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The poverty pandemic

Challenging times show us who we are.

In the beginning of the pandemic there were all kinds of stories of kindness being shared, and people everywhere were helping each other. But as we head into year three, things seem to have shifted. Many of us are feeling burned out, angry or hopeless, and may have fallen into an “everyone for themselves” mentality. 

And while some might feel angry about “loss of freedoms” or frustrated with changes to plans or cancelled trips, those who are most severely impacted are those who struggled to access basic freedoms before the pandemic. Canada’s low-income people continue to fall through the cracks – only now the fall is even more deadly.

Many of the outreach organizations that used to bring their services to the streets are no longer able to do so. Many who used to open their doors and bring people in, offering a temporary roof over someone’s head, have had to close those doors. If shelters have remained open, there is less capacity, while the need has increased.

I know panhandlers who used to rely on the kindness of strangers to get by. Some strangers were compassionate and generous and would open their pockets and give; some would even stand beside them and pray with them, if that was welcomed. Impoverished people can also be some of the most generous, and I know someone who would share with her community whatever strangers had given her that day. They would gather and pool their resources and eat together. 

But since 2020, people don’t want to get too close or exchange anything by hand with a stranger. Passersby will now walk past someone on the street or look the other way, and it forces people like my friend into much higher risk situations where the strangers offering help aren’t so kind. Imagine how much more susceptible to exploitation that person on the street now is when a trafficker or other predator comes by to offer their “help.” 

Over the Edge

It’s not only those on the streets right now who are affected. Low-income people who have housing are also struggling as much as ever but in new ways. We know the pandemic has impacted people’s mental health, and for many who already struggled, it only intensified any issues. The same goes for people with addictions. Fewer social supports have compounded the problem. This can lead to people regressing and/or relapsing and losing their housing. There are now more people living on the streets or precariously housed, and fewer services to help them. The cycle continues and escalates.

One 2021 study out of California reported that “Over the next four years, the COVID-19-related recession is expected to cause chronic homelessness to increase some 49 per cent nationwide,” and a story by the United Way noted that “COVID-19 has laid bare the cracks in our social safety net” and that it “will absolutely exacerbate homelessness in Canada.”

The rich get richer, and the poor continue to get poorer and fall behind. Low-income people are impacted in other ways as well. Virtual learning is stressful enough – what if your family doesn’t own a computer? For people without vehicles, although the cost of public transit hasn’t necessarily changed, the risk of it has. COVID-19 risks while riding the bus can’t be avoided when that bus is the only way you can access food, medicine or other necessities. 

Food accessibility is another issue that has only gotten worse over the course of the pandemic for low-income people. Inflation continues to rise – this year it’s expected to average about 3.5 percent, and reached 4.7 percent last year. In such uncertain times, a lot of people are stocking up or even panic buying as opposed to giving from their cupboards or donating from their wallets. Not only are the poor continuing to get poorer, but the risks are continuing to get riskier. 

Turn Outward 

So, what are some solutions? And how do we help others in times when we ourselves are not operating with “full cups?” Sometimes it can help to re-examine things from a different perspective. If my cup is bigger than my neighbour’s, then even if it feels like I’m experiencing hardship because my cup isn’t full, I might still have some to give, as they have a smaller cup to begin with. Now more than ever we need to help thy neighbour and give what we can to community. If each household donated just a few items from their cupboards to their local food bank, it would make a major difference.

I worry for my friends struggling to get by and maintain what they have established, and I worry for all those facing unjust evictions. I fear for my friends on the streets and those being evicted from encampments and harassed for existing, especially in these dangerous times. And I grieve for all those who I have seen taken from us too soon since the pandemic, whose deaths were preventable, and there are far too many. Their mental health and/or physical health issues and addictions were exacerbated, and poverty kept them stuck in a place where barriers can seem impossible to overcome. How can we not have compassion and understanding when they try to numb themselves or escape, or when they fall behind or get stuck in a cycle? Homelessness and lack of affordable housing, the rate of evictions and the rate of overdoses; these are issues that can all be linked to poverty, what I consider to be its own pandemic. It can seem hopeless.  

But I have also seen firsthand how small acts of kindness and giving can make a huge difference. I have given this, and I have received this and both acts are food for the soul. As a low-income person coming from intergenerational poverty, I know the stigma and barriers well. I also know that a little can go a long way and acts of kindness can help us keep going. Now more than ever, at a time when we are so disconnected, smiling at someone on the street, helping the hungry or giving to a neighbour who has less can mean so very much. In this way, although the pandemic has brought tragedy and challenges, it has also brought opportunities and teachings.

Creating Home

For the past seven years I’ve hosted a feast and gift giving for those without plans on Christmas. This started simply because there was a need. There was limited support on Christmas day in the community where I’m from and it can be a hard time of year for many. I have always been amazed by how it all comes together. When we finish giving gifts in the building, we take what’s left to the streets on Christmas night with an old shopping cart filled with food and donations. Since the pandemic we could no longer gather in community in the same way but somehow, we still pulled it off and haven’t missed a year. We’ve simply adapted with the times.

Similarly, I used to run a weekly outreach group in my building for anyone needing connection and support. Social housing has many of its own challenges, but for me, after years of exploitation and being trafficked, my small apartment was my sacred space. The intention of this group was a place of respite and community. It’s called T.H.R.I.V.E. which stands for “togetherness, hope, resilience, inspiration, vision, expression.” When the pandemic hit, I shut the group down and we shifted to online only. Although it isn’t the same as gathering in person, it still helps us stay connected. In our online group, tenants share information specific to the building and resources that can be found in the community. Most importantly, if someone needs to vent or needs help, it is an outlet and a safe space. I have seen how sometimes that’s all it takes to make a difference in someone’s life. We are, in a sense, providing the feeling of home for people who may have never experienced the kind of safe, open, abundant home that many people have.

It’s times like these when we learn what we are made of. I remember when the pandemic was first announced. My mom had just been diagnosed with what doctors call a terminal illness after ending up on life support in the ICU and requiring several brain surgeries. Now miraculously recovering, her healing is still a challenge. Due to the pandemic, many services that would have been available for her have been cut, and social supports and even treatments are limited. I knew I needed to advocate for my mom, and help her access the treatment she needs and deserves. So I said goodbye to my Toronto home, a place I had come to know and love, choosing to move closer to my mom. She is, truly, my original home.

As I relocated from one subsidized housing organization to another to be better able to help her, affording the move would have been impossible had it not been for the kindness of others. The barriers of poverty have added to my mom’s battle. Yet even with all that she has been through, and the barriers she faces, my mom teaches me every day that we can never let challenging times change who we are at our core. Rather, it is an opportunity for us to become who we want to be.

Read more of Angel’s story: This article was originally published alongside another piece by Angel Power – Rescue Dogs and Recovery Cats.

Author

  • Angel is the author of "The Darkness & The Light," a poetic memoir of how she survived childhood exploitation, addiction, and systemic barriers. She has Acadian, Mi’kmaq, Irish and Icelandic ancestral ties. Angel has a diploma in social work and currently works as an advisor for the City of Toronto’s Poverty Reduction Strategy, and at ARISE Ministry as a Peer Support Worker

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