Pudding and Salsa

ID-100368725Food banks are a great resource for those living on limited to no extra funds after rent and other life necessities are paid for. And, although I feel bad about even being picky from receiving donated food, these suggestions could make a world of difference:

  1. Think about the meals people will be eating from the food you’re providing. Pudding is great as a treat, but salsa with nothing to dip into it is depressing.
  2. Not all people on limited incomes have a place to cook their meals. Providing items that are easy to heat up is ideal.
  3. Some people may not have access to a fridge or freezer, so frozen items only work for those people who have the luxury of cold storage.
  4. Fresh items such as fruit, vegetables and bread are always welcome. A limited income makes it difficult to eat healthy.
  5. If you’re providing the bags the food is in, please make them durable for all kinds of weather. You may remember my trip a few years back to the food bank where they gave me paper bags which broke apart as I got off the bus in the rain. Encourage people to bring their own bags.
  6. Provide recipe suggestions for items given, especially if it’s not apparent which items go together. For example, pasta and sauce make sense, but coconut milk, apples and bread make less sense. Supercook provides recipe suggestions from ingredients you’ve included, but not everyone has access to a computer at home.

Anyone can get to a point where they need the support of a food bank or soup kitchen. It’s not only income assistance and disability recipients in the lines. Often it’s single parents, students and the elderly. Poverty does not discriminate.

Image courtesy of jk1991 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The perks of poverty

ID-100123804In one of my first posts, I touched briefly on the fact that there are advantages of being on income assistance. And while I wasn’t being sarcastic then, I most likely will be now.

There’s a difference between being low-income and being on income assistance; the former implies you have a job. Once you dip below the poverty line, you become eligible for all sorts of programs.

The crazy thing about the poverty line in BC is that each organization defines that line as something different financially. Let’s look at a breakdown on what your annual income needs to be to qualify for these programs/services:

Less than $46,500/year

  • Subsidized Housing
    • BC Housing has more than 13,000 people on their waitlist
    • Housing is given to those deemed most in need and based on availability
    • You would pay 30% of your income towards rent
    • $1162.50/month for rent

Less than $34,000/year*

  • Subsidized Housing
    • 30% of your income for $850/month rent
  • Rental Assistance
    • For single parents – only one parentcan be in the program
      • If you and your ex share custody, only one of you can apply
    • Based on the previous year’s income tax return
    • Must be working
    • Cannot be on Income Assistance or Disability
    • Based on where you live, # of children, cost of rent, if heat is included and your income

Less than $30,000/year*

  • Subsidized Housing
    • 30% of your income for $750/month for rent
  • Rental Assistance
  • MSP Assistance
    • Pay a percentage of your premiums based on your income
    • Once registered with MSP, you can apply for Fair Pharmacare, which pays for some or all of your prescriptions

Less than $29,706/year*

  • Subsidized Housing
  • Rental Assistance
  • MSP Assistance
  • Leisure Access Card
    • Provides access to swimming and skating at local community centres, including rentals
    • Classes offered at 50% off

Less than $22,000/year*

  • Subsidized Housing
    • 30% of your income for $550/month for rent
  • Rental Assistance
  • Leisure Access Card
  • Free MSP

Less than $21,600/year*

  • Subsidized Housing
  • Rental Assistance
  • Leisure Access Card
  • Free MSP
  • Child Care Subsidy
    • Based on # of children, type of care, amount of time in care and cost of care
      • As with Rental Assistance, only one parent can apply for this subsidy

Less than $5,000/year*

  • No longer eligible for the Leisure Access Pass

Annual income based on one adult and one child on assistance:

The people making $46,500 are on the same subsidized housing waitlist as those making $11,340. Does that make sense? Why are the amounts so different from program to program? Either the poverty line needs to be pushed up to $46,500 or we need to redefine poverty.

*Rates and requirements are approximate and are subject to change.

Image courtesy of renjith krishnan at FreeDigitalPhotos.net




Depression as a disability

TeerapunI was raised fairly open-minded, meaning that I was exposed to a variety of different people, abilities and culture. What I learned is that everyone’s trying to do the best with what they have.

Having said that, when someone says they are disabled, I think of someone in a wheelchair, or someone with delayed learning or someone who is visually impaired.

Wikipedia describes a disability as “an impairment that may be physical, cognitive, mental, sensory, emotional, developmental, or some combination of these. A disability may be present from birth, or occur during a person’s lifetime.”

