September 30, 2010

Do I have to move? or If I had $100

I am still wrestling with the reality that $572 a month I would get from Ontario works does not even cover my housing expenses. I talked with Lynn Macaulay at the Homelessness and Housing Umbrella Group (HUGG) about what would happen if I could no longer afford my housing.

It would be a real crisis for me if I had to move. I have been able to get by this week with no newspaper, no internet access at home and no cable or satellite TV. But where I live has had a huge impact on being able to get through this week. I have not had to rely on a car or even take the bus because I can walk and bicycle everywhere I need to go. My next door neighbour loaded me up with potatoes two weeks ago. I can pick dandelion greens from my lawn, parsley, tomatoes, raspberries and other things from my yard. The Queens Greens Community Garden, St. John's Kitchen, the Working Centre, church and work are all close to home.

Several years ago, I had friends from church who were on the affordable housing waiting list. When they finally got a rent subsidized unit it was far from the neighbourhood. Needless to say, it made it alot harder for them to keep up their connections with their church community, although we did often drive out to pick them up for mass.

The point of this Put Food in the Budget Challenge is not just to see what it's like to eat for a week on a restricted budget. It is to press for an immediate increase of $100 a month for adults on social assistance. It has got me thinking about what that $100 would mean for me.

The biggest thing is that it means I could stay in my home. It would help me sustain the network of community that is such a big part of my life. It would still be a challenge to manage the budget. I'm sure I'd have to rely on free food alot. But it would give me stability and keep things from spiralling out of control.

Dreaming of food

The past few nights I have had dreams of food. One night I dreamed I was in the grocery store and saw that head lettuce was on sale, $1 for two heads of lettuce. But I was out of money. Last night, I dreamed I went out to dinner with my family and another family. It was one of those all day breakfast places. I had ordered an extra side of scrambled eggs. As I was about to eat them it occured to me that I was not supposed to be eating out this week. I had a crisis of guilt, thinking that I had cheated on the PFIB challenge. Just a dream.

It's 8:45 Thursday morning and I am already hungry. I had two slices of toast for breakfast, a small cup of orange juice and a cup of raspberry leaf and lemon balm tea. My oatmeal is all gone. I did not eat it all. Someone else in my household has been eating it too. But since I have been enjoying some free lunches (tuna wraps on Monday and Tuesday) I decided to get by without oatmeal for the rest of the week.

September 29, 2010

Calling St. Vincent de Paul

On Wednesday, my diet consisted of oatmeal with raisins and some powdered milk for breakfast, a tuna wrap  and two cookies for lunch (more free food at a community event), and spaghetti for dinner with a few bites of brocoli, carrots and celery. I had coffee throughout the day at work and in the morning I had a cup of raspberry leaf and lemon balm tea  picked from my backyard and dried last year.

I find that so long as I have something to eat three times a day, I can manage.

But I have been troubled by the thought that in reality my housing costs would eat up my whole social assistance cheque for the month. So I put in a call to the coordinator of my church's St. Vincent de Paul Society to see what kind of food would be available to me through them. St. Vincent de Paul delivers food hampers with food received from the Waterloo Region Food Bank. Here is the list of what I would receive (if they have enough food on hand):

Milk (1 litre)
Canned soup
Pasta and Sauce
Canned vegetables
Frozen food (wieners or veggies or a frozen meal)

That's not too bad. That looks a bit like my $20 a week food budget. The only thing is that food hamper would have to last me the whole month, not just a week.

September 28, 2010

Free food and social networks

So far in this week, I have found that free food and social networks have been keeping me afloat

Yesterday at work colleagues who were doing a training workshop in our building invited me to join them for lunch. Brice Balmer, a fellow challenge member, was leading the workshop. Needless to say, he and I had a decent lunch, for free.

There was alot of discussion around the table about the reality for people who really have very little income for food. Most of my colleagues who were attending the workshop work directly with people in that situation. They said that when they have gatherings of participants, the food is often a real draw for people. And they always have styrofoam containers available for people to take home the leftovers.

I did not need to eat the peanut butter and jam sandwich I had packed for lunch. But I did not fill a styrofoam container with leftovers.

