common-law wife of 15 years. The company he started a few years ago faltered, thanks to the economic downturn.

For more than two weeks last winter, he slept in the Cornwall Square parking garage. Then he found shelter in cars and trailers. Now, he stays in the homes of friends he met over lunch at the Agape’s soup kitchen.

He’s not the only one.

“I know 150 people who are homeless or couch surfers,” Tim says.

The numbers aren’t disputed, and agencies are worried about the growing number of those living in poverty.

“I think the issue of homelessness is growing,” says Alyssa Blais, executive director of the Agape Centre. “But poverty in general is growing, the working poor (population) is growing.”

“It’s not as obvious as it is in other communities,” adds Michelle Gratton, head of the Social Development Council. “People say quickly we don’t have homelessness.”

But Gratton says she knows many young people who identify in the same group as Tim: without their own home and just scraping by, often because of broken relationships.

“It’s not easy to be a single-parent family,” says Blais. “It really is a two-person economy. Living together makes it a lot easier, but there’s a high percentage of single mothers.”

Assistance is available through Ontario Works and Cornwall’s housing agency, but it’s not always enough to allow people to get ahead. Many aren’t even aware of the resources.

“There’s a lot of programs, a lot of assistance in the community, a lot of places people can go,” says Gratton. “For them it’s a lack of information… They don’t know where to go.”

She says the gaping hole in city services is an emergency shelter, especially for men, so they don’t fall into a cycle of sleeping on the street or friends’ sofas.

Tim doesn’t hesitate to agree with Gratton; he even plans to sleep outside city hall later this fall as a way to raise awareness of the need for a shelter.

There’s a man from Montreal who might appreciate it as well — he’s been spending many of his nights outside the Agape Centre.

“We do have a homeless man living underneath our stairs,” says Blais. “We’ve been telling him to leave and he still comes back.”

Mayor Bob Kilger says he would need to see data and research before supporting any new initiatives targeting homelessness in the city; for now he’s satisfied with the current slate of services.

“I know that we have very quick response and a lot of co-operation between stakeholders,” he says. “We’re able to respond 24/7 in a very timely fashion, and work with people on a case-by-case basis.”

Though Kilger acknowledges the problem, he says homelessness isn’t a major topic of discussion at city hall.

“It’s not brought to our attention that alarm bells are going off,” says Kilger. “That’s not to diminish anyone’s situation…but I’m satisfied right now that we’re being very responsive on the issue.”

For short term help, the homeless can find emergency assistance through Cornwall’s social housing agency.

Melissa Morgan, program supervisor, says a 24-hour phone line, plus partnerships with the police and other groups ensure anyone who asks for shelter will have it. It fills in much the same way Baldwin House helps out women who need immediate care.

“We do everything we can,” says Morgan. “No individual should be without housing overnight.”

The domiciliary hostel program also doles out cash to those who need temporary help finding a place to live. It’s designed to fill the gap left by Cornwall’s housing corporation, which has a lengthy waiting list for subsidized units.

“People often come and they need shelter immediately,” explains Anne-Marie Fobert-Poirier, program co-ordinator for the city’s housing department. “But we don’t have any emergency units.”

There are several programs in place to assist with rent payments or energy bills for people struggling to cover their costs. For those who do snag one of nearly 2,000 subsidized apartments throughout the counties, rent is steady at one-third of their income.

The waiting list has around 750 names, says social and housing services manager Debora Daigle, a slight increase from previous years. Singles have to be patient longer than most, since most units are designed for families or seniors.

Our greatest need would be for one-bedroom units for non-seniors,” says Fobert-Poirier.

With a lower turnover than usual — attributed to a shaky economy — people have a long time to wait for vacancies.

In the meantime, around 100 people on the waiting list are currently receiving help through other initiatives, like the so-called “eviction avoidance” program. Daigle says the city received $23.5 million from the provincial and federal governments this year to pay for the services, in addition to $9 million earmarked for housing.

