Tag Archives: Ministry of Social Services

Column: Incentives a better way to deliver holiday cheer

This week’s column for The StarPhoenix

A long-standing Saskatchewan tradition is that Social Services Ministry cheques are sent out earlier in December so that recipients can partake in some holiday cheer.

It might provide some cheer, but what’s being spent is money for January. A combination of grocery money being spent early on the holidays, combined with a long wait until the February cheques arrive, means a tough start to a new year. It’s longer lines at food banks and soup kitchens, or simply going without essentials.

This year, Social Services Minister June Draude broke with tradition and delayed sending out the January cheques until after Christmas. Despite the frustration many felt, she was correct. While it made it hard to do any Christmas shopping, it puts assistance recipients in a better position for January.

The underlying problem is that social assistance payments barely cover rent and food. It’s a hard way to live any time of the year, but especially during the holidays. Draude was right when she said that many charities work hard at providing Christmas cheer, but there is another way to make the holidays happy.

Human beings respond to incentives. However, the social assistance program offers few incentives for taking steps to improve your lot in life. In fact, the system often punishes initiative and re-wards bad behaviour. Other jurisdictions are starting to get the universal principle that people respond well to incentives, especially cash.

New York City conducted a pilot project that rewarded parents for certain productive behaviours, such as inoculating their children, improving kids’ school attendance, having them get a library card, and for ensuring preventive health and dental care. These all are proactive measures that save taxpayers substantial money down the road.

Many were outraged that parents were paid for doing things that most of us do without payment, but the truth is that paying for good behaviour is a lot cheaper than paying dearly later for the consequences of failure.

By looking at an incentive model, Saskatchewan has a chance to encourage behaviours that we know will break the cycle of poverty, save the province long-term costs for health and other social programs, and encourage people to take steps that help them either re-enter the workforce or just do better while on assistance.

Incentives aren’t a cure-all, but they are part of a solution to helping people out of poverty.

Not everyone will respond to incentives. Among some people who receive benefits, the idea of working or improving their lot in life is a foreign concept, and their sense of entitlement overwhelms almost every other thought process. They will miss out on incentive benefits, but I’m sure not many of us will feel bad about that.

For those who do want to better themselves and their families, why not put more resources behind them and give them the steps needed to succeed in life? In places where incentives have been used, it’s hundreds of dollars that have been distributed per person, not thousands.

People are not being paid to be lifted out of poverty.

Instead, they are being encouraged to make good decisions and are then rewarded. Gordon Gekko was right: "Greed is good," and people respond.

The payoff isn’t just in better life choices. If it’s done right, this will provide a chance to enjoy more of what Saskatchewan has to offer. It means money at Christmastime for gifts or a simple festive dinner. It means an opportunity to take in events such as the Taste of Saskatchewan, or an afternoon at the midway at the Exhibition.

For those who have grown up in poverty and on the outside of much of what Saskatchewan has to offer, the opportunity to be part of things is an incentive by itself. As the province makes the transition from a tradition of scarcity to abundance, it’s a big step to finding new ways that allow the disadvantaged to share in the opportunity.

Draude was correct to stop sending out the January cheques early. Rather than rely on non-profits to make up the gap, the government has an opportunity to both reward good choices and restore some dignity to people.

The issue isn’t about money for Christmas, but an opportunity for the province to invest in those who want to do better and reward them for making decisions that serve everyone’s best interests. It’s too late for this holiday season, but there is a lot of time to get ready to try something different next year.

jordon@jordoncooper.com

© Copyright (c) The StarPhoenix

Column: Life hard on social assistance

My column in The StarPhoenix

I came into work a couple of years ago for a midnight shift, and the colleague I was replacing dryly said that among our residents that night was a man who had been eviscerated and just got out of the hospital.

The resident – I’ll call him John – casually told me that someone had broken into his apartment and was looking to steal some organs. I asked him, "Do you owe someone money or drugs?"

John immediately panicked and said, "How do you know? Who told you?"

Mine was a lucky guess. I don’t know what is and what isn’t in his life story (the one about organ theft definitely wasn’t true). According to him, he had been on his own since he was 11 and started using hard drugs when he was 13.

He had significant mental health problems, which could have been a result of the drug abuse. He suffered from fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, or FASD, and schizophrenia. I don’t know if it was the FASD or the drug use that stunted his emotional or cognitive development, but I always felt John was less capable and less mature than my son, who was eight years old at the time.

