Three hundred and thirty-six

Personal poverty stories

I’ve spent the day reading personal stories of poverty.  Maybe I should have done this at the beginning of this month, but I feel like I understand them more now.  Women whose fridges look like mine right now – a few condiments and not much else.  Men who have important things to say but are overlooked because they have lost their legs, can’t afford an apartment and therefore panhandle on the street to try and hopefully save enough to pay for rent.  Mothers who lose their babies because they water down the milk or formula because they can’t afford to feed their children properly.

The food coming from food banks is not very healthy.  Rent subsidies are not high enough to afford decent, safe housing.  Rent-to-own companies are preying on the poor, and cheating them out of money in the long term.  Trading sex for accommodation is not uncommon.  These are stories of depression, hopelessness, coping, and what to do to change this.

Here are some quotes from some of the stories I read and below, where to read the full reports/articles:

“The furniture and all that stuff is my past life… left over from the gravy days… a lot of women march into poverty with the goods they had before.”

“Never having enough money or enough of anything to meet basic needs has taken a toll on my health, on my self-esteem and on my idea of who I am and where I fit in this world. Living close to the edge of disaster on a daily basis eats away at your soul and destroys you from the inside out.”

“The two nights that it snowed she slept in a port-a-potty, to get out of the snow and wind. She joked and said it wasn’t bad because at least she had a bathroom but no light to read her book. She tried sitting at a bus stop under a streetlight to read but was told by police that she had to move because the bench wasn’t her living room.”

“She had always assumed that homeless people were on the street because they wanted to be there, that she never dreamed that it could happen to her or just how fast someone could find themselves homeless.”

“…an apartment where cleanliness means a sponge bath in the kitchen sink or a walk to the nearest pool house, and the toilet – shared with neighbors – is in a small closet in the hall.”

“In a typical day, he said, he would send out 10 resumes and make 10 calls.  But the months went by and nothing happened. ‘This is the first time I’m out of a job since I was 8, when I had a paper route,’ he said. ‘I kept thinking the economy would get better, and it just hasn’t.'”

“Circumstances put people where they are…You’re living in a cockroach-infested, one-room place that is not as big as half of the room we are sitting in now, about the size of a jail cell.  And you are supposed to live twelve months of the year like this? And not go out and beat each other up? And rob each other? And go and steal, and do this and do that? Because what else have you got, what else have you got to lose?”

“It is not our fault. We don’t want to be doing this. We didn’t choose this. We didn’t say OK I’m going to be homeless today. And have nothing to eat and no place to go.”

Read more at:

Women’s Perspective on Poverty: photos and stories by women on low-income in Calgary,, (Quotes 1-4)

Poverty Stories.  A blog by David Schwab Abel, reporter for the Boston Globe and adjunct professor of journalism at Boston University and Emerson College. (Quotes 5-6)

Voices: Women, Poverty and Homelessness in Canada.  Rusty Neal.  Report of the National Poverty Association, May 2004. (Quotes 7-8)

Two hundred and ninety-two

“They told me that most likely there would be enough volunteers to help serve food, and what was really needed is people to just sit and chat with those having a free meal.” 

What an amazing, inspirational evening!  I spoke two days ago of what it means to be on the front lines and I met some people tonight who devote their lives to helping people in need.

A couple weeks ago I contacted my friend Andrew (one of those people who radiates kindness, is a good person to the very core and gives more of himself than he keeps) to see if he needed any volunteer help with one of the numerous projects he takes on.  He told me to meet him at a tiny church just west of Bathurst on Queen on December 17th to help with their Saturday night free meal, a place he and his wife Steph used to help out at regularly when they lived in the area.

Every Saturday at 5:30 pm, the Toronto Alliance Church provides a free meal (tonight’s was soup, salad, banana and cookies); clothing rooms where those attending can pick out five items (hats, mittens, pants, shoes, shirts, etc); a food bank; a prayer room; and a nurse who cleans their feet, looks for pressure sores and athletes feet, and helps with any other problems they might be having.  The space isn’t huge, but they feed and help a large number of those in need – some homeless, some not.  I would say there were at least twenty volunteers there helping with everything from preparing the food, to serving, to helping in the clothing and food bank rooms, to cleaning.

The door to the Toronto Alliance Church is hard to find.  I almost walked past it.  Andrew and Steph asked me if I had any questions before we walked up the twenty or so steps into a medium-sized room bustling with people, food and energy.  They told me that most likely there would be enough volunteers to help serve food, and what was really needed is people to just sit and chat with those having a free meal.  A lot of the people there are looking for some company.  I was a little nervous.

