Common threads in stories about being poor

By Scott Dunn, Sun Times, Owen Sound

Darryle Latendresse

Darryle Latendress

Diners at the Owen Sound Hunger and Relief Effort soup kitchen one night recently discussed what life is like being poor.

Ivan Farrow moved back to Owen Sound a few years ago from Orillia after 19 years. He lives with his parents, which he said he finds is safer than living on his own. He said he’s 27 and has attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.

“I can sum it up just to say it sucks. It literally sucks. It could be worse. Each person thinks of different scenarios about poverty. Some like it. Some just want to crawl into a cave and die there.”

* * *

Cindy Sumpton, Owen Sound.

Hydro bills are her biggest concern now.

“Disability doesn’t provide as much money as the rent and the hydro and all your bills come to, and then have money for food after. They don’t give you enough. Like just the basics is what they give you, like rent, food, for your dentist or health care, you know to get your medication. They don’t give you a whole lot.

“They should give people more money on their income to help out with other things instead of leaving them broke from month to month to month, and having to come to a place like this or the food bank or Safe ‘n Sound, you know to get help for food.”

* * *

Darryl Latendresse, 21, Owen Sound.

He figures he makes $1,100 or $1,200 per month. He would like to make $1,600. Paying hydro bills and eating three square meals a day is tough for him, he said. He comes to the soup kitchen about three times a week.

“People on welfare, they’re able to work and they want to get on Ontario Disability Support Program because basically they’re lazy, right? I myself could easily get on ODSP . . . I actually work . . .

“In Toronto, some people will just go and they’re not even poor, they’ll sleep on the streets and people will give them so much money. Like there’ll be a homeless guy and he’s actually rich. I’ve heard about stuff like that in Toronto.”

* * *

Neil Towers, 63, Owen Sound.

He said he was a real estate appraiser but health problems led to job loss, then Ontario Works, then ODSP. He’s also a guitar player and says there are a lot of fellow impoverished musicians.

“I was used to a reasonable income. I drove a decent car and all that, and then I had some health problems which led to this. Just not enough money going around. I lived for a year on welfare and I was living out at Stonetree. The rent was my entire cheque . . . .”

“That’s how it affected me and I’m sure a lot of other people. They develop health problems, some mental health problems perhaps. Mine was a heart attack and diabetes and a whole combination of things . . . I’d been gainfully employed all my life since I was 14 and all of a sudden I couldn’t get a job. I couldn’t buy a job.”

“The hardest part is the stigma I think — that people and as a result you — (think you) have it yourself. You know, that oh, I’m a loser because I can’t earn a living anymore. And I think a lot of people must go through that when old age starts getting up on them. Their limited income. Their income goes way down if they haven’t planned for their retirement, which I’ve never done. I lived a day at a time, a week at a time. Never thinking I’d get old and need a retirement fund . . .”

“The only reason I can have a car, drive a car is because I don’t smoke, I don’t drink beer and I don’t do drugs. Sorry, but a lot of people that are in this situation do all those things . . . And this place (soup kitchen) helps out because then you don’t have to buy as many groceries.

“The best part of it is all the musicians I’ve met. There’s a lot of good players . . . Sometimes we just get together on the street and a bunch of us will play and it’s magic.”

* * *

Anthony Miller, Owen Sound.

His ODSP benefits are being clawed back by $98 per month because he inherited $30,000 from his father’s estate. He went off benefits, took 30 months to spend the windfall, returned to ODSP but said he can’t show receipts for where the money went. ODSP generally allows $6,000 inheritance before recalculating benefits based on the extra income.

“That’s $98 in groceries I could buy. When I had that inheritance there, I had a lot of money, $30,000 right? And I thought oh a lot of money, you know, oh my God. And I found out one thing, that money talks. Right? That if you have money, you can pretty much get anything. People will help you, people will do anything for you. Why aren’t people acting the same way when you’re poor?

“Why aren’t people that are well off saying, OK, here’s a guy that’s trying, that doesn’t have much, nice guy, you know? Why aren’t the rich helping the poor out? They don’t know what it’s like to live day-to-day and month-to-month and live in poverty, you know? With their very rich cars and their big houses.

“I’ve met a lot of friends that are in poverty. And I find that people in poverty, most of them, they’re the ones that help each other. Like if somebody poor had a $10 bill and you hadn’t eaten in a week . . . I find that the poor people will give you $8 of that $10, well here, go get a sandwich or go get something to eat. Whereas rich people frown on you and think, oh what a bum. Why doesn’t he get a job? Some people can’t work.

“If they even had some sort of jobs for people that are on ODSP, like to make an extra $300, $400 . . . I’m sure there’s offices, buildings all over Owen Sound here that I’m sure would just love to hire somebody on ODSP that is able to do the work. To cut their lawn or clip their flowers. You know what I mean? Make a few extra dollars. But every time you try to work, ODSP takes 50% of your wages (above $200 earned income), so you’re not getting any farther ahead anyway.”

* * *

Beatrice Mann, Owen Sound.

She’s been on ODSP for about seven years. She said she didn’t eat anything over the prior weekend because there was no place to go for a free meal. She next ate the following Monday night at the soup kitchen.

“You plan when you’re going to eat and when you’re not going to eat . . . . (I) pay way to much rent, $750 plus hydro. Went without heat two days in this place that I’m in now but I went a week in my previous apartment . . . .