Supper included more free food, this time provided by a friend from Calgary in town for a conference organized by the Tamarack Institute. We had planned to get together weeks ago, before I decided to take the Put Food in the Budget Challenge. Again it was awkward. He immediatly offered to treat me. Instead, I suggested we eat at the Working Centre's Queen Street Commons. I knew that there, he could get something good to eat, and nobody would mind if I got a glass of water and ate my peanut butter and jam sandwich.

But in the end he offered me some of his pizza, a cookie and coffee and I caved.

Maybe this is another reality check for me. I enjoy a strong social network. I have access to free food at work and when I see friends -- not to mention at places like St. John's Kitchen.

But I have to admit, I felt a little uneasy as I lay in bad last night. No, I was not hungry. But, under normal circumstances, I would have invited my friend home for supper last night. And I did not feel like I could (even though my wife had cooked a great meal for the rest of the family). How long could I sustain those social networks if I could never afford to pay for myself or pick up the tab when we get together? What would it be like if I never had enough food in the house to feel like I could invite a friend over for a bite?

Reality Check 2 -- Housing

One of the assumptions in the K-W PFIB Challenge is that the housing portion of social assistance -- $356 -- covers the cost of my housing. 

I checked in with a friend who lived for years on ODSP whether that is a realistic assumption. He wrote back to say that in reality, social assistance only covers about 55% of actual housing costs.

So I did the math. I looked at my actual housing costs -- mortgage payments, property tax, hydro, water and gas. I live in a modest house. So my mortgage payments and property tax are not that high. Since I live in a household of five I adjusted the actual cost with the same formula used to develop the Market Basket Measure.

The actual cost of housing for me is $578.55 a month. So the social assistance housing allowance really only covers about 61% of my actual housing costs.

The total social assistance allowance only adds up to $572 -- $356 for housing and $216 for everything else. That means that in reality I would start the month about $7 in the hole.

So much for having $20 a week for food.

September 27, 2010

Reality Check 1 -- Getting Around

When I was leaving Waterloo Town Square on Thursday after the launch of the PFIB Challenge in Kitchener-Waterloo, Charles Nichols gave me a little reality check. Charles is a low income activist. That is he lives on a disability income and is an anti-poverty activist. He asked, "How are you going to put gas in your car this week?" A helpful reminder that living in poverty entails more than a food budget of $20 a week.

I live in downtown Kitchener. That means I do not have to rely on my car for transit day-to-day. I can walk or ride to work, to church, to the grocery store. So for a week I can probably get by without using the car. But in reality, I can easily take trips out of town to visit friends or relatives. And if time is tight or the weather is bad, I can choose to hop in the car to get where I'm going more quickly.

Dandelion greens salad

I could not blog this weekend, because I could not get to a public access computer with internet.

I made it O.K. through the weekend, although I was pretty hungry on Saturday.

Friday night for supper, I had a little bit of mashed potates, parsnips and carrots. The parsnips and carrots came from our plot at the Queen's Greens community garden -- one of many supported by the City of Kitchener. The potato came from a neighbour who had a bumper crop and has given us about a dozen.

I also had a salad of dandelion greens, parsley and tomato. The tomato and parsley came from the garden and the greens from the back yard. I have to say it tasted pretty good.

Saturday, the meals were more sparse. Oatmeal again for breakfast (with raisins and a little powdered milk). A bagel and jam at mid-morning (the oatmeal does not really stick to my ribs). A peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch and spaghetti with tomato sauce for supper. The spaghetti sure tasted good.

I spent the morning at the Kitchener Market busking with my son and daughter. On my way out, I noticed one vender had brocolo for $1 a bunch. I decided to get one with the $3 I had left in my budget of $20 for the week.

It was a bit awkward Saturday, because my wife and I had planned to get together with friends for supper. In the end, we decided to get together after dinner. Thankfully, they are understanding.

Sunday I benefited from free food. Oatmeal again for breakfast, of course. But at church we had coffee and munchies after mass. I tried to fill up on cheese and crackers and I also had some pineapple and cake. At home, I had some brocoli and tomato.

