With 1 in 5 children living in poverty in the province, you can bet that every British Columbian knows a child who is affected. Children are poor because their parents are poor for many different reasons, but what is universal is that the stress and deprivation of living in poverty have lifelong negative implications for children and their families.
In order to put a human face to the statistics of child poverty, three brave families and three former youth in foster care—one herself now a mother—have shared their stories of hardship and resilience. These stories point to clear policy solutions.
For single mother Jody, earning less than a living wage amid a housing affordability crisis is compounded by different layers of discrimination that keep her from living independently. For widower Neil, ongoing cuts to the Canada Pension Plan death benefit his wife paid into for over 17 years limits the opportunities his son would otherwise enjoy.
Marta, also a single parent, tells her story of labour exploitation and foregoing fresh food in order to provide her son with healthy food.
For 19-year-old Lorilynn, aging out of foster care in Vancouver left her in a precarious income situation and suddenly deprived of crucial support she needs, while at the same time she set out on the painful path to reconnecting with her heritage.
Ashley, a former youth in foster care with a ten-year-old son, shares an all-too-familiar story of income assistance services gone wrong, and having her payments clawed back while trying to give her son the opportunities—and dental coverage—he deserves. Natasha, meanwhile, aged out of foster care and into a complete absence of support—or rather, a system of some supports that she was never told about.
Stories of lived experience come in many forms, such as spoken word, which Meredith shares below, and images like these you may recognize from the Society for Children and Youth of BC’s Fostering Change Youth Photovoice Project—as well as the print version of the 2016 BC Child Poverty Report Card.
Read these stories, then take action by emailing the Premier. Tell her to adopt a comprehensive poverty reduction plan to ensure that stories like these don’t continue to be so common in BC.
Low wages and systemic discrimination mean single mother Jody Reyes is unable to get into the housing she needs to give stability for her young family, despite her best efforts.
Jody and her 10-year-old son currently live with her parents due to BC’s lack of affordable housing, as well as untenable rental rates that often shut single-parent families out of rental housing altogether.
“At my wages, I can’t afford market-rate housing,” Jody explains.
Earning less than the living wage restricts her ability to move out of her parents’ home, and other housing options have been thwarted by discrimination.
Jody was recently turned down for affordable housing. In a telephone interview, a housing official asked Jody inappropriate questions. At first, she was asked if she would have male visitors, to which she replied she expected male family members to visit. The official then asked if Jody was a sex worker.
This humiliating event reflects realities that many single mothers encounter, Jody says, adding that stigma attached to the single-mother label is “pervasive and entrenched.”
A 2011 report co-authored by University of British Columbia professor Nathanael Lauster took into account 1,669 landlord interactions, and illustrated that, compared to heterosexual couples, single mothers were 14% more likely to receive either no response, or a negative response, from landlords about new rentals.
The lack of affordable housing being built in Vancouver is restricting options for families—cooperative housing would be desirable for Jody. Market rates are a barrier to housing security she cannot overcome.
“It would take over 50% of my income if I moved out. Being a single parent—that’s where you are trapped.”
Jody continues to pin her hopes on a wage increase or a successful application to affordable housing.
“Until I get a raise I won’t be able to move out,” says Jody.
When Marta immigrated to Canada in 2005, she didn’t think it would be to a life of poverty wages and food banks for her and her son.
Since then, a minimum wage job in a medical laboratory has resulted not only in hungry times for the single mother, but also multiple debilitating injuries from exploitative labour practices.
Marta is now unable to work and on long-term disability, the combined result of stress inflicted by laboratory management, and the health impacts of living on minimum wage well below the poverty line.
“They knew I was a single mom,” says Marta, adding she was constantly pressured to take more shifts. “They said I would lose my job unless I had the ‘flexibility’ they required, which now I know was not right.”
In order to care for her son, now 13 and living with a learning disability and behavioural challenges, Marta kept taking extra shifts, which led to her own health issues.
Two years ago, after a prolonged period working back-to-back graveyard and weekend shifts, without the rest hours stipulated by work legislation in British Columbia, Marta sustained a concussion while on the job that caused her to lose consciousness.
