Obscured by self… (by Guest blogger Pat Capponi)

We are the intractable poor, those who’ve been years- sometimes decades on OW or ODSP, whose world is limited to agencies, drop-ins, food banks, Money Marts, and some of the worst housing Toronto has on offer.

Men and women with no future, no hope, broken by the struggle to simply survive, whose lives and deaths cause barely a ripple, no obituaries, no weeping relatives, no sign we were ever here, except for thick files in dusty cabinets, destined for shredders, in order to make room for new files, new clients, who will share the same sad fate.

We are the cast-offs, the social irritants, lying on grates through the winter, hanging in back alleyways, servicing Johns, on street corners pleading for change, lined up for hours for a loaf of bread, a can of tuna, a TTC ticket.

Our health declines, even more swiftly as we age, chronic illnesses find rich ground, prepared by years of abuse, hunger, street life, drugs and alcohol, STD’s.

We are whipping boys (and girls), scapegoats, scourged from nice neighbourhoods, battered by cops and politicians, scorned by those who believe we’re getting a free ride on their tax dollars.

Once we were innocent, babes in arms, that innocence was ripped away, by angry fathers and desperate mothers, by uncles and teachers and predators who smelled the vulnerability of victimized children, and feasted on that innocence.  And there was no rescue, no one there to right the wrong, so many grew up believing we were at fault, we seduced the adults who touched us where no child should be touched, we caused the endless beatings, we deserved the verbal barrage that told us we were no good.

We kept the secrets we were warned to keep. Because we knew we were to blame.

Because no one would believe us.

Some were driven mad by all those secrets. Some medicated the pain with crack or heroin.

Women desperate for rescue, from themselves, from the streets, found themselves with men who continued the abuse, whose fists punished, whose feet kicked ribs and head.

We felt we’d brought that on ourselves, we were stupid, we were trapped, nobody had warned us about the endless cycle of violence that starts the moment someone trusted betrays that trust.

Left to ourselves, never having justice or vengeance, never hearing, you were wronged, we stagger on, from corner to corner, man to man, agency to agency, just another anonymous face in the line-up, for a meal, a coffee, a  winter coat.

No safety, no hope, no self-love, no expectations other than the sameness of days.

But its never too late.  We’ve found something that strengthens our resolve, makes us hope again in spite of ourselves.

We look across the table in a crowded room, as cramped as any drop-in, except this crowding is different, feels more like support than aggravation,  we sit beside women and men who’ve shared the same downward path, who understand the grief, the sorrow, the pain which is our world.

There is something new and strange and wonderful happening, its scary and exciting, we listen eagerly as one by one people just like us stand up, and introduce themselves by telling their stories, guided by a facilitator who’s lived the life, on a floor where men and women like us are working and empowered and driving cars, buying homes and condos, raising their children, often won back from CAS.

We revel in the newness, not hemmed in by dozens of rules governing behaviour, not watched over and controlled by well-dressed and well-fed staff fresh from university, but simply told: treat each other as you wish to be treated. And, no drama, no refusal to participate, everyone does the work to the best of their ability.

We hear what we’ve wanted to hear for the long miserable days and nights of our existence: there is no going back and changing what was done to you, but you can work to ensure that others don’t have to go through what you had to endure.

We hear that the change we need is not just out there, but that it starts in us.

We hear, we need to get back the self-discipline to sit with others for hours without squabbling, without taking offence. We hear, you can pull each other up or pull each other down.  We hear, way down deep in our souls, we hear that we can be fighters, achievers, change-agents, leaders and public speakers.

We hear, we see, we learn, we dare to hope.  We go back to school, we study, we grow.

We talk to medical students about the effects of poverty on health, we work with psychiatric residents to improve their awareness of the world we live in and their need to advocate with us for housing and opportunity, we sit with police to find solutions other than shooting those who lose it on the streets, we go into universities to speak with nursing and social work students, we speak to government ministers and policy advisors, we fight for the right to work in social agencies and social services.

We are the men and women who make up the intractable poor, and we have found  our voice.


Pat Capponi

April 3, 2012



How enlisting those with lived experience can improve the effectiveness and the functioning of agencies/drop-ins/institutions.


Important that staff work side by side with members of their target communities in order to view clients as people with potential and abilities.  Years spent working on people in crisis or in need taint the way we view this population.   (example: Out of this World Cafe, Parkdale Green Thumb)

Send a message of hope to the client group: it is possible to translate your negative experiences and your learning from mistakes and failures into a positive.  That there is a way out of poverty and boredom, and a way to give back to your communities.

Agencies tolerate behaviours that are self-defeating, attention-getting from those who are starved for a human interaction, even a negative one, thinking they are being kind.   The soft tyranny of low expectations.

Contribute to a renewed sense of urgency to get people moving forward rather than simply keeping them occupied with card and board games.

Bring a full understanding of the challenges, barriers, and conditions people live in, rather than simply blaming people for lack of cleanliness, or empty pockets, or needs.

Help people who have surplus powerless to begin to stretch themselves, experiment with speaking out, influencing others. Currently almost impossible in many places, fear of being seen as ungrateful, fear of consequences such as exclusion, or no longer being liked by a worker.  Only asked to speak out when used as poster children for agency funding, where individual success is put forward as more about the help received than the individual triumph.

Encourage agencies to think outside the box about tackling hunger: going the extra mile literally, driving out to big box stores, buying fresh food in bulk, selling to members at cost.  Preparing and freezing nutritious individual meals (hiring members to do so) then selling them at cost.

Bring real empathy into client-staff relations, and an awareness of the consequences of turning away someone in need, or being cold and abrupt to someone who may be making their first attempt to change their lives.