Making the Invisible Visible

By Sharon Murphy, A Member of the Research Team for the Disabling Poverty/Enabling Citizenship Research Project and a Board Member of Canada Without Poverty

(The Presentation was made at the Canadian Social Forum 2009.)

I hope to set the tone for this presentation by focusing on the realities of the lives of those who are disabled and living in poverty. I want to make the invisible visible. I want to talk about three men I met who panhandle on the main street in Halifax.

The first man is in his forties. He is paralyzed on his right side and is aphasic. I am deaf so we had quite a time communicating. He was swarmed or beaten within an inch of his life, entirely unprovoked, by a gang of young men. He is on social assistance .They pay his rent, $550.00 a month .He has a little over $300.00 a month to cover everything else. So he panhandles to supplement this.

The second gentleman, and I say gentleman in every sense of the word, has a rare form of breast cancer. He also has problems with his back, hips and knees because of a car accident. After moving to Halifax from New Brunswick, he discovered he had to have a three month residency requirement before being eligible for Income Assistance. He was on the street during this time .He is now on income assistance. They pay his rent and he has $318.00 left over for all his other needs. He is going to upgrading to get his high school diploma. He panhandles to supplement his income.

The third gentleman is battling colon cancer. He is mobile with the aid of crutches. He has had to have multiple surgeries for cellulites which have literally eaten a hole through his leg. He looks forward to his time in hospital, but it creates a lot of anxiety as it sets him behind in the money he needs through panhandling. One of the cancer medications he is on costs $30,000.00 a year. He had a battle with Community Services to get them to approve paying for this. This delayed treatment and caused undue stress. He lives with the constant threat of having his power cut off. He also supplements his income by panhandling.

The next gentleman can only be described as a community leader. He is involved in a number of antipoverty groups. What he had to say was quite instructive. He is blind and wants to disabuse people of the notion that the disabled are covered by the CPP. I won’t spend time going into any detail, but the CPP has changed its criteria for eligibility and it is difficult for the disabled to gain access to CPP. You used to have to contribute to CPP for 3 out of 5 years before becoming disabled; now it’s 4 out of 6. They have also changed the amount of money you earn a year before you pay into the CPP. He also noted that Community Services does not make any distinction between the disabled who are required to be on Income Assistance long-term and those who may require help short term. They get the same allowance for rent and shelter. One of the problems with this is Income Assistance does not allow for replacement of items that wear out, which is what will happen if you are receiving benefits long-term. The expectation is you go to the thrift shops or food banks and deal with things. This gentleman is in a subsidized apartment and receives a total of $542.00 on Income Assistance.

I spoke with a woman who has breast cancer. She became homeless after falling behind in her bills while undergoing Chemo and radiation. She squatted on a boat in Halifax Harbor and was denied Income Assistance because she didn’t have a fixed address. She is now on Social Assistance and has an apartment. But she has difficulty with paying the electricity bill with the money left once the rent is paid. She recently lived three months in a candlelit apartment after having her power cut off.

I notice the disabled have to generally live in unsafe apartment buildings in unsafe areas of the city. One building recently was in the media for having bed bugs. These are your options and the indignity you face when you are poor and disabled. Unfortunately, the terms are interchangeable more often than not.

I have been a member of the Schizophrenia Society for many years. The mentally ill really suffer on woefully inadequate incomes. Two gentlemen, who are diagnosed with Schizophrenia, tell me they have been told by a dietician they don’t have enough calories per day in their diet. For them, there is simply not enough left over for an adequate diet when the rent and other expenses are paid. I serve supper for those in need Sunday evening at a United Church. I would say a third of them are mentally ill. They need the service desperately because there just isn’t enough left over for food. You can skimp on food put the landlord wants his rent.

I am writing this after spending the afternoon doing calls for the St. Vincent de Paul Society. It was the first time I had done the calls since moving to Halifax. It was very difficult—much worse than my experience with St Vincent de Paul in Amherst. We did visits to 11 men and one woman in a row of rooming houses in the same area. I thought I was pretty seasoned and had seen just about everything. I wasn’t prepared for the conditions I found. The only word I can find for it is dehumanizing. Four of the people involved were mentally ill. This brings me to the role of the slum landlord in perpetuating poverty and how they manipulate the system. They live lives of luxury on the backs of the poor. It is obscene and I never understand how they can get away with it.

I want to speak of social exclusion especially as it applies to children. It is a constant feeling of being on the outside looking in. If I may relate a personal story: I desperately wanted to be a Girl Guide when I was seven or eight years old but my parents could not afford the uniform I needed. One of my most poignant childhood memories is looking through the window of the church where other little girls were having their meeting during the evening. I was on the outside looking in. You carry these memories into adulthood like it was yesterday.

I grew up in a day and time before Medicare, when you had to pay for doctor's visits and hospitalizations. It caused great stress in my parents’ lives when there were medical bills to be paid. The money had to come from somewhere. I know we have come a long way since Medicare.

There are thousands of families in Canada today still juggling food and rent to make ends meet. People go to food banks and thrift shops to make their money stretch. Single moms struggle to buy milk and there are people who are actually hungry in our country.

I want to share about friends of mine that had a baby born with cleft palate. The baby needed a special bottle for feeding that costs $50. They couldn't afford this because they were both paying off exorbitant student loans. The mother talked about shame and embarrassment of going to the drugstore and not being able to buy the bottle and having to ask the support of our local children's hospital.

Then there is the story of a family whose five-year-old daughter had to have a heart transplant and they had to sell their home and move in with extended family to cover the extra expenses.

I hope I have made the invisible visible to you today.