“The impact was very hard. It caused glaucoma and an optic nerve moved.”
Marta’s doctor told her to avoid canned foods, but without an income greater than minimum wage or long-term disability assistance, she was unable to make the switch.
“I was always between paying my rent and having food in my house. Minimum wage was never enough.”
Are your Canada Pension Plan benefits earned or unearned income? Unearned, according to the BC government.
Over the past three years Neil Matheson has been locked in a battle with the province to retain his disability allowance. The 2015 BC Child Poverty Report Card told the story of his struggle, and one year on the BC government continues to take back $450 from his monthly cheque.
The money is being clawed back in tandem with Neil’s Canada Pension Plan death benefit following the loss of his wife.
“For two years I’ve been writing emails and the people that should be responding aren’t,” Neil says, referring to the Minister of Social Development and Social Innovation. “I have never had one single response from Minister Stilwell in her entire 18 months as minister.”
When Neil’s wife died in 2013, his grief was compounded when the BC government started deducting $700 from his monthly income. In September 2015 when the BC Liberals announced an end to the child support clawback, they also eliminated the clawback of the Orphan’s Benefit, the part of CPP that relates to children of a deceased parent. This meant Neil and his son Jake were able to keep $250 a month, about 35% of the total they get from the CPP death benefit.
Keeping that money had an immediate positive impact for Jake. Neil was able to buy more clothes for his son.
But the last few years have been frustrating for Neil. He continues to write to those with the power to make changes and finally end the unjust clawback of CPP death benefits his wife paid into as a unionized teacher for over 17 years.
“Accessibility isn’t just about ramps into buildings. It’s also about equal access to Canada Pension Plan benefits, and all the other benefits Canadian citizens without disabilities get to benefit from and access.”
To provide for his son, Neil is the one who misses out. He puts his son first.
“If I could keep the death benefits my wife earned, I would enrol my son in more things, buy him more clothes and not always pinch pennies,” Neil says.
“I put him first—if anyone doesn’t get fed, it’s me.”
Lorilynn Grey entered foster care at age three along with one of her four siblings. Her tumultuous journey took her through five different foster homes over the next four years.
Relocated and forced into a religion, Lorilynn’s foster care experience invites comparison to the residential school system that ended the year before Lorilynn was born.
Now 19, Lorilynn recently aged out of BC’s foster care system, and the memory of approaching that cliff is fresh.
“I had a social worker, a youth worker, and a solid mental health team. It really felt like I just got dropped, and I didn’t know how to get support on my own—the social worker was always the one who took care of that stuff.”
Lorilynn describes her time in foster care as life in a bubble, one she entered when placed in the home of a heavily religious elderly couple, where she and her sister were kept isolated and manipulated during visits from social workers.
When she transitioned out of foster care, Lorilynn says, she wasn’t ready for the real world or even to explore her background.
“It wasn’t until I moved to BC that social workers or the Ministry of Children and Family Development even bothered to ask me if I wanted to learn more about my Aboriginal heritage. Not knowing anything about my heritage, it was overwhelming and intimidating to just dive into that, especially after taking my BC First Nations class in school, which was just heartbreaking. I wanted to separate myself from that pain as much as I could.”
Is welfare an option? “Not yet,” she laughs, adding that savings from recent seasonal work and a project with the Canadian Federation of University Women to extend support to youth in care to age 25, won’t last her much longer.
At 23, Natasha Santerre has a dim view of the years she spent in the care of BC’s Ministry of Children and Family Development.
“I wasn’t really checked up on, I wasn’t provided with love or anything that a child needs for their basic development. I didn’t have any of that.
“They took me out of one bad situation to place me in a million different other homes. I changed homes every few months, so they basically just threw me into chaos, and what did I learn from that?”
Looking back now, Natasha says what she learned is the years of hardship that followed removal from her abusive childhood home could have been prevented if BC’s foster care system were better funded.
“The lack of support I was given in Ministry care didn’t give me any room to grow out of my poverty situation. I was never taught how to get a job, I was never taught basic life skills that could help me with my future.”
