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Poverty in London: Some bad ideas we can do without
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By Haydn Jensen

Londoners are learning. Granted, we do have something of a reputation as a conservative, soft-spoken city, not exactly on the bleeding edge of social activism. It's encouraging, then, that Londoners are gathering together on many levels to assess, understand and strategically respond with words and actions. Examples include Mayor Matt Brown’s Advisory Panel on Poverty, the recent "Rally to End Poverty” hosted by the Multi-Faith Social Action Coalition of London, and growing numbers of church based poverty awareness workshops. We are learning helpful facts and attitudes about poverty in our city, as well as unhelpful misunderstandings and attitudes that have gotten in the way of progress. Here are a few bad ideas that seem to be fairly common and in need of attention:

Poverty is a problem for people living in poverty; I’m not living in poverty so it's really not my problem to solve. Currently in London over 17% of our people live with low income. Since 2006 in London and Middlesex County, numbers of people in households receiving social assistance has increased by almost 10,000. The Mayor’s Advisory Panel sends a clear message: “To build a strong community for all, Londoners must take action on poverty.” For Christians, we are told in the Old Testament that we are not to be hard hearted against people around us in need (Deuteronomy 15:7). Politicians and those volunteering and working to directly serve those facing poverty in London are all communicating a common message: the only way to effectively address poverty is through a strong social consensus.

Poverty is basically a money problem. Logically, this means that money should also be the solution. Some grains of truth here, but a deeper truth lies below the surface. Sister Sue Wilson of the Sisters of St. Joseph spoke clearly at the Rally to End Poverty that the inability to earn enough to pay the bills is the central issue. She spoke about “cheap labour quicksand” that prevents people from living debt free. She noted how some London employers are investing in their workers by paying more than minimum wage. They recognize that people can’t survive on minimum wage with today’s cost of living. She also advocated for raising the minimum wage to reasonable standards and also thoughtful consideration of what’s called guaranteed liveable income to ensure people have what they need for life, health and dignity. However, Sister Sue Wilson also makes clear that poverty for her is essentially a justice issue. She is talking about social inclusion and making sure all have access to needed opportunities and services. So, poverty might appear to be about the need for money, but it's just as much about the need for reforming social and policy attitudes which welcome and support some while denying and ignoring others. Quoting St. Augustine, she reminds us, “charity is no substitute for justice withheld."

Dr. Abe Oudshoorn has heard many people’s stories. A Registered Nurse with over five years experience with people living rough on the streets, he's the chair of the London Homeless Coalition, and also a member of the Mayor’s Advisory Panel on Poverty. He says that for many living in extreme poverty, the core issue is about hurt in their lives--often coming in the form of trauma without the resources to help recover. Speaking at an “Understanding Poverty Workshop” held at St. James Westminster Anglican church, he highlighted the uniqueness of everyone's story and also how each has been impacted by some form of trauma and the fallout from that. Whether it's a sudden job loss, injury, physical and/or mental health issue, unstable home life, abuse, or many other factors, people often end up in financial crisis because vital relationships, supports and encouragements were missing in their lives at crucial times. Abe spoke of the dignity offered when we focus on people to listen and learn their stories. Positive change happens when we have positive relationships to support one another through hard times.

Jesus said we would always have the poor among us, so why bother trying to eliminate poverty? We need to accept this as an inevitable and unsolvable reality. Taken from texts found in Matthew, Mark, and John, Jesus words are sadly misinterpreted as an excuse to do nothing. Rev. Dr. Keith Fleming of St. James Westminster church points out that we need to see that Jesus is quoting Deuteronomy 15:11, "There will always be some in the land who are poor. That is why I am commanding you to share freely with the poor and with other Israelites in need." For Jesus' listeners this would have been a very familiar teaching, and understood that people should continue doing it always, rather than discontinue it as a futile effort.