When I first inquired about applying for income assistance, one of the first questions they asked me was if I had a disability. I immediately said no. They said “Are you sure? Not even depression or anxiety?” I still said no, even though my depression and anxiety were at an all-time low.

I thought about it afterwards. Depression doesn’t compare to not being able to hear or see or walk, does it? It turns out that it’s not about which disability is better or worse than another. According to the BC Coalition of People with a Disability, any condition is considered a disability if;

  1. Your disability must be severe and be expected to last for at least two years, and
  2. It must directly and significantly restrict your ability to perform daily living activities.

Additionally, because of this disability, you require:

  • Significant help from another person, or
  • Help from an assistive device (e.g. a wheelchair, CPAP machine, LED light), or
  • Help from an assistance animal

So, as long as you can prove the above, you are considered to be a person with a disability whether you have depression, poor eye-sight or a spinal-cord injury.

Fast forward nine-months from that first call to income assistance and I found myself applying for PWD status (persons with a disability). This is a time-consuming, three part process, but the question to keep in mind throughout is “how does your disability affect your life and your ability to take care of yourself?”

If your application has all the components the government is looking for, then you get PWD status. Comparing it to income assistance, PWD is much better because;

  • The base rate you receive is higher.
  • You can make up to $800/month before you have to claim any income.
  • You are not required to look for a job.
  • You can get a yearly bus pass for all zones for just $45.
  • You have access to training grants for upgrading your skills or getting a degree.
  • You are eligible for a range of medical supplies to be paid for.

So for me yes, depression is a disability. It has severely affected my life and my ability to take care of myself. Being on PWD would help me get back on my feet, allow me to upgrade my skills and act as a back-up plan should I ever find myself in a situation like this again. Another month or so and I’ll find out if the government agrees with me, my advocate, my doctor and my assessor.

What do you consider a disability?

The problem with money

Maggie SmithThe difference between me and the guy on the corner begging for money and sleeping on the street is $1244.00CAD per month.

In a recent post, Food as a drug, I explored my complicated relationship with food and how that relationship impacts my sporadic experience of not having any food. This post is about my other constant struggle. Money.

Filing for bankruptcy and being on income assistance at the same time is equivalent to a neon sign telling me how lousy I am with managing my money. People often say that money doesn’t matter, but on a basic level, it does matter. Money is how my rent is paid, how I get my daughter to school, how I’m able to access the internet from home, how I keep food in my fridge and cupboards.

In my very first post, The reality is not realistic, I broke down for you what income assistance gives me to live on. Because my ex is now paying more in child support and I’m a painfully honest person, my monthly support from them has decreased. 

So how to do I pay for my internet, phone, food, clothing, laundry, cat and anything else that comes up? With my monthly child tax benefit cheque, of course. That, and taking advantage of the services offering free to low-cost food and meals and the kindness of friends.

Currently, I’m living on $1244 per month. My family still helps out here and there, but it’s still barely enough to survive on. My rent and utilities alone take up 83% of that amount, which is 53% higher than the 30% of your monthly income that Statistics Canada allots for shelter when calculating low income rates.

A few days ago, I came across some old notebooks I use for recording just about everything. Instead of random papers scattered throughout the house, I use a school-sized notebook to jot down whatever it is I need to remember or deem as important. This can be anything, from recording the details of a call made to my cell phone company to writing down my to-do list to calculating my income and expenses to jotting down a book or movie someone recommended. And here’s what I learned:

Whether I’m making $3800 per month or $1244 per month, I’ve always been out of money.

It doesn’t take a genius to realize that my problems have more to do with how I manage money than how much I make. Maybe the whole purpose of my journey into poverty is to learn how to respect and properly handle money. If that’s the one lesson I need to learn, I eagerly seek the answers and am already on the road to recovery.

How good or bad are you at managing your money? I’d love to hear your experiences.

There’s nothing lazy about being on income assistance


Being on income assistance is exhausting. To even apply for it, there’s endless amounts of paperwork and appointments. Numerous documents needs to be signed and verified and endless amounts of photocopies are needed. And then the wait begins.

If you’re employable, you are then referred to a back-to-work program. These programs vary in quality and eligibility. There are programs for people recovering from abuse or addiction, native services, disabilities, single parents, etc. Program requirements vary, but usually include re-vamping your resume, bringing your cover letter up-to-date and learning  how to access the hidden job market. If you’re lucky, they also provide transit tickets, food, daycare and emotional support/workshops.

