My life, living in an SRO

January 29: I have been living in BC Rooms, a Single Room Occupancy hotel (SRO) on Jackson Avenue in the Downtown Eastside. It’s an 11′ by 11′ room with no working fridge, TV, internet, microwave, bathroom or proper bed.

The building I live in has no common place either inside or outside for the tenants to get to know each other. Once you enter the building you are greeted with a narrow flight of stairs that goes straight to the rooms. The only time you leave your room is to either go to the bathroom or leave the building.

Last night, like most nights, I awoke to strange sounds and smells coming from the hallway around 3:00 a.m. I got up to open the window, only to hear the shrieking sounds of a police car rushing by. Some nights it seems as if there’s a police car screaming by every 15 minutes. These are the sounds people living here have to contend with every night. 

I enjoy cooking my own meals, but that gets difficult to do when you don’t have a proper cooking facility. Not having a working fridge gets frustrating as food goes bad and I find myself buying smaller quantities which ends up being more expensive. It is a waste of money – especially when you have no money you can afford to waste. Throughout the challenge, I have ended up spending way more money than I would have if I could buy in bigger quantities.

Going to the bathroom here in the SRO is a well-rehearsed act. You must be fully prepared to take everything you’ll need with you. I learned the hard way that if you leave the bathroom even for a second, the next person will come along and take your spot. The bathroom is so dirty that in my view, if I drop anything it is gone.

Sharing a bathroom in any situation is an easy way to transmit viruses and bugs. In our SRO, sharing a bathroom with 11 others offers its own health challenges. I’ve often thought about all the people I’ve met with who are living in poverty and suffering health issues. How do individuals with immune-compromised illnesses protect themselves while living in poverty? The answer is easy: they don’t have that choice. Something as simple as a clean bathroom is a luxury not afforded in an SRO.   

I met a man from another SRO who showed me his building which has seven floors. There was only one shower for approximately 120 people – It’s simply unimaginable.     

I am told that there are 5,000 people living in SRO’s inVancouver. A majority of them have no cooking facilities. As a result, these individuals have to line up for free food, sometimes for two to three meals a day, spending over four hours in line ups.

Life in an SRO can be quick to break your spirit and your body. It becomes very hard to focus on finding your way when each day is an uphill battle to survive.

**On a personal note I did two hours of volunteer work in the kitchen at Carnegie in exchange for a free breakfast. For my lunch I volunteered with Guru Nanak’s Free Kitchen serving food to the homeless and those living in poverty. This is what people do to get free food; line up for long periods of time and/or volunteer.

Survival: Binning and Community

I went to experience binning with two of my new friends in the DTES today [January 28]. Binning? Many of you – like me, must be wondering what “binning” is. Binning is when you go through the dumpsters and garbage cans in alleys looking for bottles and any other goodies that you may be able to salvage and sell for money. All of the “binners” I have met here in the DTES do “binning” to supplement their incomes as they cannot make ends meet.

I was surprised to learn that there are people who spend about 8 hours a day binning to make a meagre $35 – that’s if they’re lucky. This works out to around $4.50 an hour. Binning is really dirty and you put your health at risk. Some of the bins are full of garbage or materials from the SRO’s as they are being cleaned out. Items with cockroaches, bedbugs, etc are tossed into the dumpsters. It’s not uncommon to contract a health issue through binning. I am now fully aware at this point that for those people who are on welfare, under the expected to work category – that if they try to earn extra monies to help supplement their incomes, such as selling bottles or other items that can be salvaged, whatever money is made will be deducted from their welfare cheque – dollar for dollar. If this amount is not declared to welfare – it is considered to be welfare fraud.

This also means that if someone gets a part time job, any money earned will be deducted dollar for dollar. I know many of you will be thinking what is he talking about as you read this. What I am talking about is very true. I have often heard that these people need to get off of welfare and need to get a job. But, what I have learned is that these people most times seem to get caught in a vicious cycle and can’t get off welfare. They make a bit of money and it’s deducted. Instead of a hand up or supplementation they are left frustrated and feeling as if the system is just a trap – as that’s what it really is for some.