In the afternoon, I went back to church where the Sudanese Catholic community was celebrating their one year anniversary worshipping at my church. It was a lively, festive mass and celebration. I knew there would be refreshments in the church hall after mass -- there always are. But I was not expecting a full meal -- beef stew, fish and chicken over rice, a bun salad and then fruit salad.

September 24, 2010

Getting the Groceries etc.

I guess technically tomorrow is the first day of the challenge. But I started today. I had oatmeal with a some raisins for breakfast. A glass of orange juice and a cup of chamomile tea -- picked from our yard and dried last year.

I looked at the Canada Food Guide to see what I am supposed to be eating: 8-10 servings of fruits and vegetables; 8 servings of grain products; 2 servings of milk or milk alternatives; and 3 servings of meat and alternatives. I'm not sure how I'm going to get all of those things in my diet.

Friday is normally my day off. So, I walked to the Bargain Shop on King St. in downtown Kitchener with a list of groceries I was looking for and $20 in hand. I picked up a loaf of bread (20 slices), six bagels, a small jar of peanut butter, strawberry jam, some raisins, spaghetti and tomato sauce. Together with the oatmeal I had bought last week and the orange juice, that left me with about $3. I was thinking of trying to get some eggs or lentils and maybe some brocoli or lettuce. I'll have to look around and see what I can find.

A friend called around 10 am and asked if I wanted to go out for coffee. I explained that I was doing the PFIB challenge and could not afford the coffee. He offered to pay today. We had coffee and we split a cinnamon bun at the Morning Glory cafe. I enjoyed both his company and the food, because I was starting to get hungry. (Do you think the cinnamon bun counts as a half serving of grains?) We talked a little bit about how we would feel if every time we got together he paid. It's one thing to take turns picking up the tab. But if I were really living on a social assistance budget, would I be able to buy the coffee next week?

For lunch, I went to St. John's Kitchen. They were serving curried chick pea stew, potatoe salad and cole slaw. It tasted pretty good.

Next, I went to the library where I sit typing this post. I read the newspaper. (Even though we get it delivered at home, I have decided that for this challenge I would do as if I did not have a subscription. Having a telephone is more important -- although I'm not really sure the cost of local phone service is in the budget.) Then I asked a librarian where I could find a computer to access the internet. So here I am.

So far the day has gone pretty well. I am fortunate to live downtown. I normally walk or ride my bike to work, to church and to shop for groceries. I am thankful for friends already. And I am grateful for places like St. John's Kitchen and the public library.

September 23, 2010

Taking the Put Food in the Budget Challenge

I have decided to take the Put Food in the Budget Challenge. The challenge is to live for a week on the food budget an adult on social assistance has available. It's happening in fifteen communities across Ontario, October 4-11. But in Kitchener-Waterloo, the challenge is a week earlier. The launch was today at noon at Waterloo Town Square.

There are ten of us taking the challenge in K-W. We each have $20 to spend on food this week. We have each committed to blog our experience. You can follow all the blogs at .

We have been asked to start by answering a questionnaire for participants. So here goes.

Name: Greg deGroot-Maggetti

Occupation: Poverty Advocate for Mennonite Central Committee Ontario

Favourite Food: It's hard to choose. But I'd probably say lasagna (which I don't expect to be eating this week).

Guiltiest Food Pleasure: I don't know if I really have any "guilty" food pleasures. But a few things I enjoy are either a cup of wine or a glass of beer while I'm cooking supper. And I like to have a bowl of ice cream in the evening sometimes.

Family Size: 5 -- me, my wife and three kids.

How much do we spend on food a week: between $150 - $200 I think, probably more some weeks.

Why am I participating and why is the issue important to me? When the Ontario Government cut social assistance rates by 20% in 1995 and then froze it for ten years, I was stunned by the injustice and felt complicit for not having spoken up against the poor bashing rhetoric that paved the way for those cuts. I have been speaking up ever since.

