By Melodie McCullough.
On a mild Saturday afternoon in April, a Spring breeze blows outside St. John the Evangelist Anglican Church in downtown Nogojiwanong/Peterborough, Ontario.
Inside, in the lower level, a discussion is taking place among a group of people, following their free midday meal. It’s led by Roy Brady, a local social justice activist who wants to know what community services people want in the city.
The church houses the One Roof Community Centre, where free meals are served throughout the week and a drop-in centre is open noon to 7 p.m. everyday, with activities and programs for guests. It’s run by Warming Room Community Ministries and is funded by the city of Peterborough.
” . . . poverty is serious and a lot of people don’t know how serious it is.”: Roy Brady
The consensus this day is that hygiene services — a place to shower and do laundry — would be appreciated. A Sunday breakfast meal would also be welcome, as there is none at present. And “interestingly”, says Brady, training in anger management is also on the list.
“The poverty and mental health situation in Peterborough is really getting worse,” said Brady, in a later interview. “I’d say per capita in Peterborough it’s pretty serious. It’s really broken out.”
Brady is one of five members on the board of Our Space, a small community organization whose number one priority is “to try to locate social justice gaps and try to close them,” he said.
At one time, Our Space operated a community centre and served meals. Its municipal funding collapsed in 2012, but it continues to be a registered not-for-profit corporation with charitable status. Currently, it provides the Saturday ‘Out of the Cold’ meal at One Roof, operates a pet food bank at One Roof from 10 a.m. to noon on Saturdays, and provides transportation to medical appointments.
Eventually it would like to open another centre, or, at least, a mini-community centre where it can let people know where to get services, said Brady.
“Government funding is seldom available, so it’s up to the community and volunteers to fill the gap,” he said.
Our Space has twice applied for provincial government funding for a mini-centre and a centre to prepare clients and employers for employment opportunities that people on social assistance can handle well.
It has also submitted two applications for local funding grants for shower and laundry facilities, with no response yet.
“It’s difficult being a small organization to get recognised and get funding, . . . but we’re going to do good work.”
While poverty activists have been calling for some time for increases to social assistance rates, the recent Ontario budget (released April 27) only offered a two percent inflationary increase. This means a single person on Ontario Works (OW) will receive an additional $15 a month for a total of $721, and a single person on the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) will get an extra $23 a month for a total of $1,151.
Brady predicts it will be a struggle to get poverty issues noticed in the next provincial election campaign.
“There’s always hope, but poverty is serious and a lot of people don’t know how serious it is.”
SIX WOMEN: WHAT WOULD THEY LIKE?
A decent place to call home, and a belly full of nutritious food would be nice.
JOURNEY Magazine asked six women who visit One Roof Community Centre regularly for their wish lists. All receive social assistance through either OW or ODSP.
“Finding housing is my main goal,” said Susan Orde, 51, who, with her disabled brother, 50, had been homeless for about seven weeks at the time of the April interview. They were forced to leave their home in January after their mother died, she said, and were sleeping at night on cots at Peterborough’s Warming Room, an overnight shelter for homeless people.
“If it wasn’t for the Warming Room, I would be sleeping in my car with my brother. Everything we own is in it. If I could get out of the Warming Room into a nice warm apartment with my brother it would be wonderful.”
“She’s screwed for food.”
“I’m ashamed to come here to eat, so I volunteer here,” said Gladys Davis, 48, referring to the One Roof Community Centre. “People have laughed at me because I’m poor.”
She lives with her brother in a noisy downstairs apartment, but as her cousin, Ashley, points out, “she’s screwed for food.”
With Type 2 diabetes, gallstones and acid reflux, Gladys requires three special diets. She said she has to pay over-the-counter for some diabetic supplies, and often can’t afford them, so she borrows them from her brother, who also has diabetes, when he has extras. She is supposed to be eating six meals a day, but there is not enough money for food, she said. She figures she has $100 a week for food and diabetic supplies.
“I’m trying to save money to buy a house. I don’t like renting. It makes me embarrassed. I don’t feel comfortable. It’s like renting from my mom.”
She needs to keep her nerves steady, and the situation affects both her physical and mental health.
“I try to budget, but I would like to be able to buy more groceries. It seems like they (government) are helping the rich, not poor people.”
Shelby Hulme, 47, lives in a City Centre apartment with a room mate. With more money, she would buy more groceries. She used to be able to order nutritious meals delivered every week, but can’t afford it now, she said. She also used to have a personal support worker visit to help two hours a day, five days a week with housekeeping and grocery shopping, and who also provided companionship. With government financial cutbacks, the worker now comes three hours a week, she said. Shelby once got a petition going to get a shelter for the mentally challenged, but was told there was no money for it.
“We have to kiss the government men’s ass to get what we need.”
“I’m pretty sure the old term for us was paupers,” said Ashley Lachmann, 30.
“None of us have money for healthy food. I’m lactose intolerant and there’s not enough for me to change my diet to healthy food,” said Ashley. She said she receives $80 a month extra for her special dietary needs. She shares an apartment with one other person.
“Please God, give it to us.”
When asked what she thought of a basic income guarantee, she replied, “Please, God, give it to us. The government needs to stop pussyfooting around and get at it. Stop beating around the damn bush and help us.”
With more money, Ashley would like to get her drivers’ licence, which would then allow her to find work. A lot of jobs require a licence, but she cannot afford the cost of obtaining one ($158.25), she said. She identifies as Ojibwe, but obtaining an Indian status card — which would provide access to more assistance — is out of the question because a DNA test to prove her identity also costs too much ($150.00), she said.
After rent and other expenses, Elizabeth Bromley has $300 a month to buy groceries and live on, she said. She receives $32 a month to help with her lactose-intolerant diet.
“If I don’t eat here (One Roof Community Centre), I don’t eat.”
She, too, would like to get a drivers’ licence to help find work, if she had more money.
“Everything I own is in a pawn shop,” she continued. “I don’t have enough to do anything and I stress about things. If ODSP were raised it would help. Everybody in Peterborough seems to be sinking. People are struggling. I am struggling every day. The rents in Peterborough are ridiculous. I can’t afford to go to the Y to exercise. There’s lots of people in Peterborough getting stomped on by people who have more money. We get made fun of because everyone else can afford stuff we can’t. There are not many jobs. ODSP needs to step up and help people go back to school. The government needs to stop sitting back and letting people suffer. Instead of burying them, help the poor. The government is more concerned about the people who make money. They support them.”
With more money, “I would be able to live better, get groceries and pay the rent, get whatever I need,” said Chelsey Johnson, who also identifies as Ojibwe, but does not have an Indian status card because her Indigenous father did not sign her birth certificate. She is now attending PACE (Peterborough Alternative and Continuing Education) to finish high school, and she, too, would like to become a nurse.
Chelsey just recently found an apartment with the help of her case worker, after staying in the Warming Room for three months and before that at Cameron House, a transitional shelter in the city for homeless women.
As her friend, Ashley, poignantly remarks, “It’s amazing how excited people can get over being able to say ‘I’m going home’. Right, Chelsey?”.