BY RYAN THORPE
More and more Ontarians are facing the choice of buying groceries or paying rent.
Open Arms Mission, a non-profit organization fighting financial precarity in Welland through its food and hygiene bank programs, has seen the number of people using its services perpetually rise over the previous years.
In December 2015, 607 people were provided with food – including 112 families who received hygiene products. January 2016 saw the Open Arms Mission welcome 20 new families, with a total 231 children walking through its door.
“In Welland hunger is an issue, and we need to break out of that cookie cutter model of just throwing money at it,” says Jeff Aitken, pastor and mission centre manager. “Our numbers are growing. Every month that number is growing. It’s an epidemic, especially in this area.”
Aitken stresses the issue is pervasive and not a symptom of broken people, but a broken system.
“It’s about bringing back that humanity to poverty; understanding that there is a face, a story, and typically a family,” Aitken says. “The issue we have here in Welland is that there are limited jobs available. The ones that are available are minimum wage, typically not full-time. So they’re not going to be able to get healthcare. Housing costs are going up, so if agencies aren’t around, how do you survive?”
William Penney, who uses Open Arms Mission services, stresses that he wants to work, but feels no one will give him a chance to prove himself.
“It’s been tough the past eight years,” Penney says. “It’s been nothing but minimum wage. Right now I’m working through a temp agency. I go full out on 50 resumes and there’s no callbacks. I’m trying to find something that’s not there. It’s sad, it’s really sad.”
Penney and his girlfriend are expecting their first child. After paying his rent, he says he will have seven dollars of disposable income this month.
The crisis does not only affect the city of Welland, but is also throughout Ontario. A Statistics Canada report released in December 2015 states that “Ontario was the lone province to experience median family income growth substantially lower than the national average.”
Pat Fifield, a member of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, says his organization has noticed an increased demand on its services and says there’s a crisis with homeless shelters in Toronto reaching epidemic proportions.
“In terms of our case work we have a lot of calls who are first time on Ontario Disability Support Program, first time not working, people living more paycheque to paycheque,”says Fifield. “These are people entering into the social system for the first time and it’s a bureaucratic nightmare to navigate.”
A recent study released by Oxfam, an aid and development organization, suggests that the problem is global. Its report, released in January, states that wealth disparity is increasing at rates faster than expected, and that over the past five years the combined wealth of the poorest sections of humanity decreased by 41 per cent.
Raymond C. Offenheiser, president of Oxfam America, said in a statement, “Far from trickling down, income and wealth are instead being sucked upwards at an alarming rate.”
In Welland, chief Coordinating officer of the Open Arms Mission, Melissa Kirkpatrick, says that roughly 25 per cent of the people who use its services are working, yet remain unable to afford necessities.
A growing number of people need social agencies to aid them with the practical realities of financial precarity. Securing food, hygiene products and affordable housing is becoming increasingly difficult for many in southern Ontario.
She says despite a tendency by the general public to ostracize people who use such services many are one paycheque or illness away from needing them themselves.
“If you’re working minimum wage you might be making $1,200 a month,” says Kirkpatrick. “The problem is housing is very costly. Those who want to get on government housing are on a wait list that could be over a year long.
“People working part-time jobs can’t make ends meet. If you can’t pay for groceries, all you can pay for is a roof over your head and electricity, maybe a bus pass, you still got to eat. What’s the point of a roof over your head if you can’t eat? Medications are getting more expensive. Food is getting more expensive. It’s pretty dire straits. It could be any one of us. You lose that job, then what?”