That conviction about the injustice of cutting incomes of people in need is rooted in my faith. Key to that is Jesus' proclamation that he came to bring "good news to the poor" and to "proclaim the year of the Lord's favour" (Luke 4). I take seriously the spirit of the jubilee and sabbath commands in Deuteronomy (15)  and Leviticus (25), particularly the commands to be generous and open-handed to those in need and to structure society so that there be no one in poverty in the land.

In my advocacy work at Mennonite Central Committee Ontario I connect frequently with colleagues who work directly with people living in poverty -- the Circle of Friends program in Kitchener, Lazarus Rising in Toronto, and our Restorative Justice work, to name just a few programs. When I have asked my colleagues, and the folks with whom they work, what one or two key policy changes would make the biggest impact in reducing poverty, one answer comes back loud and clear: raise social assistance rates.

That reality reinforces my conviction that things have to change. But I have never tried to walk even a week in the shoes of many people I know who have to try to live with the meagre allowance provided by social assistance. This is my chance to do that.

September 22, 2010

Homelessness and Housing Security in Waterloo Region

On October 25, 2010 Ontario voters will elect new municipal governments and school boards. In Waterloo Region, a number of organizations are bringing a focus to the issues that affect the quality of life and inclusion particularly for people with low incomes. As part of that process, I had the chance to talk with Lynn Macaulay, Coordinator of the Homelessness and Housing Umbrella Group (HHUG) in Waterloo Region, about homelessness and housing security in Waterloo Region and about what municipal governments in the Region can and are doing about it.

What is the state of homelessness and housing security in Waterloo Region?
I began by asking Lynn about the state of homelessness in Waterloo Region and about the challenges around community housing programs.

What are municipal governments doing about homelessness and housing security?
One thing about Waterloo Region is that there are two tiers of municipal government. There is the Regional Municipality of Waterloo and there are also three cities (Cambridge, Kitchener and Waterloo) and four townships (North Dumfries, Wellesley, Wilmot and Woolwich). These governments have different roles and different tools to help achieve housing security and a good quality of life for everyone in Waterloo Region. I aksed Lynn to talk about the things government's in Waterloo Region are currently doing to address homelessnes and housing security.

What can the cities and townships do to improve quality of life for people who are homeless?
The Regional Government has major responsibilities for homelessness and housing security. There are also things that city and township governments can do to improve the quality of life for people who are homeless, near homeless or living with low incomes. I asked Lynn to talk a little more about what the lower tier governments can and are doing to improve the quality of life for people who are homelessnes, at risk of homelessness or living with low incomes.

If we had a million dollars...
Next we turned to some of the key needs for achieving housing security for everyone in Waterloo Region. I asked Lynn to tell me what we could do if we had a million dollars or more. It is not just a hypothetical question. Since the Province is uploading the municipal cost of social assistance benefits (Ontario Works and Ontario Disability Support Program) over the next eight years, the Regional Municipality of Waterloo stands to save about $10 million a year starting in 2011 and up to $20 million a year by 2018, when the Province has fully uploaded the cost of those benefits. That is money the Region has been investing in income security for people at real risk of homelessness. It is worth thinking about how some or all of those savings could be reinvested to help eliminate poverty and homelessness in Waterloo Region. Lynn focused on the needs for non-specific supports to help people maintain their housing. This is what she had to say.

September 21, 2010

Street Outreach

I spent the day after labour day doing street outreach with Emily Dueck and Doug Johnson Hatlem. Emily and Doug are MCCO’s street pastors working with Lazarus Rising at Sanctuary in downtown Toronto. They regularly do outreach to people living on the streets in Toronto and participate in the drop-in programs at Sanctuary – located on Charles St. between Yonge and Church Sts.

It was a beautiful day and things seemed relatively quiet. But the first two guys we met sleeping in the park next to Sanctuary told us that one of them had been beaten the other day. He still wore the evidence around his left eye. Emily explained that Sanctuary had seen a recent rise in violence, with two fights at drop-ins the week before. I wondered about what could be behind the violence. The rest of the walk was uneventful.

Back at Sanctuary, we talked with the other team doing outreach. They had met a woman – a familiar member of the Sanctuary community – who had been badly beaten by her partner. The fights of the previous week came up in our discussion. It seems those are just a small window on a rise in tension and violence among folks living in extreme poverty on the streets of Toronto these days.