Tim, however, has little faith in government initiatives, so he’s finding help elsewhere. He took a withdrawal management program to end his drug and alcohol use; he’s handing out resumes to find work; he found a basement to rent from a friend for $400 a month — he moves in next month.

“I’m tired of the way I’m living,” he says.

The turning point for him came last December, when he tried to overdose on drugs. Now he carries around a picture of his 10-year-old daughter Samantha in his shirt pocket as a reminder of why he’s still here, and as motivation to stay on the straight-and-narrow.

“I found a cause: helping others,” he says.

He has company in Gary Samler, a semi-retired poverty activist who ran for Cornwall city council last fall. He took his campaign to the streets this summer to improve his understanding of the issue.

“That is my number one goal, is to raise community awareness and the change the way we think about homelessness in Cornwall,” he says.

Under his street name Reggie Walker, Samler eats at the Agape and wanders downtown with other homeless. He says a one-stop drop-in centre would make a huge difference for those struggling to find work, fill their stomachs and access resources.

“There’s nothing for them to do other than walk around,” he says.

Tim knows what that’s like. He’s desperate for a job, knowing a steady paycheque is the only obstacle between his current lifestyle and a home of his own.

“I have a good reputation,” he says. “I’m always on time. When I have work, I’m a workaholic.”

For those that might need a little more help, Blais says solutions should come from all city stakeholders.

“It takes a concerted effort from the community, municipality and the clients themselves,” she says. “I would like to see a poverty reduction plan for Cornwall.”

She’s already working toward that goal, alongside Gratton and others, and they have a Poverty Free Ontario rally planned for next month.

“The most important thing is to bring the issue out and let people realize it isn’t an epidemic, but it is a problem,” says Samler. “It’s something that should be looked in to.”



Guelph residents weigh in on welfare reform

GUELPH — At a time when conservative politicians from London to Washington, D.C., are slashing social services to address spiralling debt and unemployment, Ontario is looking at ways to strengthen social assistance.

About 100 local recipients and providers of social services packed a church gymnasium in Guelph on Tuesday to imagine a better, more efficient welfare system.

Event host Daniel Moore, executive director of Family and Children’s Services of Guelph and Wellington, was impressed to see people who receive welfare mingling with those who administer it. “It’s pretty amazing, actually,” he said.

There were short speeches from three Guelph residents including a mother and daughter who have relied on welfare.

Tina Brophy said she was a child of privilege before drugs and an early pregnancy ruined her prospects. “It’s a quick and slippery slope down to the bottom, and I landed with a thud,” she said. “I became a hunter-gatherer.”

Brophy said an immediate $100 supplement for healthy food would help “make hunting and gathering a thing of the past” in the province. As of late last year, more than 830,000 Ontarians were receiving social assistance through either Ontario Works or the Ontario Disability Support Program.

Most of the Tuesday forum was devoted to roundtable discussions on four aspects of welfare reform: rules; assets and benefits; education, employment services and training; and the future of social assistance.

At one table, volunteer facilitator Lisa Needham led a discussion of assets and benefits while Cynthia Bragg, a teacher, social worker and disability support recipient, took point-form notes on a flip chart.

“I’m hoping they can make a more efficient, comprehensive system, and to help people get off of it,” Bragg said.

The group, which included housing activist Alan Pickersgill, artist James Gordon, veteran Onward Willow volunteer Wanda Lucier and Salvation Army caseworker Lloyd Hetherington, came up with three key suggestions: reduce the demoralizing clawback of benefits that kicks in when welfare recipients start working; stop making people drain their bank accounts in order to get assistance; and raise the assistance rates “to give people a level of dignity beyond the barest level of survival.”

They also took exception to a solution proposed by the provincial commissioners where social assistance rates would be kept low “to ensure that people are better off working.”

“The optics of that are awful,” Gordon said. “Let’s make it worse for you, so that a job seems better. That’s insulting.”