The interesting thing is that those people with disabilities have earning exemptions of up to $500.  That means that they can earn up to $500 by binning or other means and not have it deducted from their welfare cheque. For people with disabilities, earning extra money is encouraged. For those defined as single employable – it is not.

Whenever I would run into a friend (before I took the MLA Welfare Challenge) we would usually end up talking about kids, sports, cars, politics, etc. We never talked about where to find free food or where the nearest shelter is. Obviously, that is because we have not had the need to find free food or go to a shelter.

Here in the DTES I have learned that it is the complete opposite. What I have experienced is that when two people meet here, the conversation usually revolves around where to go for the next free meal or where to find shelter for the night. The talk here is constantly entered around food and shelter because for those who live in poverty or on welfare it’s their struggle in day to day life.  Information from an organization offering free food on a certain day spreads like wildfire! A large majority of people who I have met know the names and addresses of places by heart where free food is provided.

I am amazed to have had the good fortune of living in this tight knit community where everyone looks out for one another and helps each other. I don’t believe I have ever witnessed such a tight knit, helpful and accepting community.

I will never forget the generosity, help and guidance I have been offered by this wonderful community.

People living with special needs on welfare

Today [January 26], I met with people living with special needs and on welfare today. Many people on welfare live with disabilities.

Whether it’s a disability or mental health issue, individuals living with special needs have medication requirements, mobility issues or special diets face additional challenges living on welfare.

Employment barriers:

I heard from people with disabilities that work opportunities are very limited for accommodating special needs. They told me it’s very difficult to get off welfare without adequate opportunities for employment. They felt the last person an employer wants to hire is someone with a disability.

Housing:

Time and time again I hear about the lack of affordable housing and it came as no surprise when I heard about it again today. Not only is there a severe lack of affordable housing for individuals and families on a fixed income, but there is a big gap of accessible housing for people living with disabilities. Where are we supposed to find an affordable room that accommodates our mobility needs, they asked?

I know from my own SRO, that for a person using a wheelchair it would be impossible to live in our building. The rooms are too small and countertops too high for a person with mobility issues. There is no elevator and the one bathroom is definitely not wheelchair friendly. And my SRO rents on the higher end at $425 per month.

Thanks to Robin Loxton from the BC Coalition for People with Disabilities and the staff and clients at the Living Room for sharing your challenges with me.

Carnegie and VANDU

I volunteered at the Carnegie Community Centre in the Downtown Eastside (DTES) today [January 24].

Located at Main and Hastings, Carnegie is in the heart of the DTES. Over 400 volunteers contribute their time, talents and energy to the Carnegie each year.

Many people living in poverty come to Carnegie on a regular basis to volunteer in exchange for food. There is a sense of connection at Carnegie for the residents and homeless in the area.

When I arrived at Carnegie, I went to the kitchen to begin cutting up potatoes to feed hundreds of people that night. After volunteering my time, I was rewarded with a free, hot meal.  It felt like quite an achievement for me.

After I completed my volunteer shift at Carnegie, I met with the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU), a short walk east of the Carnegie Centre.

For 12 years VANDU’s mission has been to provide user-based peer support and education to current or former drug users.

I met with a number of individuals at VANDU throughout the day, who shared their challenges with me.

Some members told me they used drugs to manage pain due to inadequate health coverage, while others used to escape their environment, seeking artificial happiness in the absence of the real thing. Some used to escape physical, physiological or sexual trauma.

Thank you to Laura, Hugh and Aiyanas for their valuable assistance in organizing this meeting.

Advocates and food

I met with the Front Line Advocacy Workers (FLAW) Project today [January 23].

The income disparity in the downtown core was evident in the walk to FLAW from along Hastings from Main to Burrard St.

FLAW is made up of a diverse group of individuals whose expertise ranges across tenants’ rights, immigration, legal education, family law, women services, health care and disability, homelessness and human rights.

At my meeting with FLAW advocacy workers I heard many stories that show how many people, but especially those with mental health issues or cognitive challenges have a hard time with the rules around welfare and other programs.

The claw back of child tax benefits was another issue raised and something I’ve heard a lot about over the course of the Welfare Challenge.