Doug said its not unusual in early September for violence to erupt. At the end of August some of the programs out in the community -- breakfast drop-ins and such – take a break. Another member of the group referred to H.A.L.T. – hungry, angry, lonely and tired – as the common triggers of violence.

Through my public policy lens, I wonder what impacts policy changes will have on people and communities living on the edge. On the one hand, refundable tax credits like the federal GST credit and the new Ontario Sales Tax Credit deliver tax refunds through the year to people on low income. That can help. But people have to file a tax return in order to get those credits. And the people who are part of the Sanctuary community are probably among those most likely to not have filed tax returns.

On the other hand, extremely low social assistance rates for adults guarantee that people cannot afford basics, like a nutritional diet. A big worry is the impending cancellation of the Special Diet Allowance program. Doug tells me he knows a number of people who are very anxious about losing that lifeline to being able to afford nutritious foods they need for chronic health conditions.

I plan to do street outreach with Doug and Emily again in a couple of weeks. I will be keen to see if the tensions and violence have abated.

September 8, 2010

Race, Poverty and Municipal Elections

One of the realities about poverty in Ontario -- indeed across Canada -- is that it impacts different groups disproportionately. Among those groups are people who are racialized -- not just new immigrants, but folks whose ancestry is aboriginal, African, Latin American or Asian. Strategies to eliminate poverty have to take into account how and why it is that poverty is more prevalent in racialized communities.

This is as true in forming municipal policies as in forming provincial and federal policies. And it is important for community agencies and organizations to take this reality into account in their planning and programs.

Colour of Poverty - Colour of Change (a partner in the 25 in 5 Network for Poverty Reduction) is working to make sure the realities of racialized poverty are integral to poverty reduction plans. Their website includes a list of insightful factsheets.

For the municipal elections (October 25, 2010), Colour of Poverty - Colour of Change has produced the following resource with questions for candidates.


A civic participation tool for city elections in Ontario

Developed by Colour of Poverty - Colour of Change

This coming October, Ontarians with the right to vote will go to the polls to elect new mayors, city councillors and school board Trustees. Given that municipal orders of government are responsible for providing a range of public services and managing a number of policy areas which are basic to city life, electing the right municipal government and school board representatives is crucial for all communities.

Major municipal government responsibilities include - water, sewage, waste collection, policing, public transit, land use planning, libraries, community recreation, public health and social services, housing, fire fighting as well as economic and community development - as well as how and by whom such programs and services get delivered.

At the same time, Ontario’s school boards and the Trustees play an important oversight role in the administration of the publicly funded school system. They have a say in deciding the amount of resources allocated to ESL classes, the changes to be made to the curriculum, which new schools should be opened and which schools will be closed, as well as who gets hired and how. Equitable learning outcomes are determined by how accessible and inclusive the education system is for the children of Ontario.

Racialized communities – First Peoples and communities of colour - in Toronto and other parts of Ontario face particular difficulties: disproportionate levels of poverty, racial profiling, substandard housing, employment discrimination and precarious jobs, to mention just a few. Many racialized students are being pushed out from the school. They feel alienated and left out by school curriculum that does not reflect who they are.

The racial equity, human dignity and social justice report card framework is a tool for racialized communities to evaluate how well they are being served by their municipal governments and their local school boards. It is also a tool to help voters pose critical questions to candidates running in the upcoming elections. Compiling the report card through community fact-finding missions is a means of assessing community needs, raising them publicly as election issues, and holding elected officials accountable both during the election and afterward.

Community Fact Finding Missions
Whether or not they have a right to vote, residents in every community should be encouraged to engage in the upcoming municipal and local trustees’ election process. To facilitate community members in their civic participation, community groups can use this report card framework to ‘compile the facts’ by engaging members in a discussion about local issues affecting their lives. Community members can also be encouraged to attend local candidates’ debates to share their views on how their communities should be served and to find out the positions that the candidates take on relevant issues.