After a tour of the operation, Steph went to help in the prayer room and Andrew and I wandered in to the dining area to find some seats.  I have to admit, I didn’t know how to react.  Andrew knew a few of the people there and was chatting with them.  I just stood there feeling slightly out of place.  I wanted to help, but I didn’t know how.

Then we sat down and I found out what I was there for.  I was there just to chat, hang out, connect, ask questions and just be there.  The more I felt comfortable, the more I found out.  These are interesting people.  The man across from me was writing his autobiography.  Another man at the table told me the scientific reason why cranberries are good for your urinary tract.  Another was an incredible harmonica player and blues singer (although a little crazy too).  A few of them gave me a hard time about being too sweet.

Then there was the woman sitting next to me.  In her late-sixties and Ukrainian, she warmed up to me as we chatted.  Sometimes we talked about her grandchildren in the Ukraine.  Sometimes about her bachelor apartment on Jane St. and her old job as a housekeeper at a seniors home.  Sometimes we just sat in silence because of our language barrier.  She told me about how she might have to have an operation, but her heart is bad and she is scared.  We talked about how she’s trying to decide if she will go back to the Ukraine where her family is.  She hugged and kissed me when she left.

It’s for people like her, and those other men that these programs are so important.  A community, a free meal, clothing, care and companionship.  I feel grateful I could be a small part of it for a day.

The church is looking to get a bigger space so they can help more people, but it’s an uphill battle.  They need millions of dollars raised to buy a new building and with a small church congregation, it is hard.  If anyone deserves money, it’s these people.  The Pastor Bill and his wife Donna are wonderful, kind people who devote their energy every day to fostering a community and connecting with the people in their area (an area which is full of homeless).  The church’s mission is to “restore broken lives”.  Although I am not religious in the same sense as these amazing people, I can’t say enough about what they are doing here.

Donna has also written a book, Confessions of a Not-So-Average Girl, which just got published.  It helps young women deal with alcoholic and neglectful parents – a story she grew up in herself.

Tonight has inspired me to do more volunteering on a regular basis for valuable groups such as this one, and get my butt on the front line.

One hundred and seventy-one

Dress like a total bum while having shopping and having lunch in Yorkville


Last Wednesday I spent the afternoon in Yorkville (exclusive shopping district in Toronto known for its posh stores, restaurants and conservative people) “dressed like a total hussy”.  I observed how other people reacted to me and how they treated me based on what I was wearing, and how I felt dressed in a see-through lace tank, black bra, high heels and shiny black leggings.  It was an amusing and scary experience.  And I had tons of stories to tell.

This week I decided to repeat the experiment, dressed as a total bum.  I didn’t shower or even wash my face.  I wore no make-up, except what was left under my eyes from the night before.  I wore an over-sized t-shirt covered in dirt (which I got from the plants on my balcony – my neighbours must think I’m crazy, as I stood on the balcony rubbing soil into my clothing!), cut-off jean shorts and my old running shoes.  I used an old plastic bag as my purse.

I expected to have a lot of reactions, perhaps opposite to what I felt last week.  The actual experience was not what I imagined it would be.  I felt gross, dirty, and unattractive.  I wanted to hide.  I was embarrassed.  I felt horrible.  And other people treated me as such.  They ignored me.  They didn’t want to see me.  A quick glance and they averted their eyes.  I was invisible.  I wasn’t asked to leave anywhere.  I was smiled at in a pitying kind of way.  I expected people to react, but instead they tried hard not to.  No one wants to see the people who are falling apart.  And the more people treated me this way, the worse I felt.  The more I wanted to go home and shower and clean up and put on make-up and wear clean clothes.

But what if I didn’t have anywhere to go to clean up?  What if I didn’t have clean clothes to wear or a hair brush?  How much is it a spiraling cycle where what you look like dictates how you feel?  And how other people react to you changes the way you feel about yourself?  How much does our outward affect our inner?

When I went to try on clothing at one of the nicer stores I got a few weird looks, but no one told me I couldn’t – they just kept an eye on me.  The same lady who told me my outfit was “in” last week hardly glanced at me.  People stayed away.  I was sad and dirty and needed to go home.  As I was on my way to leave, a lady looked at me disgusted.  I finally got the reaction I was looking for, but I was so bummed out by that point I didn’t really care.  If my confidence fell that much in a few hours, I can’t imagine what it would be like after years of living on the streets and being either ignored or sneered at.