One advocacy worker told me that a 14-year-old boy came to live with his aunt. The aunt was refused welfare for the boy as he was not considered an eligible dependent, despite supporting him. Meanwhile, the federal government was trying to figure out if the aunt should be receiving the child tax benefits for the boy.

In the end it took six months for the government to agree to send the boy’s child tax benefit to the aunt in one lump sum. The province then deducted the child tax benefit amount from the aunt’s welfare cheque as income. The worker said that if a child tax benefit was paid on a regular monthly basis, it wouldn’t be considered income. However, if it is paid out as a lump sum it is considered income.

These stories highlight the important role of the advocates who assist some of our most vulnerable citizens without the means to protect themselves.

I would like to thank Alison Ward of Community Legal Assistance for organizing this very informative meeting with the front line advocacy workers.

In the evening I stood in line at Harbour Lights for a free meal. It was a long line of about 200 people.  Volunteers would call people inside in small groups. After about forty minutes I was called in with some others and asked to sit in a waiting room.

There were around 4-5 rows of chairs put out for people to sit and wait. When our turn came, we were asked to go to the dining room where volunteers handed us each a tray of food. As I have said, I chose not to take free food for the first part of the challenge so after 23 days without eating meat, it seemed as if I had hit the jackpot! I could not believe my eyes and my mouth started to water I quickly went to the nearest vacant chair and sat down to eat. The smell, the sight, and the taste….it was such a delicious experience.

During my time at Harbour Lights I had the opportunity to meet many people and hear of their challenges. The majority of people I met with were also from SRO’s. Due to a lack of money and cooking facilities, they come here every day. In order to eat two meals a day, I was told by many that much of their day is spent standing in food lines.

Constituents day

I had meetings today [January 20] with constituents at my office.

 By the time I came back to my room in Vancouver I was extremely tired and struggled to make noodles for supper. I am getting sick of eating noodles. But, what can I do? They’re so cheap!

I find myself getting tired quite early in the day and hungry all the time. Part of this is that I made the choice not to accept the free food that is available through the food bank and other services during the first weeks of this challenge. People who recognize me on the street are kind enough to let me know where the free food lines are. I will use them in the coming days.

You may have noticed I am behind on my blogs. In this month of my life which is so out of the ordinary for me, I find that by the end of the day I am so exhausted and hungry that I have very little energy.

When I feel low energy, I think about all the people who live this life day in and day out. They will still be here when I go back to my life in Surrey. But I will not forget their stories, their smiles, and their encouragement that keeps me motivated to finish the rest of the MLA Welfare Challenge.

Looking for work

When it comes to assisting homeless people in finding employment, many non-profit job agencies in the Downtown Eastside provide some unique and essential support.

Today [January 19], I met with three employment agencies in the DTES: the Job Shop, Building Opportunities with Business, and Pathways.

Located in Chinatown since 2001, the Job Shop has provided an effective one stop, job search assistance program for people on welfare looking to secure employment. It is a unique 10-week return to work program that supports individuals by conducting comprehensive assessments that identify their strengths and develop a plan that works. They provide daily search support that is focused on solutions and action.

I found the Job Shop unique in that I understand they support clients in identifying the changes they need and want to make, while working to discover each client’s inner resources.

Building Opportunities with Business (BOB) was my next stop, where I discovered they too take a strong approach to bridging homeless individuals with employment.

Located on Pender Street, BOB is a non-profit agency that fosters partnerships with local businesses that support the creation of jobs and opportunities with low income residents. Through this approach they believe that lives change when individuals are given the opportunity to contribute in the workplace. They work hard to increase investment in Vancouver’s inner city.

Liz Charyna, managing director of BOB told me that they have been successful in placing many homeless people with jobs but that the severe shortage of affordable housing in Vancouver has made it difficult for clients to retain employment.

Charyna said that many of her clients cannot find affordable places to live, making it difficult to shower, sleep and eat with any consistency. These basic needs get in the way of retaining jobs.

The last program I visited was Pathways. Created nine years ago, Pathways works with some of the most marginalized people in B.C. They are a low-barrier access point for people trying to gain employment. They reported to me that in the past three years alone, 4,774 members of Pathways were assisted through referrals and direct services on their road to employment.

Pathways even helps job seekers find clothes for their interviews and connects them with training and resumes.

