Human faces of poverty tell the story of Jesus

  • August 7, 2008

{mosimage}TORONTO - When Jesus told His disciples they would have the poor with them always the operative word was "with." Jesus knew He would leave, but the poor would take His place — always with His disciples.

Most of us fail to live up to Jesus' vision. The poor are not with us at all. They live separate lives, apart from the mainstream — out of sight and out of mind. Because that's the way we like it. The poor make us uncomfortable.

We often prefer the fantasy of the deserving poor. We like humble, self-effacing, hard-working poor people straight out of O. Henry short stories. In our fantasy the poor don't complain and never resent the government, their employers or the rest of us with whom they must fight to wrest even the barest fraction of a share from a wealthy nation.

We don't want poor people to hold us to account, or pass judgment on us, or make demands. In our minds what the poor get should depend on their moral fitness, not ours.

When the government of Ontario finally produces its plan for poverty reduction, perhaps as early as November but more likely after Christmas, the plan will have to confront the reality of poor people and not our preferred fantasies. The province promises scientific measures of poverty, timelines and hard targets for poverty reduction. Every ministry in the government will have to contribute to the poverty reduction effort.

Poverty deserves the same serious and scientific policy discussion that education, health and the economy already receive. There's nothing wrong with statistics and theory. But such abstractions are meaningless if we aren't also aware of flesh-and-blood poor people.

The seven profiles which follow are no basis for government policy. They are an opportunity to meet real people, and reality is the basis of Christian solidarity. These people comprise a few random drops in the ocean of 996,000 poor in the province (345,000 of them children). Individual lives, human faces and personal stories are the only way we have of touching the reality of poverty.

The further we stray from the real the more we are out of touch with Christ — the ultimate human reality. Our hope for these three pages of The Catholic Register is that they will be a window on real life.


René Allerie and Rita Hannah

{mosimage}After 27 years in the International Union of Bricklayers, and even more years of driving truck and working construction, René Allarie never imagined he would be trying to hang onto his house while surviving on his common law wife's disability cheque.

If Allarie and Rita Hannah can hang on another 13 months Allarie will turn 65 and begin to collect his old-age security cheque. Allarie has sold his car and a section of their property in Westport, just north of Kingston, Ont. But still the couple talks bravely of making do without electricity.

"I don't care if they cut off my hydro. I've survived without hydro before," said Hannah.

While others their age look forward to retirement, Allarie and Hannah look for more things to sell.

"We kind of downsized the best we can," Allarie said.

"We try to sell the house. Try to sell everything," said Hannah. "Because we're not going to make it."

Allarie and Hannah grew up in big Franco-Ontarian families. Allarie is the oldest of 17 children, the son of a miner. Hannah had four brothers. Her two sisters died in infancy.

"When I was young we would go sometimes two days without food," said Hannah. "The priest from the town would get a case of Klick to give to the poor, and that's all we had to eat — Klick canned meat, you know? Man, I never want to see a can of Klick."

Since his heart attack in 2002, Allarie has struggled with being unable to work.

"I've been a very active person. I never stopped, and now I have to stop," he said.


Vicki and Roger Bedore

{mosimage}Vickie and Roger Bedore and their 13-year-old son Damian have been living on $524 a month they receive in social assistance in Westport, Ont., north of Kingston. Roger tries to supplement that income with odd jobs, but after years of struggle on and off welfare they're both being treated for depression.

"I just don't want to even leave my house anymore. I've been labelled as agoraphobic and I just don't like to leave," said Vickie. "And if I do it's only with my husband."

Vickie also worries about the toll poverty is taking on her son. Though Damian spent the year fund-raising along with the rest of his Grade 8 class hoping to go on the end-of-year class trip to Montreal, his parents couldn't come up with the $500.

"I can only imagine how that made him feel," said Vickie.

Health care is not nearly so universal or free as people imagine, say the Bedores. Vickie has few teeth left after her last pregnancy drained the calcium from her body. On welfare, she's been unable to afford dental care.

"My family doctor even said the poison from your mouth is getting into your bloodstream and you know eventually what that will do to you," said Vickie. "No matter how many (social) workers I went to, not matter what I did, there was nothing they could do for me."


Fr. Damian MacPherson

{mosimage}"No matter what the charism of the institution is, you can never pitch your tent far away from the cry of the poor," said Fr. Damian MacPherson. "It has long been my assumption that the cry of the poor is really the voice of God. Not to be listening, not to be responding, not to be reaching out to the voice of God is not anyplace that we should be."

Of course there's a huge difference between the voluntary poverty vowed by all Catholic religious and the poverty of the marketplace, said MacPherson, a member of the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement in Toronto.

"In most every religious community the standard of life is quite manageable, perhaps even comfortable," he said.

In a materialist, consumer culture it is increasingly difficult to understand why poverty would still be an ideal for the Christian life.

"The tendency is to think you give up so much when you take on a vow of poverty. Perhaps to the surprise of many, you also receive a tremendous amount in return," said Damian. "Poverty is an invitation to be free — to be free in order to do, to be free to engage in ways that otherwise you would be hampered or unable to engage in trying to serve the values of the Gospel."

MacPherson is quite aware that for most poor people poverty is very far removed from freedom. But that's where religious poverty may have something to teach a world which restricts the poor to a state of permanent insecurity.

"Religious, institutional poverty is a way of witnessing to the world that it doesn't have to be that way," he said. "There ought to be enough for everybody."