At another table, participants discussed ways to improve provincial employment services. Marian Garner, who helps people transition into the workplace with Royal City Christian Life Centre in downtown Guelph, suggested case workers get a bonus for keeping people employed. Deb Cripps of the Guelph Food Bank said employers need incentives to hire people on disability, since they are viewed as costly and risky.

Feedback from the forum convened by the Guelph and Wellington Task Force for Poverty Elimination will be delivered on Sept. 1 to the Commission for the Review of Social Assistance in Ontario. Comments can also be provided through an online survey at www.gwpoverty.ca.

Next June, commissioners will publish recommendations based on their findings.

Poverty task force co-ordinator Randalin Ellery said she hopes the review will trigger meaningful reform. “I think there’s just widespread acknowledgement that the system isn’t working as it is, and we need to make it better,” she said.

Moore credited the task force with sparking dialogue on the plight of low-income people in the county. “It seems like there’s now a forum where we can talk about these types of complex issues,” he said.

Asked to reflect on the riots that erupted in England’s suburbs nearly two weeks ago following deep cuts to social services in the country, Moore said communication must have broken down.

If people don’t come together and speak with one voice about the challenges they face, and if governments don’t listen and respond, things fall apart, he said.



Packed forum tackles social assistance overhaul

SARNIA – Ontario’s social assistance programs are hurting the very people they are designed to help, local residents say.

Jocelyn Sawczuk, for one, told a social assistance review forum Friday she’s proof the system isn’t working. Forced to turn to Ontario Works because she can’t find full-time work, she was robbed and is now on the verge of being evicted.

“Ontario Works said they couldn’t help me,” the Sarnia woman said.

Sawczuk pays $552 a month for rent, which leaves her $42 a month to live on. She has a student debt, and that’s kept her from attending university to study sociology. She’s been accepted, but can’t afford to pay the bills to go, she said.

“If (the government) helped with student debt I’d be sitting in university, not on OW,” she said.

Dana Milne has heard many stories like Sawczuk’s. Milne, of the Income Security Advocacy Centre, co-facilitated the forum held at All Saints’ Anglican Church in Sarnia.

More than 80 people, many living in poverty, gathered to share their stories and suggestions about Ontario Works (OW) and the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP).

“These programs are not working for people,” said Milne, who added more is needed than just dumping additional money into the system.

“OW is set up to be a punitive and mean program,” she said.

The province has announced it intends to overhaul the social assistance system. A commission has been formed to gather input, and all of the stories heard at the Sarnia event will be forwarded to the government, Milne said.

The forum was organized by Community Legal Assistance Sarnia and the Sarnia-Lambton Poverty Reduction Strategy Committee.

One woman named Sharon, who asked that her last name not be published, told the crowd that as an ODSP recipient who works within the social assistance system, she believes current practices dehumanize applicants. Some ODSP applicants are rejected the first time they apply simply as a matter of policy, she said.

“We are not treated with any dignity or compassion.”

Co-facilitator Darren Nesbit said the government needs to tear down punitive barriers that keep people on social assistance from living regular lives.

Nesbit, who is on ODSP, said he’s been punished for living with a girlfriend who was working. The government claws back benefits from a recipient when someone considered to be a spouse is employed.

“She is trying to go out and make her life better and I’m penalized for that at the end of the day,” he said.

Milne said public pressure on the government is the only way to ensure poverty reduction is at the heart of the newly reconstituted social assistance system, she said.

“We’re going to need everyone to keep pushing with us. We’re going to need to make this an election issue.”



Changes for social assistance topic of all-day meetings

PETERBOROUGH – If someone has a disability and is having trouble finding work, a good first-step into the job market might be volunteering to gain confidence and acquire skills.

But people on the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) may not have enough money to buy suitable clothing, if they’re volunteering in an office, or be able to afford transportation to get there.

Ontario should consider allowing people to get discretionary benefits — extra money outside of the regular monthly payments — for these kinds of items for volunteers, said Peterborough Social Planning Council executive director Brenda Dales.