It was disheartening to hear Pathways report that due to government reorganization they will be forced to close their employment program on March 31.

Placing chronically unemployed and homeless people into jobs is an often difficult, frustrating and time-consuming process. It requires a positive approach that fosters inclusive communities.

These agencies serve a vital role in bridging homeless people with employment opportunities, but without affordable housing and other essential social supports, their jobs will continue to be an uphill battle.

The power of women

I had the opportunity to meet with a very courageous and amazing group of women at the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre today [January 18].

The centre provides services to homeless women who are struggling with addiction or trying to escape abuse. Many come here for the very basics of support such as food, shelter and showers, but can also find help if they are in need of emergency, relocation or bridge housing.

The group I met with today is called The Power of Women. I heard many troubling stories, similar to what was shared earlier today in the town hall meeting at Carnegie. This is a group of women that have a powerful voice, passion and deep commitment to fight for justice and equality for women. They are a real force.

Thank you to Harsha Walia for organizing the meeting and thank you to The Power of Women Group – I understand it was difficult for many of you to share some of the darkest times of your lives. I am very grateful to all of you for allowing me the opportunity to share in some of the challenges that you have faced. You are truly an amazing group of women!

My arrival in the DTES in Vancouver

Today [January 17] I moved into the second phase of the Raise the Rates Welfare Challenge and will spend two weeks living in an SRO (single room occupancy) hotel in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES).

I got up early to say goodbye to my housemates in Surrey. There was no way that I would be able to carry all of my belongings to Vancouver, so I left a few items like my sleeping bag and clothes with one of my housemates.

It was below zero while I carried my life’s belongings to the sky train: food rations, bedding and some clothes. Once I reached Main Street, I was met by members of Raise the Rates and we walked to my SRO hotel on Jackson Street.

I was assured by Raise the Rates that I would not be displacing anyone. They had done a survey on the availability of SRO’s in the area and found that units in the $425 range were readily available. I was told that if I needed to rent an SRO in the $375 range (the shelter portion of welfare), I would either be out on the street, in a shelter (weather dependent) or displacing someone.

I entered the room with great curiosity. I had not seen the room before today.

The room was 11 x 11 ft. with a sink, fridge, stove and single mattress, all in obvious disrepair. I later discovered the fridge didn’t work, which was cause for great panic, as I had a few perishables and only $25 left for food for the next two weeks. Luckily, a neighbour with a working unit offered to help store my items. When I asked about the bathroom, I was told I’d share one toilet and shower with the 11 other men living on the same floor.

Later that day, I had the opportunity to meet with single mothers at a local school. They shared with me the difficult struggles and challenges they face in order to qualify for welfare. The issues they raised were very similar to the issues raised by the single mothers I had met in Surrey.

One of the mothers explained that because there are no earning exemptions for a single employable person on welfare, if a person wants to work, even part time, to try and get off of welfare, whatever amount they earn is deducted from their welfare cheque. This leaves them running around in circles with little chance of ever getting off welfare.

I was told of the skyrocketing housing costs that eat up an increasing portion of the monthly income for those with low incomes and on welfare. This is especially true if you have more than one child and need more than one room.

Another mother, who was well educated, but had been on disability welfare for the last three years, had a teenage son who was a cancer survivor with heart conditions and autism. Her son was living with his father at first and then decided he wanted to live with his mom. As a result of the move the mom started receiving child support from the father, which was clawed back according to the current welfare rules.

These are just a few of the many challenges single-parent families face while living on low incomes and on welfare.

While the DTES has become the face of poverty in B.C., there are over 500,000 people across the province living in poverty, and 120,000 of those are children, more than 11 percent of our total population.

The people who live in the DTES have their own stories to tell. I look to this experience as an opportunity to hear about the challenges and circumstances that brought them to the DTES and to life in an SRO.

Transportation in Surrey

Today [January 16] I rode the bus in Surrey and had a chance to learn about problems of accessible and affordable transit, especially for people living in poverty.

My transportation in Surrey tour started at the Newton Exchange bus loop. I wanted to understand the reality of what our transportation system was like as time and again I have been hearing from those living in poverty and from those who provide services to low income people that transportation is a huge issue in Surrey.

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