Below are:
• a list of some key questions that communities can use to evaluate racial equity to date
• a list of questions that may be posed directly to local candidates by community members

Key questions to evaluate racial equity, human dignity and social justice

In the city:
1. What measures were taken by elected municipal and school board officials in the past four years to reduce racial disparities? Were racial equity, human dignity or racial justice discussed as official policy goals, including in the municipal or school board budget setting process? How do racial equity or racial justice outcomes figure into election platforms of the various candidates?

2. Was access to services increased or made more equitable for members of racialized communities,
for example, education and training programs, after school programs, child care, libraries, emergency services? Were racialized workers hired to help provide these services? Was the hiring conducted on the basis of employment equity principles? Were racialized communities engaged in the land use planning decisions like the development of affordable housing, advocacy around inclusionary housing or inclusionary zoning, parks planning? How do these questions figure into the election platforms of current candidates?

3. Were neighbourhoods largely made up of racialized communities adequately served in the past four years in terms of the maintenance as well as expansion of infrastructure: for example, social housing, schools, accessible recreational spaces and public transport? If not, how are equitably responsive infrastructure needs accounted for in the election platforms of candidates?

4. How did policing and emergency services respond to community needs? How did they show that they were listening to community and working with them to respond to community needs? How did City Councillors and School Board Trustees help in resolving issues raised by the community, for example in areas like policing? How do the candidates standing for election show whether they are concerned about these issues and are prepared to do something about them if elected?

In schools:
1. How were racism and discrimination in schools addressed by school board trustees and other elected officials, if at all, in the past four years? How was success measured in this area? Were safe and accessible mechanisms put in place for students and parents to report racism, racial profiling, discrimination and harassment? Are there mechanisms to monitor and produce equitable learning outcomes for racialized youth in the school or board? Are ethno-racially disaggregated data gathered to monitor for instances of racial disparity or inequity in learning outcomes and/or for measuring progress over time?

2. Were there adequate programs in schools and school boards to respond to the needs of various racialized students - for example Aboriginal learners, is there ethno-racially religiously and other-wise culturally relevant and responsive curriculum & broad-based capacity to deliver it effectively, is there ESL training for new immigrant and refugee youth? Are there any pro-active policies in the schools/boards to engage ethno-racially, religiously, culturally diverse as well as immigrant/refugee parents in school decision-making?

3. How do these questions figure into current election platforms?

In both:
1.Were there any specific policies, programs or community development initiatives proposed by racialized community groups in the past four years? Were they acted upon by local officials? If not, why not? In general, how were racialized community groups involved/engaged/ treated, in school board and municipal initiatives? Are candidates including such initiatives in their election platforms?

2. Which policies or programs were created to protect against racism, discrimination, racial profiling and racial violence in the past four years? How were these policies or programs implemented and enforced? What resources were allocated and were they adequate? How do candidates currently standing for election address such issues in their platforms?

Questions for the Candidates
To find out what the local candidates may do for First Peoples and communities of colour (racialized groups), here are some of the questions that may be raised by community members.

For candidates running for City Council and Mayor: If elected, what would you do to
• make sure that racial equity, human dignity and social justice will become a dynamic and core part of official policy for the local government, and visibly and transparently incorporated into the municipal budget-setting and resource allocation process?

• ensure equitable access to services for members of racialized communities?

• implement a comprehensive Employment Equity plan and program across the municipal government – both as an employer as well as a contractor - ie. as a condition of contract compliance for outside vendors/suppliers/service providers contracted by the City?

• build and improve physical and social infrastructure including child care, social housing, accessible recreational facilities and public transport?

• address racial profiling by policing and other municipal service providers to ensure better police and other accountability to the community?

For candidates running for School Boards: If elected, what would you do to
• address racism, “colour-coded” academic streaming, and discrimination in schools?

• monitor & publicize to ensure equitable learning outcomes for racialized learners?

• ensure appropriate programs in schools to fairly and equitably respond to the needs of various populations of racialized students?

• ensure school curriculum well reflects the diverse student population with its multiple sets of realities, perspectives and worldviews?

• Implement a comprehensive Employment Equity plan and program across the local school board – both as an employer as well as a contractor - ie. as a condition of contract compliance for outside vendors/suppliers/service providers contracted by the Board?