“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” Upton Sinclair -Guest Blog from Pat Capponi

Those of us who make up the OW and ODSP rolls, who haven’t worked for years, who have struggled with homelessness, addictions, mental illness and abuse, are at a crossroads in this city.

We need to understand that, unless we really start to confront the stark choices we’re facing, there will be no real opportunity to improve our lives through education, training and employment.  Why is this?

There are limited resources available to us, and most of those dollars go to agencies, shelters, food banks, community kitchens and drop-ins, to maintain the status quo, to keep us from dying on city sidewalks and alleyways which would disturb public consciousness and elected officials.  At least two-thirds of funding given to agencies goes to rent, staff, and benefits.

These places constitute a poor substitute- a pathetic consolation prize- for a life of value and purpose, still we cling to them, for they are all we have, and often the devil you know is preferable to the uncertainty and demands of independence and change.

So we spend our long days lining up in front of locked doors, waiting for access to dingy and crowded spaces, we line up for food banks and shelters, we line up for meals and donated clothing and for a chance to ask for TTC tokens to make it home or to a bed or hospital or to appointments with workers and other gatekeepers.

“The most dangerous phrase in the language is ‘we’ve always done it this way’.” Grace Hopper

We lose our sense of ourselves as viable individuals – understandable, since belief in our potential is absent.  And we lose our sense of community, treating each other with the same disrespect and dismissal we encounter too often ourselves.

We have no champions in this fight to regain some of what makes life worth living.

Politicians and policy makers want easy wins. They want to point to success, so they go to the ‘low-hanging fruit’, those who have the least problems, those who, with a little boost, can achieve. It makes for good press, it supports the illusion that we are doing something constructive about poverty.

Many of those on the right believe there are deserving and undeserving poor.  Many of those on the left believe there are categories as well, witness terms like ‘hard to serve’ and ‘hard to house’ applied to those whose labels loom large.  Both blame the victims.

Many of those on the right believe everyone should work, that homelessness and poverty are a life-style choice, and that OW enables addictions and street existence. Too many of those on the left believe that people can’t work, need burgeoning supports and that  increasing the levels of social assistance by one hundred dollars  is the only policy corrective needed.

“To blame the poor for subsisting on welfare has no justice unless we are also willing to judge every rich member of society by how productive he or she is.  Taken individual by individual, it is likely that there’s more idleness and abuse of government favors among the economically privileged than among the ranks of the disadvantaged.” Norman Mailer

On the right, there is frustration and fury about the number of social agencies targeting the long-term poor.  On the left, there is a constant demand to increase the numbers and the funding given to agencies, and in spite of outcomes that are dismal they continue to say “more”.

On the right, there are stories and claims of welfare cheats, on the left they’ve given up the battle to tackle discrimination and prejudice against the poor, instead pushing children to the forefront, who, at least till they reach the age of majority, are innocent victims who hopefully can’t be attacked or denied.

Neither the right nor the left believe the long-term poor are a good bet, an easy win, if the right investments are made.  Neither the right nor the left have any understanding of what keeps people on the rolls.

The best thing for the children of the poor is to see their parents succeed.  Otherwise, we are simply ensuring that agencies and shelters and drop-ins will never lack for clients, that the poor are a renewable natural resource that will never dwindle.

We, those with lived experience, must challenge the status quo; we must be the change agents, we must dare to speak our truths even when gate-keepers and those who derive their status and employment from our communities deny us our right to speak, to engage, to point out the systemic failures that guarantee their jobs and our continued poverty.

Picture yourself walking confidently to the door of an agency, and reaching for your key to open that door.  Picture yourself eating dinner, made up of your choice of foods, in the quiet and calm of your own kitchen. Picture yourself in a classroom learning, or in a social enterprise bringing life back to neighbourhoods.

If it’s a choice between supporting agency staff and failed programs, or using those funds to create opportunities and pathways out of poverty, which would you chose?

Pat Capponi
November 16, 2014