Voices 2

By Leslie Morgenson, Good Work News, September 2001

During WWI, women’s rights activist Nellie McClung said that women have the answers to the problems facing the nations at war. Women are sitting and knitting and, when you sit and knit, you think. It was a warning not to underestimate the marginalized segment of society because one can never stop them from thinking.

Today too, people who are stilled for a variety of reasons have an abundance of thinking time. Recent conversations with patrons of St. John’s Kitchen demonstrated that their time has been well spent formulating thoughtful and critical analyses of the system they are caught in and that they deliver those thoughts with eloquence.

The reality of Dave and Clem (not their real names) being well informed about their predicaments means they have less optimism things will change. After all, those on Disability (ODSP) have not had an increase in over ten years. Dave is quick with statistics telling me how that compares to the cost of living increases and the self-imposed 60% raises of Kitchener City councillors. Outrage from the community however resulted in a final 36% raise.

Clem feels the $515 a month for basic needs is sufficient for a single person. “We should be able to budget just like everybody else,” he says. But the rent portion falls well below acceptability. “Should people have to be content living in a single room for the rest of their lives?” Clem wonders. The question is rhetorical, as if he is accustomed to receiving no answer. And he know the games. “Landlords,” he tells me, “know that if they charge $600 a month rent, they can keep those on ODSP and Welfare out. People who don’t work use the building a lot more than people who do work. There’s a lot more wear and tear on the building. When people aren’t working or they aren’t doing anything, there are usually abuses: drug abuse, alcohol abuse, boredom abuses; they’re allowed to fester.”

Dave is worried about the recent purchase by the City of Kitchener of the rooming house he lives in. Past experience would indicate eviction for the rooming house residents. The City of Kitchener purchased Tommy’s Place and East End Hotel and have emptied them of residents. Dave has moved three times in a short span. Each move requires new telephone and cable hook-ups -- costly for someone with inadequate funds. “It’s genocide,” says Dave. “Get rid of all the poor people. The solution is fairly simple. They just need to take a realistic look at how much things cost. With cutbacks on medication, I can’t get a set of false teeth anymore.”

There is a fight against injustice sitting inside all of those (mostly men) who gather at St. John’s. But, because of their disabilities, they are not in a position to fight for themselves nor do they feel confident to “rock the boat” when those in power can cut them off in the stroke of a pen. Added to the list of difficulties, says Clem, is the very real fact that “the definition of disability changes from government to government.” There is no set standard for being disabled. People on disability require a physician to fill out a disability form. But when doctors are angry at the government they show their anger by refusing to fill out forms. “Of course they don’t hurt the government,” Clem adds.

Clem and Dave agree they have no advocates. Although the ODSP has an office, the caseworkers work for the government, not the clients. Clem is banned from the office because of a frustrated emotional outburst. A further attempt to silence an already voiceless member of our society and a clear message of what happens when you take a stand. The expectation is that people should be agreeable, complacent -- the very traits often implying laziness. There is an active process of marginalization that takes place in our society. People such as Clem and Dave are pushed into corners where they can’t be heard. Their voice has no credibility.

Clem and Dave feel there are programs available that are working. “St. John’s Kitchen,” Dave says, “is good, but what about the guy who’s disabled and can’t make it here? What if you have a special diet. Like me, I’m a diabetic, but I have to eat what’s available?”

“We need a place that’s open all day,” says Clem. “ A place with activities. The Out of the Cold program has benefited many this year, but when the churches have to pick up what the government won’t do, then they (the government) can ignore the homeless problem. It is time for Kitchener Waterloo to have a Mission! It would help if agencies like Lutherwood, like the Canadian Mental Health Association, would come here to St. John’s where we gather. It’s time for the ODSP rental portion to be increased and for ODSP workers to be a help and not just an arm of the government.”

They seem like reasonable requests. But is he optimistic? “If you have a society of greed, somebody loses out.” He shakes his head. I ask if he thinks they’ll get the increase. “It doesn’t matter. It will be too little, too late.”

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