Sounds fairly straight-forward? Well, it isn’t. By the time you’re in a position where applying for income assistance is your best option, you’re probably dealing with a fair amount of stress including (but certainly not limited to):

  • Lack of sleep
  • Low self-esteem
  • Stress on how to pay your rent, feed yourself and your kid(s), make your bill payments
  • Recovering from an addiction
  • Fleeing an abusive relationship
  • Finding safe accommodations
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Career change
  • Going back to school

As if this doesn’t sound complicated enough, there is also the possiblity of  income assistance either losing your paperwork or forgetting to forward necessary documentation to the appropriate person/department, feeling bad about asking for help, not knowing that you have the right to ask for help and questioning how the hell you got here in the first place. And the list goes on.

I suppose there are people who sit on their couch, beer and/or cigarette in hand, thinking how grateful they are that they don’t have to do anything with their lives to improve it. Of the 10-months I’ve been on income assistance, I’ve not met one person who didn’t want to get off of it. And were working towards that goal, despite the odds.

So if I’m sitting on my couch staring at my disconnected TV and doing nothing, it’s because I’m so overwhelmed with the magnitude of my situation that I don’t know where to start. Not because I’m lazy.

Welfare Wednesday


Welfare Wednesday is the 3rd Wednesday of the month and a day that many people on income assistance look forward to. I suppose there are people who receive it and it does pay their rent and take care of their basic needs, but I haven’t met them yet.

Being on income assistance is a humbling experience. If you’re lucky enough to have a bank account (which I am), then the payment gets deposited directly into your bank account. If you don’t have a bank account, then you spend a lot of your Wednesday standing in line: first, to get your cheque, then to cash it, then to get food or whatever else you’ve been living without. Where do you then hide that money? If you live in a less-than-desirable neighbourhood or living situation, is there even such a thing as a safe place to hide money?

After living a month without any cash, it’s easy to get caught up in the notion that you suddenly have money and it’s time to celebrate. This, of course, can end with dire consequences. It’s a strange sensation indeed to have money in the bank (or under your mattress) and food in the cupboards and fridge after 2 to 3 weeks without either.

Contrary to popular belief, most people on income assistance are not milking the system for all it’s worth. Because it’s not worth much. By the time a person is receiving income assistance*, they’ve exhausted all other options and avenues. Their self-esteem is low, they feel helpless and defeated. It’s hard work to meet the absurd paperwork demands of the government while looking for a job or taking a back-to-work program while juggling less money than what you actually need to meet basic needs such as shelter, food and clothing while getting your child(ren) safely to and from school.

The next time you see a line up outside your local income assistance office on Welfare Wednesday, take a moment to consider if it was you.

*Click here if you’re interested in finding out about the new BC Welfare rules, which were released June 2012.

The reality is not realistic

Instead of starting at the beginning of my journey into poverty, I think I’ll start right now.

My current situation is that I’m on income assistance and have been for the last 8-months. Which, quite frankly, is about 7-months longer than I thought I’d be on it. I am currently working part-time, about 50-60 hours/month.

Our expenses are very basic – rent, utilities, bus pass for my daughter to get to/from school, cell phone, internet, cat food and groceries. I don’t drink or smoke, am not addicted to drugs and no longer have a car, cable or a credit card.

For a single mom and child, the government allows for $945 per month, which is what my rent is for the 3-bedroom ground floor suite I live in just off Commercial Drive. There are all kinds of reasons for deductions, but for me, my child support and any income I make over $200 reduces that initial $945/month. Before I got my part-time job in October, I was receiving about $801/month. However, the income I now make from my part-time job cancels out any income assistance I might have received. It’s impossible to get ahead.

In the last 20-years, social assistance rates have decreased. As we live in one of the most expensive cities in the world, the amount available to a single parent and child is ludicrous. The breakdown allows you to put $375 of that total towards rent and to use the remaining $570 to pay for a month’s worth of groceries and bills, etc. Finding a place to live somewhere in the Lower Mainland that’s a decent, safe place to live for $375 is unrealistic.

As with many issues in life, a genuine understanding of the issues cannot be fully comprehended without first-hand experience. For years I’ve seen people begging for money near Skytrain stations and line-ups out the door on Welfare Wednesday, but rarely did I think too much on how those people ended up there. For some, it’s the only life they know. For others, it’s an appalling, humiliating, exhausting experience. For me, it’s my current reality and damned if I’m going to let it swallow me whole.