from the Woodstock Sentinel Review
In part one of her five-part series, Heather Rivers writes about how "poverty is a symptom of an unhealthy community."
Heather Rivers STAFF WRITER
At first not one of the 35 people who turned up at noon hour at the Adelaide Soup Bowl wanted to talk.
They’ve come on a drizzly October day to the soup kitchen in the First Baptist Church basement for a free hot lunch to expose the details of their day-to-day lives.
For some it may be their only meal of the day.
"What’s the point, what’s it going to change?" said one man.
After an uncomfortable silence, a young woman put up her hand.
She wanted to talk.
She had lost custody of her young son, and is working to regaining it.
Soon after Brandi Hill, 29, began to relay some of her history that has led up to this point.
Born in Woodstock, she described her early years as "chaotic."
Leaving an abusive relationship, she now lives on $600 from social assistance.
After her expenses, she has little or no money left to travel to the physiotherapy she needs to recover from a past motor vehicle collision.
In fact, it costs money to travel to the soup kitchen, which offers those in need hot meals five days a week, so she doesn’t often make the trip except to visit her pastor, Rev. Janice Fisher, who has mentored Hill through her ups-and-downs.
Her clothes are second-hand, rummaged from a donation room.
"It sucks being poor," Hill said. "I never have any money - never."
It is the little things that could make Hill’s life a little more bearable.
"If she had a bus pass - that would be huge," said Fisher, who was greated next to her.
Fisher and First Baptist Church have helped Hill in the past with expenses when she was overwhelmed - they bought her glasses and paid her phone bill.
"She is part of the church, baptized here. We will help her out," Fisher said.
Hill returns the favour by volunteering at the church.
Hill has worked, and she’s enjoyed it, but she admits her lack of self-esteem has affected her efforts "to be more than I am - better than I am."
"When you don’t have faith in yourself, your dreams are crushed before you’ve even started," she said. "It doesn’t help when you are in an abusive relationship."
Today, she said she thinks people treat her like she is in a different social class.
"I’m just the same as you, I shouldn’t be treated differently," she said. "Sometime it’s the way you dress, but I can’t help it if my clothes are second-hand."
Hill said her only vice is smoking cigarettes she buys from the reserve. She doesn’t drink or do drugs.
"I don’t think anyone asks to be poor," Fisher said. "I think sometimes people get involved with drugs or alcohol. They may have a learning disability."
Since chronic poverty can be a learned behaviour passed down through the generations, Fisher said she thinks mentorship would make a difference in Hill’s life.
"Mentorship would be something that would really help," she said.
Several weeks after this interview, Hill received good news.
Her child was returned to her, Fisher said.
Nationally recognized, Woodstock is lauded by other municipalities for its Extended Family Program, designed specifically with mentorship in mind.
Recent funding has gotten the program off the ground, and organizers are actively working to educate area residents about the program and recruit volunteers.
Every day can be a struggle for one of first people enrolled in the program. Daphne, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, is a single mother with three young children.
She works and after she pays the rent, utilities, food and other necessities of life, there is about $200 left over for emergencies, recreation and activities for her children.
"Everything gets paid, but if anything serious happened I’d be screwed," she explained. "I have nothing in the bank."
Recently, when she was faced with unexpected drug costs, she squeezed by when her doctor gave her the items for free.
"You don’t just have $100 lying around," she said.
Daphne and her children live in a relatively good neighbourhood - but it comes with a price.
Her rent and utilities take up more than half of her income - experts recommend an amount no more than 30 per cent - but she’s willing to make the sacrifice.
"I could go to cheaper housing, but here the kids can go outside," she said. "To me it’s not a ghetto."
Referred by a therapist, the family has found a measure of refuge from their problems through Operation Sharing’s Extended Family Project.
The idea behind the project is to help impoverished families and individuals move toward self-sufficiency, while improving their emotional, social and physical health.
Still in its infancy, the project uses a network of volunteers who work two or three hours a week as a team, helping families or individuals in a number of areas.
At first Daphne had trouble trusting Margaret Johnson, manager of the project who has also become a mentor.
"Marg has adopted us," Daphne said. "She has come and sat and listened to me."
Johnson also arranged for the children to become involved in dance lessons and drama activities.
"My role wasn’t to get involved," Johnson said. "But we developed a real friendship."
On Daphne’s darkest days, she is offered "encouragement and connection."
She struggles to overcome the frustration with the circumstances in which she finds herself and her friends.
"Everyone in my circle is just like me, you feel like you’re not a productive part of society," she said of the low paying jobs many of them have. "I’m so in the mode of surviving, I forget about me."
But with support from Johnson, Daphne said she is starting to look at her life a little more brightly.
"When I have a bad day I know I can always call her - she’s always positive - at the end of a conversation I’m good to go," she explained.
However, the growth of the Extended Family program has been hampered by a shortage of volunteers.
"I have all these families (registered for the program) but I don’t have any volunteers," Johnson said earlier this year.
While the number of people currently receiving social assistance from Ontario Works has markedly decreased since 2001, those who work with the impoverished say more people than ever are using their services.
The numbers of people using food banks, the Food for Friends service and other services such as Inn Out of Cold, a homeless shelter, have risen.
"We’re seeing more and more working poor, seniors, and disabled people using our services," said chaplain Stephen Giuliano, program director at Operation Sharing. "At our place the numbers are up."
Why? Many of those who have left the social assistance system have been transferred to the Ontario Disability Support Program or simply don’t make enough money at their jobs to rise out of poverty.
Currently there are an estimated 800,000 children in Canada living in poverty.
Statistics Canada reports that 2.8 million families, or one in five, live below the low-income cut-off, also known as the poverty line.
The Federal Homelessness Secretariat estimates that 150,000 Canadians are homeless.
According to a 2004-05 Affordable/Social Housing Needs Assessment and Strategy for the County of Oxford, twenty per cent of families in Oxford County are living on $20,000 a year or less.
In the past, Giuliano said society’s attempts to address the issue of poverty have met with mixed results.
"I don’t believe it’s easy to address the issue of poverty," he said. " In the past we’ve created programs at arm’s length. We need to focus more on social justice as opposed to social charity."
Giuliano’s view of poverty encompasses more than just those directly affected by it.
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