When considering helping a person in poverty, we should figure out first if they deserve our help. Too many people live poverty because they make bad choices or are just plain lazy. The words “justice” and “dignity” come to mind again. Gil Clelland of Sanctuary spoke at the Rally To End Poverty about the indignity of living under the constant scrutiny of others. He offered a few examples of questions we ask either out loud or in our heads: Are you poor enough, or are those new boots you are wearing a sign that you’re not as badly off as you claim (never mind that perhaps Gil himself gave you those boots the day before)? Are you a good enough father or mother to look after your child? Are you clean enough to be allowed into supported housing or will you infest the place with bedbugs? Are you addicted enough to require addiction counselling support and yet “clean” enough to be worth the effort? No surprise, really, that Gil connects these judgmental questions to what he calls “the poverty of loneliness” and the constant feeling that you are unloved and regarded with suspicion. Being homeless, we are reminded, means not just being without a physical shelter, but also without home--a safe place of acceptance where we are allowed to just be ourselves without our worth continually questioned.

There are specific municipal and other government departments, social service agencies, churches and neighbourhoods who specialize in responding to poverty. We should let these “experts” handle it, admire their efforts, and stay out of their way. Sister Sue Wilson at the Rally praised the excellent work being done in London by many charitable actions like the United Way, the London Food Bank and so on. And yet, she also said that these efforts alone will never end poverty. Glen Pearson, founder and co-director of the London Food Bank also shared at the St James Westminster Understanding Poverty Workshop that we can’t rely on government funding for support. He said that in the 1950’s 45% of tax revenue came from corporate tax. Today that amount is around 8%. Glen says this is the time for us to step up, get involved and speak with one voice. Input into the Draft Recommendations from Mayor Brown’s Advisory Panel on Poverty is a great start. Gil Clelland at the Rally To End Poverty told us that while not all of us are needed in “front lines” work in supporting those facing homelessness in London, we are needed as active neighbours. Gil suggests the we make the effort to find out who is struggling in our own neighbourhoods and let those relationships grow so that we ourselves find the freedom to admit our own struggles to our neighbours.

If people want a roof over their heads, food on the table, and clothes on their backs, then they should earn these things just like everybody else. Providing free housing, food and clothing is a waste of money and just encourages people to rely on handouts. Helping people to financial self-sufficiency is the goal, yes. But, sometimes life throws challenges our way that require help from others to overcome. If that help is absent, dysfunctional or insufficient we can lose ground to the point where we are mired in unhealthy coping patterns unless someone comes alongside to help. Abe Oudshoorn and others argue from clear evidence that chronic poverty and homelessness for individuals and families is connected to huge financial burdens on social services like medical care, police, family services and emergency shelters. It is actually far cheaper to provide free rent, food and clothing than all these other services to an individual or family. Shane Clarke and Jessica Justrabo, from Goodwill Industries-coordinated Bridges Out of Poverty London, work to remove judgment from poverty and instead build empathy and understanding. Through workshops and poverty simulation exercises, they advocate the idea of finding out what people need and then wrapping that support around them. Abe Oudshoorn also speaks of the value of “24/7 wraparound care” in conjunction with providing “housing first”. It’s far more effective to provide help to overcome challenges like job skills training, health care, literacy etc. once a person or family is in stable housing, Abe says. He also points out that emergency shelter is not a home; it's a place to land until something else can be worked out. Through various housing-first efforts, London is seeing a reduction in emergency shelter beds needed because more and more people are helped to stability through supportive housing.

Help Yourself Through Hard Times” is a little-known resource that deserves more attention. Published by the city of London, this guide lists basic needs and services for London and Middlesex County. Although its title might suggest otherwise, this really is a community building resource to help people connect with other people and supports. Many valuable community resources are not accessed simply because people do not know they exist.

As was mentioned at the beginning of this article. Mayor Brown and the Mayor’s Advisory Panel on Poverty invites everyone to get involved and have their say. The Panel’s Draft Recommendations have recently been released for public feedback. Here’s the link:

Feedback survey for Mayor’s Advisory Panel on Poverty: