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Poverty in the time of COVID-19

The Stop’s Economic Justice Project is a 16-week training course that works with people who have lived experience of poverty to ease their personal financial stresses, identify systemic causes, and advocate for broader change.

Before COVID-19 broke, we hired four graduates of the program as paid, part-time economic justice advocates (EJAs) to contribute their skills to like-minded advocacy campaigns across the city.

While they can’t organize in person, our EJAs are still conducting vital research and sharing their expertise to ensure that this pandemic doesn’t further worsen inequality in our society.

Here’s a first-person perspective from one our of EJAs:

 

“Poverty in the time of COVID-19”

I have often said that being poor in the overpriced, frozen hellscape that is the city of Toronto is a special kind of misery.

While this new reality of COVID-19 is no doubt hard on everyone in our society, it’s especially hard on the city’s most impoverished and most vulnerableof which we have far too many for a supposed “world class” city. There were already nearly 1 million Ontarians on Ontario Works and ODSP combined before the Coronavirus upended all our lives. Those numbers will swell beyond recognition as so many join the ranks of the unemployed.

Things were already hard enough for us even in the so-called “good times,” where senseless and skewed metrics like a low unemployment rate and 2% GDP growth created a mirage of a good economy while so many of us on the front lines of poverty knew how bad things really were behind the scenes and in our reality. If you’re paying market rent in this expensive city, pretty much your entire monthly social assistance payment will be used up right there.

I used to think to myself, “Boy, I hope things don’t get any harder than this, I don’t think I can take much more,” but they always inevitably did, year after year.

Somehow, I was able to keep scraping by. Humans are incredibly malleable that way, as we’ve all shown with how quickly we’ve adapted to this new COVID reality. But one has to wonder how much more people can take.  

From Doug Ford’s cruelty of freezing social assistance rates (not even providing an annual adjustment for inflation), to landlords constantly demanding more money (way more than the guideline maximum) and persistently trying to evict you so they can jack up the rent, to the wear and tear on your body from having to bike to various drop-ins around the city, even in the most grueling days of winter, just to get a meal because there’s no way you can afford food.

It was already an extremely harsh life. Now made even harder with the added worry of contracting a highly contagious and potentially lethal virus while standing in line and interacting with the city’s most vulnerable, most precarious, most impoverished, most desperate populationof which I am one.  

A 14-day quarantine is not in the cards when you have to travel outside every day for free meals because you cannot afford any food. Panic buying is not in the budget. Sitting at home with our stockpile of food and toilet paper is a luxury that many of us don’t have. Having any kind of home, is a luxury many of us don’t have.

When public officials shut everything down and told people to stay at home, what about so many of us who don’t even have a home and sleep outside in the harshest of conditions?

Before the crisis, places like Tim Horton’s, McDonald’s, Toronto libraries, shopping malls, drop-ins like The Stop’s Wychwood Open Door, all became places of respite where Toronto’s large and growing homeless population could at least rest for a few hours and take some shelter from the cruel and punishing elements outside. Some great meal places, like Dinners with Dignity at Roncesvalles United Church, have already had to close. Unfortunately, other services who feed Toronto’s most vulnerable may soon follow. The shelters were already packed to the brim before COVID even hit, and were petri dishes for this virus considering how closely everyone was packed in together.  

So many people have literally nowhere to go.

The joy of sitting with friends from the meal circuit over a hot meal is gone. A few games of chess outside with your friends to take your mind off the deep sting of poverty seems like too much of a risk these days. All the benches outside have been taped up so you can’t even sit nearby and enjoy your meal. A $750 fine just for sitting on a bench. An entire month’s Ontario Works payment. Who comes up with these crazy numbers?

Amidst all this despair, I am incredibly thankful and grateful for places like The Stop Community Food Centre which are going well over and beyond the call of duty and are feeding so many people coming in from all over the city. The lineups stretch all around the building nowadays and seem to keep getting longer as the weeks go by. The way the organization has adapted and how the staff and volunteers have stepped up, it is truly inspiring. They are doing incredible work. Some might say, God’s work.

But I do worry how much longer they can keep up with the sheer torrent of demand that continues to flood in. More and more people are going hungry in our city. 

With governments and their central banks seemingly able to print trillions out of thin air and dole out billions to highly polluting, and quite frankly, dying industries, it would be nice if community food organizations like The Stop (as well as many others) had all the funding they needed to accomplish the incredible work they are doing. Right now, directors of food banks should not have to be scrambling to find the funding they need to feed the people. The money should be there. It really wouldn’t cost governments all that much in the grand scheme of things, and what a difference it makes.  

 

We can all work to ensure that this pandemic does not worsen inequality in our city, and to take this opportunity to build a truly supportive social safety net once and for all. Follow these groups to get involved:

 

Income Support Advocacy Centre
Ontario Coalition Against Poverty
ACORN
Workers’ Action Centre
ODSP Action Coalition
Progress Toronto