Profiles from the community: Anti-poverty organizer

The Stop’s Economic Justice Program 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 hit, we hired four participants as paid, part-time Economic Justice Advocates (EJAs) to contribute their skills to like-minded advocacy campaigns across the city. They would be organizing with existing groups that are fighting root causes of poverty and engaging people with lived experience in meaningful and authentic ways.

Of course, COVID made much of that work too challenging to undertake. Instead, we asked the EJAs to conduct research into the experiences of their peers during the pandemic.

This interview, done by EJA Jocelyn Addai, features a community member who has been active in anti-poverty organizing for years. They preferred to remain anonymous.

Q. What do you think about the policy response to COVID?
A: What I see of the government response is that it is disjointed. It’s fractional. The government seems to be dealing with it based on the most prominent voices.

When they put out the CERB program, they decided that a normal person out of work is valued at $2,000, and students who can’t find summer jobs are worth $1,250. However, someone on Ontario Works (OW) who is already out of work, their value is just $733.

In the beginning of the Prime Minister’s daily briefings, I watched hoping that the federal government would get to poor people and people who live on fixed income, but they never did. I stopped watching after a week.

Then, the government came up with the one-time emergency benefit of $100. A one-time $100 emergency benefit isn’t sufficient to help people who are poor and desperate to shelter in place, especially when we didn’t know how long we were supposed to stay inside (Note: this benefit was eventually extended to a monthly payout until September).

What the pandemic is showing clearly is that the problem isn’t COVID-19the problem is underlying issues like poverty.

Another issue that the shelter in place has highlighted is domestic violence. When people are dealing with survival issues and do not have solutions to their problems, the stress level rises, and living in close proximity aggravates the tensions.

Q. What services would you like to see implemented?
A. Well, one of the things the city did was suspend Table 91, which ​met regularly to identify local priorities, plan solutions, and create partnerships for a strong neighbourhood. ​We would meet once a month to discuss the issues in the community and to work on finding solutions. We have been engaging the city and pointing out how important that is to our community.

So, we are looking forward to starting it up again. We still have the same underlying problems: we still need solutions, we still have hungry people, and we still have desperate people. The survival issues are not being looked after very well. The city’s attitude seems to be, “Well, let’s just make a bylaw against that.” It’s up to the communities to find solutions.

Remember, most of the underlying conditions are caused by legislationeither federal, provincial or municipal levelthat impacts people; poor people, racialized people, marginalized people, people with disability, and the old and sick. It all impacts them in a negative way.

One thing the COVID-19 pandemic has done is that it has raised consciousness about economic disparity in Indigenous communities, Black communities, and poor and marginalized communities. People have become more aware that social issues like poverty, homelessness, and police brutality are not caused by the people who experience these issues, but by policies put in place by federal, provincial, and municipal governments.

It is about power: who has it and how it is used to either make society fair and equitable or to subjugate certain groups. As we have seen, the government of Canada says that a regular person who gets their income interrupted is valued at $2,000, but someone who is on OW is valued at $733.

Maybe it’s possible that the awareness brought about by COVID-19 could result in the reshaping of our society. But this will require a push from all of us.

Learn more about Community Advocacy at The Stop