“I was supposed to have a social worker that was supposed to guide me, I was supposed to have foster parents that were supposed to guide me on the right path.”
Natasha was in a treatment centre in BC’s Southern Interior the day she turned 19 and aged out of the foster care system, and suddenly found herself in a “not ideal” situation, with nowhere to turn.
“I was just shown the door. I didn’t get any housing support, any support like that, any basic needs support I needed.”
After several months, penniless and with nowhere to sleep but on the floor, Natasha eventually found her way to the Federation of BC Youth in Care Networks, which she credits with helping her get back on track and into college.
“Those experiences I had in care show me exactly who I don’t want to be and what I don’t want for my life, and I work very strongly with the Federation, to be able to make the system better for the kids. Because I know how hard it is.”
“I really want to change some policies or open people’s minds to what it’s really like. People just read off a file or they see the stigma, and they don’t really care to look beyond the glass door.”
Placement in foster care at seven months should not have set Ashley Matheson up for years of setbacks amid ill-conceived policies and insufficient supports.
Moved to live with her grandmother at age three, at 16 Ashley returned to government care and a foster mother hated by the youth placed in her home.
“When I moved into the house, I immediately kept calling my social worker, telling her every tiny little detail that was wrong with this woman. She removed me from the house, but it took six months.”
Ashley spent the following two years on a Youth Agreement (YA) with the Ministry of Children and Family Development, treated like a member of the family by her landlord, the father of a school friend.
But when the ministry denied his requests for reimbursements, the friendship deteriorated and the door between Ashley’s basement room and the family home was locked.
At 17, unable to find housing through her friends, Ashley returned to her grandmother, which automatically ended the YA support.
“My social worker told me I could do underage income assistance, which didn’t give me very much, but it gave me enough to survive. I was 18 when I got pregnant with my son, and stayed on income assistance until I was 19, then moved in with his dad, who the welfare office suddenly appointed my common-law spouse after just a few months.”
“When I was on income assistance three years ago I was getting child support, and they deducted it off my cheque every single time. It was so pointless I ended up not going on income assistance anymore, so then my only source of income was child support and the Canada child tax benefit.”
Not only that, when Ashley was receiving monthly income assistance of just over $300, Ashley was told she could earn up to $500 a month before her welfare would be clawed back. But when she later brought in a paystub for $400, rent and support cheques suddenly stopped coming and Ashley was told she retroactively owed the government money.
“I think it’s stupid how they only just recently allowed people to accept child support as part of non-deductible income. I’ve been on and off income assistance for the past five years, because it’s the only support I can get without working, because people don’t hire me, which also sucks.”
Now 23, Ashley lives with her 80-year-old grandmother and her four-year-old son who, unlike his mother, doesn’t receive medical or dental coverage as a status First Nations person.
“The only reason I’d consider going back on income assistance now is to get the medical and dental coverage for my son, who needs work done on his teeth. But I can’t get that unless I get a letter from my ex saying I have primary custody—which I don’t, because he won’t let me.”
As she waits for an upcoming major surgery, Ashley offers optimism for the future:
“My boyfriend is really supportive and we’re talking about moving out together, but I want to be able to support myself first before that happens.
“Hypothetically, I could live with him because he has a job, but I don’t want him to feel like he has to support us. I want to make it an equal 50-50 relationship where we both pitch in for things.
“I’ve still got some time to look for a job and find daycare, and actually I have a friend who’s offered me a job, but it’s in Surrey so then I would have to figure out daycare in Surrey. It’s not too bad.”
No, it’s really just misery which loves company but I have no one to accompany me. I wish you could see and were privy to the litany and cacophony of voices that abound in surround sound and won’t rest in my head. These intense immense feelings of dread that say I should be dead feed through a reel wheel of blurred stills that stalls in the film feeder – a deep well, in the confines of my mind. Please come find me.
Staff member I’m hearing voices, loud noises, I’m losing focus, and an internal locus of control with this ruckus in my head – go to bed. Staff member I think people are watching me, stalking me, marching to come and get me – go to bed.