There is a road to recovery available. John later took rehabilitation for the drug issues. He was on medication for the mental health problems. I am sure he could get counselling for the psychological issues, but he still will remain an eight-year-old inside, unemployable and with serious health concerns.

So what do we do with men and women who are like him? They are left to fend for themselves in some jurisdictions, but in Saskatchewan we have a safety net in terms of health care and the Ministry of Social Services.

Most of us are familiar with health care, but life on social assistance for a single person is tough. It starts with $459 a month for rent and, if you are disabled, you can qualify for the Disability Rental Housing Supplement that provides another $262 toward rent. The total $721 is not that bad – until you try to find a suite for that price.

The accommodation also has to be close to supports, so even if you find a suitable apartment, you may not qualify. Many find themselves paying a portion of their rent from the $255 they get to live on. Very quickly that living allowance becomes $150 to make it through the month.

It’s been 15 years since I lived alone, and even then $100 didn’t get me that much in groceries. Even living on a nutritionally challenged diet of Kraft Dinner, Pizza Pops, Kraft Dinner Spirals, and Three Cheese Kraft Dinner I was spending more than that on food.

The next option is the Saskatoon Food Bank. It just completed its Food Basket Challenge, which invited noted Saskatoon residents to live on a typical basket of food for a week. The participants’ comments were all interesting, but I noted how many struggled with the discipline of having to live on the amount of food that was given out.

Of course, in a oneweek challenge, a lack of discipline means that you just cheated yourself. If they were in that situation permanently, it means that they or their children go without food later in the week. For those on social assistance, it’s week after month of rationing, going hungry, walking down to the Friendship Inn, stopping by the Bridge on 20th, and heading to the Salvation Army looking for enough food to make it.

On top of that, the money you get is supposed to cover laundry, clothes and other essentials. As Sharon Brown, one of the Salvation Army’s budget management workers told me, "You can make it if you make no mistakes."

That’s easier said than done, even in my own life. Recent studies have shown that most of us have a finite amount of self-discipline.

To use most of that on just obtaining and rationing food changes the rest of one’s life.

I know that it’s hard to set social assistance rates. Too high and it provides a disincentive to work and people flood in from all over. Yet you make it too low, and even providing food and basic needs become a struggle.

Over the years I have listened to politicians talk about indexing social assistance to inflation. Not a bad idea, but here is mine. In the process of reviewing rates, have the minister of Social Services live on the money he or she judges to be appropriate. If the minister can’t do it and function, why expect others to do it?

If it helps, I’ll do it as well. Together we’ll find out how hard it is to live on social assistance rates.

jordon@jordoncooper.com

Social Service Income Rates in Canada

According to the Toronto Star

  • The highest welfare income for an employable single person was $9,593 in Newfoundland.
  • The lowest was $3,773 in New Brunswick.
  • The highest welfare income for a single disabled person was $12,905 in Ontario.
  • The lowest was $8,665 in New Brunswick.
  • The highest welfare income for a lone parent with one child was $19,297 in Newfoundland.
  • The lowest was $14,829 in Manitoba.

* Annual incomes in 2009, including child and tax benefits

(Not) taking care of those that can’t take care of themselves

According to the provincial auditor, the Saskatchewan government doesn’t know how many children are in it’s care

But a new report by Brian Atkinson, the acting provincial auditor, released Wednesday said that after two years of urging, the Ministry of Social Services still does not know how many children are under care, who they are and where they live.

The minister said they can tell how many children are in the system, just that it’s convoluted. And the case management system is being replaced, added the minister. But how did it get so bad? A car dealer in such poor shape would be out of business or its manager fired and replaced long before disaster struck.

One estimate puts 4,700 children in the care of Social Services. Even if the ministry is able to track the numbers, it doesn’t appear to be able to manage the number of children. On the same day the report was released, a woman accused in a foster baby death had her court case delayed again.

The Grind of Poverty

"Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings." Nelson Mandela

This is the third in a series on poverty, homelessness, and a concentration of services in Saskatoon’s inner city.  You can find part 1 and part 2 in the archives. 

Poverty in Saskatoon

Poverty looks different in different cities.  In North American where food costs are more or less similar, you have five factors that influence where you are in relation to the the poverty line that I am going to look at.

  1. Income
  2. Housing costs
  3. Transportation costs
  4. Utility costs (especially heating costs)
  5. Cost of living, particularly food costs.