That was one of the ideas proposed on Wednesday at Trinity United Church as about 80 people joined a review of Ontario’s social assistance.

The Commission for the Review of Social Assistance in Ontario was in Peterborough on Wednesday getting ideas for reform as part of its cross-province tour in July.

The commission, which is still headed to Ottawa, Thunder Bay, Timmins and Peel before the end of the month, is to release final recommendations in June 2012.

Better transportation in rural and urban areas is needed to help alleviate poverty because some people are paying for transportation instead of buying food, said Maryam Monsef, one of the participants.

Rates for Ontario Works (OW) and ODSP also need to be raised, she said.

If a single person gets about $600 per month on OW, it’s difficult to pay market-value rent and still have money for eating and basic health needs, added Dorothy Boddy.

“The No. 1 thing is increasing the rates,” Boddy said.

Employers should also offer more part-time jobs and job-sharing for people with disabilities that want to work but struggle, for health reasons, to work a typical 40-hour work week, Boddy said.

Commission co-chairwoman Frances Lankin and co-chairman Munir Sheik were at the Peterborough event.



Poverty advocates make pitch to narrow the gap

HALTON – Regional advocates for those living lives of poverty met face to face with two government officials conducting a fact-finding tour about the needs of the downtrodden.

At the invitation of the Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction, Community Development Halton and Poverty Free Halton representatives met with Frances Lankin and Munir Sheikh, commissioners of the Review of Social Assistance in Ontario on behalf of the Ministry of Community and Social Services.

“Poverty in Halton is often hidden, buried under the veneer of affluence and well-being,” said John Versluis, co-chair of Poverty Free Halton.

“The gap between the annual income of a family of four on social assistance and that of the median Halton family income is $5,793 per month or approximately $69,230 per year. These people live in different worlds, making bridges of compassion and understanding difficult to build,” Versluis added.

Rishia Burke and Jen Gerrard of Community Development Halton told the commissioners that they, and others from their research team, had crossed the region talking with people living in poverty.

The many stories they heard showed that the basic necessities of life such as food and shelter, along with recreation and opportunities to belong to their community, were out of the reach of those in poverty and especially those on social assistance, who live in “deep poverty.”

“Mental health was always an underlying theme during community conversations. Poor people live under tremendous stress. They do not have enough money to live (off of) and face choices between housing or food. Every day they face the stresses of surviving,” said Burke.

Gerrard told the commissioners that programs and services should respect the dignity of people. They should not feel “less as a result of asking for assistance to meet basic needs.”

As the conversation moved on to social assistance reform, Joey Edwardh, Executive Director of Community Development Halton, said any recommendations for change must be evidence-based.

“Today, there is no evidence-based process for determining social assistance rates and as a result, the benefits have no relation to the cost of living in a community,” said Edwardh.

In a letter on the website for the Ontario Federation of Community Mental Health and Addiction Programs, commissioners Lankin and Sheikh stated that as part of its Poverty Reduction Strategy, the provincial government has given it “… a significant mandate to make recommendations to reform social assistance in Ontario. We need to build a better system that improves employment opportunities and provides security for people who cannot work.”

The commissioners are receiving feedback until Sept. 1, 2011, so they can develop options in late fall/early winter. They will seek further input and expect to make more community visits.


This is What Poverty Felt Like

WELLAND – As we sat in a room in the MacBain Centre in Niagara Falls, a dramatic analogy of poverty played out around us. Marvyn Novick and Peter Clutterbuck from the Social Planning Network of Ontario spoke to us on behalf of Poverty Free Ontario, and a strange thing happened.

The lights, set up with environmental conservation in mind, were to go out at set intervals after detecting no movement in the room. This happened several times, and as a result the listeners of the presentation had to perform wild gesticulations so that the light would return.

Watching this frantic communication to the great motion sensor in the sky, left me with a profound feeling.

This is what poverty felt like. The lights of the world had gone out, and one is left frantically flailing their arms in the darkness hoping someone will notice.

