By Leslie Morgenson, Good Work News, June 2001
After years of being on the streets, John today has an apartment, a home. However, it comes at a cost. In fact, three quarters of his disability cheque disappears in rent. But he begins by telling me he’s grateful that he lives in a province willing to give social assistance; though it is undoubtedly a pittance. “Society is best judged by its treatment of its citizens,” he says. Here’s someone with a vision. Someone who seems to have a keen awareness of how history will see us here at the turn of the century. “All of us are just one day away from being destitute,” he adds, almost scaring me with his prophetic words.
Listening to people’s stories of poverty and homelessness has informed me of how suddenly everything can change in one’s life. As is true of all my conversations at St. John’s Kitchen, he doesn’t tell me his disability and I don’t ask. “People are often invisibly disabled and it’s no one’s business anyway. Shouldn't we be able to enjoy life like everybody else?” He speaks for everyone, not from his own needs. It reveals an altruism that persists throughout our conversation. “There’s a saying,” he tells me, “You have to worry about the person with no shoes. But I worry about the guy who doesn’t have any feet! The person who is worse off than I am and has to live on the same amount of money I do every month.”
“And what about transportation?!” he shouts. “That’s a big problem.” I already know this. He lives far from the centre of town, far from St. John’s Kitchen. To meet me today, transportation had to be arranged. “Everyone on social assistance should get a bus pass”, he says as if it is an undeniable truth, a commandment. Transportation is an important question for John and a worry. He works out the mathematics and concludes it costs more to pay the person who reviews his application for a monthly bus pass than the cost of the bus pass itself. He shakes his head and throws up his hands. “We are at the grace of people who are ignorant of our needs. Who are the government’s mathematicians?”
And then he says a word I’ve heard more than once at St. John’s. “Genocide.” An undeclared war against the poor, the sick, the disabled. It is a widely held belief among the people who frequent St. John’s, that the City of Kitchener in its recent effort to “clean up downtown” intended to get rid of the poor and place them in cobwebbed corners where they can’t be seen. Establishing affordable housing in outlying areas, where John now resides, comes at a great ‘cost’. Access is limited. It is in the core of the city where those on social assistance, largely single men like John, have established their community. Located there are St. John’s Kitchen and the Working Centre. And now the new Community Health Centre is located there too, which he praises for being an organization that gives people control of their own lives, that allows them to make decisions. Without a monthly bus pass, however, access is restricted. With a monthly social assistance cheque that only permits one meal a day, diet is poor, hunger is great.
He talks about wanting to find work. But it’s not so simple. Many of the available full time jobs come without benefits. If a job seems uncertain, people are very cautious to chance losing their disability cheque plus its benefits when they may not be able to reinstate it. And benefits often add up to more than the money received on disability.
Life on the street, John tells me, is upside down from mainstream living. “Morals are impaired and change on the street. Values are eroded and everything is sanded down. If I didn’t keep appointments, it was because I wasn’t clean. Most social service agencies are very controlling, wanting to decide everything for you.” He calls this, ‘social extortion.’ And it amounts to many wasted years, because there is no way to get ahead or feel good about yourself in such a system that doesn’t allow you choice or personal decisions.
John keeps his life simple now. He is an artist and collects art. He is most grateful to be sharing his life with a cat. “I should be somewhere else in life, but I don’t let that get to me. If you emerge from a traumatic experience, you’re going to think about it for the rest of your life.” And inevitably learn great lessons from it. This, I think, is his strength and his gift.