Saskatoon has relatively stable heating costs due to SaskEnergy hedging natural gas purchases (see this article for explanation and political controversy) and the medium, we all use natural gas which can be a lot cheaper than home heating fuel.  Take a look at this article from 2008 on what happens when oil prices spike and what that can do to home heating bills and the family that live there.

Saskatoon does have high rent.  A one bedroom apartment on the east side of the city will run you $1000/month.  While there are cheaper apartments, most of those are located in the city’s core neighbourhoods.  As housing prices have doubled and tripled, rents have done the same.  A quick survey of friends who are renting often described at least a $100/month rental increase last January 1st with a notice of another one coming this January 1st.  $200/month increase over one year is very difficult for any family no matter where you are in the economic spectrum.

While Saskatoon Transit does a good job (unless we have had snow or you want to get to the airport), Saskatoon is a city based on freeways and driving.  While some American cities like Boston have been shaped by their subways, Saskatoon has been shaped by our cars which means that city attractions and commercial districts are shaped by parking, not ease of access for public access.  The Ministry of Social Services has made it easier for it’s clients to get around by making available bus passes for $20/month.  A regular adult bus pass is $71.00 and a single trip ticket is $2.75 which seems high but when compared to rates in New York, Boston, or Toronto, it’s about the same.

So Saskatoon has reasonably priced transportation, SaskEnergy does a decent job of hedging natural gas prices to keep our natural gas rates stable rather than fluctuating and food prices are what they are.  While we may not like the idea of Wal-Mart dominating the world, their entrance into Saskatoon does keep food prices lower (and makes it even harder for downtown grocery stores to compete).  One factor with food prices that gets overlooked is accessibility to reasonably priced food.  While Wal-Mart may have the best price on a block of cheese in town, if it costs you a lot to get there, it doesn’t help.  I’ll talk some more about this in a moment.

Life Below the Poverty Line

All cities have residents below the poverty line (or as we call it here, the Low Income Cut Off or LICO).  A 2009 CUISR research paper described the LICO as this

While family income trends tell us about how many people in Saskatchewan are doing in absolute terms, it is important to examine the ability of the income to provide a reasonable quality of life. Statistics Canada’s Low Income Cut-Offs (LICOs) are widely used to measure poverty in Canada (Statistics Canada, 2006b; Canadian Council on Social Development, n.d.). Statistics Canada (2006c) defines the LICO as the income level at which a family spends 20% more of their income on food, shelter, and clothing than the average family of a comparable size. In 2005, the after-tax LICO was $22,069 per year for a family of three living in a community of 100,000 to 499,999 people and $27,532 per year for a family of four (Statistics Canada, 2006c). In the same year, the poverty line for families in rural areas was $17,071 for a three-person family and $21,296 for a four-person family (Statistics Canada, 2006c). At incomes at or below LICO levels, Saskatchewan residents are using substantially more of their available income to acquire the basics of life compared to their fellow citizens.

CUISR went out and created a snapshot of what low income families in Saskatchewan look like.

what low income families in Saskatchewan look like Saskatchewan’s Aboriginal citizens and families are consistently overrepresented in low income indicators. Although Aboriginal people have made significant gains in the last 20 years compared to other provincial groups, Statistics Canada’s 2006 Census data indicate that 37% of Saskatchewan’s Aboriginal population was living at or below the LICO (Statistics Canada, 2008a) and Canadian Council on Social Development, n.d.). While this represented a large improvement of 16 percentage points relative to the 1996 Census, Aboriginal peoples continue to experience a much higher poverty level when compared to all persons in Saskatchewan.

When looking at the income levels for people on Social Services CUISR found this

When examining Saskatchewan’s social assistance incomes, an overall decrease in the last decade is evident. Between 1996 and 2005, social assistance incomes eroded in real terms among all recipient groups, by more than 7%; the welfare incomes of people with disabilities on social assistance experienced the greatest drop (by 15.5%).

image It should be noted that Saskatchewan raised its social assistance rates in 2008; currently, a single employable person in Saskatoon or Regina would qualify for a benefit of about $8,000 (See Appendix II).

At the end of the day the average Canadian single mother who is below the poverty line is below it by about $7500.  When people talk about people living below the poverty line, they are not missing it by a dollar or two.

In my last post, I showed income breakdowns for Saskatoon’s core neighbourhoods.  To recap there are 1726 households trying to love on under $15,000 a year and another 1567 households trying to get by under $30,000 a year?  Of those families, a staggering 780 of them are trying to get by on under $10,000 per year. How do they live?