“I think about it (financial situation) way too much. But what keeps me going is my daughters and my granddaughter. Right? I know I have to get up every morning and brush the dust off and get myself dressed and look happy and whatever, for my granddaughter, ’cause I don’t want her to seeing her nania looking sad or upset all the time, right? Yeah, she’s my world.”

Nothing is simple when living with less

By Scott Dunn, Sun Times, Owen Sound

Zana Strange and her son Ethan 8, resting on the coach unwell with a fever, in  their Owen Sound home. Strange struggles to keep jobs because of the demands of her son's health care needs.

Zana Strange and her son Ethan 8, resting on the coach unwell with a fever, in their Owen Sound home. Strange struggles to keep jobs because of the demands of her son’s health care needs.Zana Strange proudly watched her son Kohl receive his diploma in a small, private ceremony in an Owen Sound church basement earlier this month.

Zana Strange proudly watched her son Kohl receive his diploma in a small, private ceremony in an Owen Sound church basement earlier this month.

She and others applauded the 20-year-old’s accomplishments, as well as those of his nine peers in a life- and work-preparation program, Getting Ahead, which seeks to get people’s lives on track.

The program is part of the Bridges Out of Poverty program funding by Ontario Works through Grey County Social Services, in partnership with the Adult learning Centre.

It helped Kohl appreciate how procrastination is one of the “things I do to myself to keep myself held back,” he said in an interview at his mom’s place afterward. He also has a learning disability and social anxiety to overcome. He lives in public housing on about $450-per-month child-support.

Zana Strange, 49, graduated from the same program in 2012 after she got a referral from the county.

She agreed to give The Sun Times a glimpse of her family’s life, to kick off the paper’s periodic look at the overall issue of poverty.

She lives with her youngest son, Ethan, 8, and daughter Brynne, 17.

Since 2009 Strange has been a single parent in what she calls situational poverty — imposed through past family violence and current circumstance. She and her three kids have relied on food banks, public assistance and kindhearted people since 2009, since Strange said she left a violent relationship.

She pays half the utility bill to pay the phone bill, then trades that off to buy food in an endless cycle she wants no part of, she said.

“What do I do? And then I feel guilty if somebody at the food bank who works there sees me buying apples. ‘Well why are you going to the food bank, you obviously have enough money to get apples?’” Strange imagines others must be thinking.

Kohl used to wave off breakfast, saying he’d pick up something free at school. He was just saying that because he could see there wasn’t enough food, his mother said she now knows.

“There’s also the embarrassment, there’s a bit of shame there personally, that I’m not a good enough provider for my kids. Because I know I could be out there working. I’ve been to university for seven years.”

She attended Ryerson for film studies but she never completed her degree. The first time around she left to accept a costume design job on The Campbells television show. Several years later, then-married and bringing Kohl to classes, she couldn’t make it work. The marriage failed and she moved to Grey County “on a leap of faith.”

She took a carpentry apprenticeship through Ontario Works, fell for a renovation contractor and ran that business with him until she said she ended the relationship in 2009.

The problem for Strange now is her youngest son has health problems and she’s needed at home to take care of him. Ethan has asthma and frequent bouts of bronchitis keep him home from school for weeks at a time, she said. He also has attention deficit disorder and mild autism.

Who else will stay home with him, advocate on his behalf at school and to doctors, she asks. People say get a babysitter, but Ethan would rather his mother stay home, she said. His celiac disease makes shopping for gluten-free foods costlier and limits the food bank’s help, she added.

She can’t keep jobs because she misses too much work to take care of him. She’s been fired three times since 2011 for missing work to care for Ethan, she said.

She has worked as a trail guide and at an apple orchard in Clarksburg, as a custodian, as a stablehand and in a pizzeria where she was asked to negotiate how much pay she could do without on payday, and at two hardware stores, she said.

Her way out of poverty hinges on her young son’s health improving, she said. He was home the day of this interview, with a fever that seemed to have passed, his mother observed when he came downstairs for an apple.

She raises her son and daughter at home with $1,670 per month: $445 child support from first husband for her daughter, $700 Child Tax Benefit, $300 Ontario Works and $225 Ontario Disability Support Program for Ethan’s tutoring and health supplies.

She frequently does without another $300 child support from Ethan’s dad, Strange said.

She said her frustration over her inability to change her situation has prompted her to join some committees which advise agencies on better ways to help the poor. She also intends to write a book to throw light on how domestic violence and then the justice system throw women into poverty.

But there has been some improvement in their lives.

Strange drives a van paid for with $3,000 from her mom, whereas for a year she had no phone or a car while living in the country. She finds the cost of three monthly bus passes is similar to the costs of owning a car.

She got a cellphone, provided at first by Victim Services for safety. She added a landline and now she has Internet to help her work on poverty committees and for her daughter’s school projects on a donated computer. She got a TV in December but there’s no cable. They watch DVDs and online movies.

She was sleeping with her young son until December, when she got her own bed.

Most significantly, after moving nine times since 2009 and paying rent of upwards of $1,000 per month, she, Ethan and Brynne moved into a bright, three-bedroom, two-storey home in Owen Sound’s Ordinance Park, in rent geared-to-income public housing. Now she pays just $142 per month.

If she finds a job she can keep, her rent will increase as a proportion of her income and she can stay as long as she wants.