Wish someone could sit and sing with me, rock-a-bye, baby… Someone to rub my back while I slip into a slumber. Like a mother. Which I know you are not and I’ve been taught I ought not to get attached. You’re not the person who will automatically accept the charges and press 1 when I call your number collect to connect.
I am a reject. A manufacturer’s defect. Subject to discontent because my life is irrelevant. I’ve been discarded and regarded as less than, a less deserving human, because I’m abhorrently difficult and different. Because my displacement runs the gamut. I’ve been forfeited. Damnit.
Sorry there’s no money back guarantee on me.
I want someone to come to parent-teacher night, someone who squeals in utter delight at the sight of my grades, and showers love in embraces and accolades. Someone to highlight my highs instead of the worries and woes of my lows.
In love is where hope grows.
I want someone to defend me with all their might not offend me with all their fight. With time and with gifts instead of with their poisoned words and the width of their heavy fists. The punches land and the words don’t miss. Leaving marks on my arm and scars on my heart. My brain is constantly being torn apart. From trying to survive and revive the pulse inside that I was born with. And giving in to the darkness.
But today for no reason – and all the reasons – I feel like a mistake. That if I were to take my own life the ripples and waves of sorrow would last maybe only until a borrowed tomorrow. Why am I here? This existential question that permeates my mind and steals all my time.
But I’ve been told there’s this spark that exists amidst the dark; this fire in my eyes that is endlessly wise and maybe if I hold on, walk boldly, or at this point even meekly on, then I am #winning. I have not yet sold my soul but the soles of my shoes are old and worn out from trying to stand by my own side bide my own time. I seem to have no rhyme or reason and I’m tired of the sun hiding for all the seasons. My life is rife with strife and the knife marks on my body are where I reroute the disguised geysers of my shame and pain.
Government appointed and holy anointed person in my life: I know you don’t hit and I know you don’t hurt but complacent apathy cannot be common. It is pathetic and has no place here. I’m just a mere kid in care and I know that I scare people while I dare them to love me. I know that it’s quite the task to look beneath my mask. I know that I ask you to accept my layers of illusion and layers of confusion. I know that I push and I test but you must know that I’m showing my best. Rest on successes being fleeting and believe that it may not be during a six adult against me meeting. Or when I’m having waking nightmares of my childhood beatings. Or when my brain is hungry ’cause I haven’t eaten in days because I hate my self in so many ways. When I inspect the specimen in the mirror it’s typically met with fear and horror and disgrace – of course no one could love this face. Or when I’m wallowing, beneath the weeping willow, my hollow heart being swallowed by my inability to love my own self that I am wary of anyone else’s attempts.
I know that I’m eighteen so it’s expected of me to have all the pieces of my life and parts of my heart together. But I’m tethered, grounded, and surrounded only by fraying strings of duties and obligations always feeling like a burden. An impossible imposition.
I get it. I get it. Pretty soon I’ll be on my own and then it’s my sole responsibility to take care of me, alone, and what capacity for that do I have? But you have to understand that since I was birthed from my birth mother’s womb I have been standing on my own. I don’t mean to fill the room with doom and gloom but it’s safe to assume that my beginning days were void of love. I have fragments of tainted memories of being hit or being left alone. Of wishing for broken bones instead of angry tones and the degrading and shaming insults of a parental unit.
If you’ve committed treason by stepping into my life it is for a reason. Please let it be a season of love. Not stringent lists of check marks and targets. Dear whatever title you don to greet the morn: teach me to make a meal, yes, but love me enough to believe that I can make that meal and love me enough so that I begin to believe that I am worthy of that meal.
And when you are absolutely exasperated and have to ask yourself,
“What am I going to do with you?”
Trust that love is the question and love is the answer.
Love me in your choice of tone of voice. With phone call check ins, or drop ins. Surprise texts that… tell me I’m the best. By celebrating my successes without comparison or measure because they matter to me.
Every beautifully delicate, intricate piece of love you give me is a treasure and evidence for my mind to find release to succumb to the belief and relief that perhaps someone believes I can. Someone who has taken my hand – figuratively – and stands with me – literally – to read me my rights and lead me in love.
© Meredith Graham June 2015