Many of the household’s living under $15,000 a year are either on Social Services, struggling by on part time employment or on Social Services (either SAP or TEA).  If you are living on Social Services, your income is going to be a lot less than $15,000/year.  Check out the current Social Services rate card and do the math on how little money that is.

As the Social Services Rate Card shows, you see that there is around $459 for rent (more on that later) and $255 to cover food, toiletries, clothes, bills, and others.  That isn’t a lot of money but it wasn’t until I had it broken down for me by a budget management worker that I realized how little it was.

 

Months ago I had some staff break down the Social Services rate card.  With the new women’s shelter coming online soon, I wanted them to come up with a move out formula that would actually work.  Since many of the men and women we deal with are defined as “unemployable” by Social Services, we needed to help them find a way to live within that financial framework.  We couldn’t find a way of making it in the slightest without using services provided by the Saskatoon Food Bank, the Friendship Inn, and the Salvation Army.  As I reviewed our notes the other day, I saw that we didn’t take into consideration tobacco consumption which makes a really tough financial situation even worse.  Here is what we learned…

Impact of Housing Costs

If you are single you have $255 a month after your rent (or most of it) is paid.  If you have health concerns like diabetes or a disease like HIV, you get more to cover proper nutrition.  That doesn’t sound that bad.  I have had three different budget management workers/trustees from different agencies have told me that one can live on that amount as long as the person doesn’t make a single mistake.  That amount includes a discounted bus pass and free Leisure Card and your rent is paid… that is if you can somewhere to rent for your allocated amount.  Now now problems start.

You can technically live anywhere in town (and therefore leave the inner city behind) but you have some problems.  First of all there is the Rental Supplement which you have to qualify for and in today’s rental market you need the Rental Supplement.  To qualify for the Rental Supplement, your location in the city (in part) determines whether or not you get it and how much you get.   The reality is that if you are living in Riversdale, Pleasant Hill, and areas closer to St. Paul’s or another hospital, increases your chances to get the supplement.  Now if you don’t qualify, you need have pay the difference from your personal allowance.  This is going to increase your need on services like the Saskatoon Food Bank, The Salvation Army Community Services, Friendship Inn, and other agencies which actually encourages you to live in walking distance to them.  Of course even if you do find a place that rents to you, the Ministry of Social Services letter of guarantee is only for the amount of money that you are allowed for housing, which means that you have to come up with the rest in cash to cover your damage deposit.  The current system actually encourages a concentration of services and poverty.

Even if you can afford to move into a different part of town, the landlords may not want you there.  A client I helped find an apartment for was charged a $50 “viewing fee” to see an apartment.  I haven’t met anyone yet who didn’t see that as an attempt to keep people receiving Social Service benefits from seeing the building.  Over a period of three or four months, this client, myself, and another social worker was stood up numerous times by landlords on viewings, largely because the client was on Social Services.  I was there when the client was told to his face that they “probably won’t rent to someone on welfare”.  We had some staff from AIDS Saskatoon in a while ago talking to our staff and we also learned that some landlords are doing a kind of credit check on clients to decide if the client can “afford” the apartment.  I was shocked but it’s a story we have heard lots since then.  Are any of us surprised that their formula disqualifies low income/Social Services clients?  Of course not all landlords are like that.  I have met some wonderful ones who are all over the city.   In fact the client who I was talking about was helped by a landlord who went out of their way to get this client and family into their apartment because they saw it as the right thing to do.  Yet on the other hand we are kidding ourselves if we don’t think that there are some Donald Sterlingesqe landlords out there who are making it very tough on people because of race or class in the city.  (if you got the Donald Sterling reference without clicking on the link, I am impressed).

Of course moving in only part of the journey.  I was also shocked to find out there are no more move in grants.  No money for beds, mop, broom, cleaning supplies, SHOWER CURTAIN, pots and pans.  I have access to the donations given to the Salvation Army Community Services (we have a dock for a reason) and all of that was free but even after all of that was said and done, Wendy and I dropped $100 of our own money for essentials and believe me, there was nothing on that list that all of us would not consider an essential. 