The only problem with this analogy is that poverty isn’t something that just happens. It’s caused by you and I: those that can afford to pay our rising bills, including HST, without complaint, who can afford niceties that we don’t really need, who struggle to come up with one or two cans when it comes to the annual food drive.

In order to ensure our own comfort, we have deliberately put those in poverty in the dark. It saves energy, money, resources if we just pretend that they’re no longer in the room, and we shut out the lights.

We sing a hymn by Shirley Erena Murray in our church, entitled Touch the Earth Lightly. In it, we are reminded at the dramatic impact we have upon this planet.

We who endanger, who create hunger, agents of death for all creatures that live

Whenever we sing those lines, I’m left with an unmovable lump in my throat. The problem with poverty is not just a religious matter.

Athiests, agnostics, whatever flavour of religion satisfies your palate; each of us need to work together, if there is any hope of eliminating poverty. It doesn’t belong to any particular political party either. Poverty requires us to acknowledge the inherent worth of our neighbours. Especially the one you don’t get along with.

The presentation at the MacBain Centre laid the foundation for this discussion of poverty with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, issued by the UN shortly after the Second World War. It was written and adopted to ensure one group of people do not mistreat, subjugate, or demean another group.

Yet that is exactly what is happening between those that exist both above and below the poverty line. We use language that refers to laziness and the pulling of bootstraps. We assume addiction and abuse. We claim squandered cheques and too much help and they won’t help themselves. Any words that can be used to lessen our collective guilt, we employ it. It lets us off the hook.

We feel better about ourselves. We sleep soundly at night, and what little we do about poverty, if any, seems grandiose.

According to recent statistics, we have seen an increase from 11% to 13% of Ontarians existing in poverty, or in other terms, 1.7 million Ontarians are below the poverty line, 400,000 of whom are children. Myths of poverty aside, one-third of those 400,000 children actually come from families where parents had full-time work.

Gone are the beliefs that having a “good job” met all your needs. Gone is the belief that only the uneducated cash cheques from Ontario Works or ODSP. (In fact 80% of those below the poverty line graduated high school, and 40% have some post secondary education). Families are now required to have two incomes at a minimum, leaving many to split time between multiple places of employment, just to break even. When we hear poverty, it often comes with the more heartstring- pulling adjective of child poverty.

While it is admirable to seek to improve the lives of children in need, we cannot forget that there are still more than one million adults and seniors that face each and every day without the basic needs for life.

At Central United, as well as other locations around our city, meals are served, by local organizations and churches. The visible poor aren’t often in front of our eyes, like the larger centres of Toronto, or Ottawa, but Welland struggles just the same. While there are familiar faces that come each and every meal, a certain percent of the group is always new.

We’re never sure what led them to our table that month, as the pain of poverty prevents many from sharing the difficult journey they’ve endured. We only know that for one brief moment, judgment is checked at the door, people are fed, and hope is shared.

If you’re like me, you wonder what you can do at all when it comes to the great chasm of poverty. In that moment, please realize that doing something is better than doing nothing at all. Know that there is a provincial election and ensure each of the candidates offer their party’s plan on how to combat poverty. Contribute to a food bank more than once a year.

Get the figures on how much on average those in poverty have for food per month and try surviving (and then imagine what a $100 a month healthy food supplement might do to your diet). Speak to those at the Hope Centre or other institutions around Welland that work to fight not just the symptoms of poverty, but the root causes. And if you’re still unsure where to start, may these words strengthen your resolve.

They were written by Bishop Ken Untener of Saginaw and attributed to Bishop Oscar Romero who ministered to the people of El Salvador, and offered hope during hopeless times.

We plant the seeds that one day will grow.

We water seeds already planted,

knowing that they hold future promise.

We lay foundations that will need further development.

We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation

in realizing that. This enables us to do something,

and to do it very well.

Editorial by Rev. Chris Fickling in the Welland Tribune


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