Janet Denault

{mosimage}Janet Denault's life revolves around the seven girls she is raising in public housing — five-year-old Simoa, seven-year-old Shandelle, eight-year-old CJ, 11-year-old Adrianne, 15-year-old Lisa and the 17-year-old twins Kaylen and Vanessa.

At 53, Denault had expected to be getting ready to say goodbye to her three youngest daughters as they make their way to high school graduation. But her two eldest daughters' disastrous run of drug addiction and bad partners has put four grandchildren in her house.

"When I look at my life now, my husband and I don't do anything together," she said. "Our life is mainly built around our grandchildren and our kids."

Family values in the Alexandria Park housing project in Toronto is a matter of staying away from crack dealers and learning to make do.

"My girls (Lisa, Kaylen and Vanessa) had to sacrifice a lot, like a lot of love and attention, because once I took these grandchildren they didn't get that attention anymore," said Denault.

She's proud of how those three girls seem to have learned to stay away from the drugs that have devastated their older sisters' lives. She enrols the girls in cadets and hopes the discipline will serve them well. Family vacations are Bible camp sponsored by the Scott Mission. Clothes come from the clothing bank and food from the food bank.

"We do without. I'm just glad we have a roof over our heads."


Connie Harrison

{mosimage}When cancer came calling eight years ago Connie Harrison knew she wasn't rich. Getting evicted that same month added a new dimension to poverty.

"I had to go through everything — the surgery, chemo, radiation, everything — living in a motel in Scarborough," she said.

If she had been willing to separate from her husband, social services might have been able to find her better accommodation, but she relied on her husband.

"I was in that motel for several years. I went through all my treatment there. The nurse used to just dump the supplies on the door and my husband would take care of it," Harrison said.

Despite this, the marriage didn't survive years spent cooped up in a motel room.

"My husband and I moved to the apartment, but by that time all the time in the motel had done it's work."

St. Boniface parish in Toronto filled in gaps where the health care and welfare systems couldn't go.

"That church was an exceptional church. The people were out there really trying to make a difference for the poor. Marvellous church."

Eight years on, with the cancer in remission and a subsidized apartment in the city's St. James Town area, Harrison struggles with depression.

"Once you fall out you don't necessarily come back in. I think society is unforgiving — very unforgiving," she said. "Even though I'm 53 years old, and have some pretty bad health issues, I would like to work again."


Gunara Peters

{mosimage}Gunara Peters has a beautiful, eight-month-old daughter and a 13-year-old son who graduated Grade 8 as valedictorian and on the principal's honour role. The boy will begin an international baccalaureate program this fall. She's a proud mother, but she's not a happy woman. She has attempted suicide twice since she's been on social assistance, most recently in May.

"Even if they give you clothes and food and everything, it's not enough for your insides," she struggled to explain. "You cannot do anything."

Peters was a nurse in Russia with 15 years experience in a major hospital. She's an educated woman who enjoyed theatre, dance and films. She came to Canada to marry, but spent her first three years in this country isolated and terrified by her abusive husband.

"Not I left. Not he left. He throw me on the street," said Peters. "After that I lived with my son six months in the shelter."

Faced with the challenge of supporting herself and her son, Peters discovered that she is medically qualified to work in Ontario but in two attempts has been unable to achieve the score she needs on the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) to be licensed. Though she would like to take English classes, she is still breast-feeding Esmiralda and worries about leaving Elvin alone in their Alexandria Park Co-operative apartment in downtown Toronto. Special tactical police squads have raided the drug operation next door twice this year. The drug dealers resisted with guns.

Though Elvin is obviously level-headed, his mother fears for more than just his safety.

"I am afraid I will lose him. He is a teenager," she said. "This community is not safe at all."


Marty Thompson

{mosimage}Marty Thompson doesn't blame his upbringing in Toronto's Regent Park for his 25 years of crack addiction, the years he spent making a living by shoplifting, the time he's spent in and out of jail, the violent code he lived by. Marty's uninterested in the excuses he might be able to claim.

"We always had a roof over our heads and food on the table and were provided with the necessities of life and education and everything," he said.

His brothers got good jobs and stayed with them. But Marty had a tendency to get into fights, to get angry and it got him in trouble.

At 49 years old, Thompson has stopped prowling department stores with a lady's girdle pulled over his chest. He claims he could make $500 to $700 a day stuffing golf balls, bed sheets and power tools up that girdle. Because of the trust placed in him by Elliot Gwaza, a life skills development worker at Good Shepherd Ministries, Thompson spends his days at George Brown College working toward his goal of becoming a community counsellor.

Though he has been knifed and shot, spent time in and out of jail, lived in the shelter system, smoked crack in parked cars and abandoned houses, there was never a threat or a danger posed either by other criminals or the legal system which could have made Thompson give up life on the street.

"You don't care about anything but the drugs," explained Thompson. "So, I lost my place and everything. So I started staying at different shelters."

As long as he could score crack, that was OK with Thompson.

"As far as me going to school and getting off of crack and everything else, it's all because somebody believed in me. That's Elliot Gwaza, Good Shepherd Ministries," said Thompson.

The man who once dared a crack dealer to shoot him (he did) is afraid of letting Gwaza down.

He knows he has let Gwaza down in the past. And there's really no guarantee he will stay clean and focussed on his studies this time. But he's begun to see his life in a new way.

"All I wanted to do for 20 years of my life is get high on crack so I could get away from reality. And that's what I did," said Thompson. "Drugs are no way for anybody to live, but if you're in that circle — when in Rome do as the Romans do. That's the price you pay."

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