To be fair there is another alternative to move in grants, if you are on Social Services, you can apply for a twice a year advance of $240 and that would help them set up an apartment but that money comes off their check $40 a month over six months (which takes down the $255/month to $215/month).  If for some reason you don’t qualify for the Rental Supplement, you have to pay the difference in rent out of your personal living allowance.  Your $255 can quickly become $100.  One budget management worker I talked to told me that she practically begs her clients not to take this $240 “windfall” because of the financial problems it can cause later on for them.

Eating Right on Social Services

So you have $255 (or $215 or $100) each month (now there are extra resources if you have selected medical issues) which is anywhere from $53 to $65 (or $25) per week for groceries, hygiene products, and clothes.   That causes it’s own problems because where do you get that stuff in Riversdale/Pleasant Hill?  There are no low priced grocery stores in easy walking distance (although there is now one downtown and a small Asian food store on 20h) which makes it difficult to get ahead because you don’t have the resources to buy anything in bulk or take advantage of savings at Costco, Real Canadian Wholesale Club or even Co-op’s big case lot sale?   Again you have a lack of financial margin and you have a lack of accessibility to do purchases like this.  While Saskatoon has a whole has more vehicles than residents, according to 2006 census data the core neighborhoods have 0.4 cars per person. When I worked at 33rd Street Safeway, once a month we saw a steady stream of cabs pulling up as people on Social Services bought groceries.  You have two problems with that happening.  A small grocery amount is made a lot smaller by having to take a cab to Safeway (or Supertore/Walmart/Extra Foods/Sobeys) for groceries and you have that money leaving the area (and area that is in need of that money).  An even worse decision is those who do their grocery stopping at a convenience store.  A couple of times when I worked the 4-12 shift at the Salvation Army, I would run low on change which makes it hard for the front desk to make change for clients who come in and buy breakfast (best $3 breakfast in the city).  Once I stopped by a convenience store on the day checks were handed out.  I honestly thought a riot had gone through the store.  It wasn’t, it was people purchasing groceries.  I can’t think of a quicker way to make an already small check, even smaller.  Thankfully this has changed somewhat since Giant Tiger came to town but you still have no fresh fruit and vegetables.  While I probably could have lived on Giant Tiger’s selection when I was single (Kraft Dinner, Ichiban noodles, Pizza Pops… repeat), it is lacking a lot of stuff that families need and there isn’t the money left over to even purchase a Good Food Box from CHEP.

The other part of the equation that food is a commodity and therefore subject to price fluctuations and is really sensitive to other commodity prices, such as oil.  All of this is explained in detail in Why Your World Is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller by Jeff Rubin and The Long Emergency by James Kunstler who point out the impact that higher oil prices have on farm input costs.  As oil goes up, so does fuel for machineries, cost of fertilizers, and more crops get moved from being a food crop and become a fuel crop for ethanol (unlike Brazil which had the foresight not to use a food crop for ethanol, we decided to use corn and maize here, largely in deference to the importance that Iowa places in Presidential primaries).  The basic math is higher energy prices equals higher food prices.

Three years ago when gas prices spiked to abnormally high prices we saw the impact on our clientele at work.  We went from about 60,000 served meals a year to close to 100,000 meals served a year.  Not only were people hit hard by rising energy prices, they were hit hard by the increase in food prices.  All around the city you saw charts in restaurants explaining why their prices were going up and why they had to charge more to bring in some more revenue to pay for it.  The same thing happened here but the people who used our services didn’t have the option of increasing revenue.  We just did an in house survey of why people come to the Salvation Army meal program and the dominant answer given was, “no food at home” and this is a program designed for people who are not receiving benefits from the Ministry of Social Services (and therefore hopefully have more resources).  I wish we had done one a couple of years ago.  I assume the numbers would have been much, much, higher.

The Lack of Discretionary Income

So even if you have money for food and rent, there are still other expenses… like laundry is another big issue.  You get $10 if you are single for laundry and soap and $20 if you are a family.  The problem is that a lot of apartments charge $3 for a load and in case you haven’t noticed, there are not a lot of laundromats in town.  When we were looking at countless duplexes and fourplexes while trying to find a place for the Mumford House, many houses had a bed room filled five or six feet high full of clothes.  That same summer I joined a co-worker to check out a house that had been set on fire (she didn’t want to get punched in the face by the landlord so she brought me along to get punched in the face – luckily for my face, he was pretty cool and not prone to violence).  Again in the basement there was clothes piled high enough that neither one us could walk upright down there.  Later it finally clicked in that it was cheaper to come to the Salvation Army or the Food Bank every couple of weeks and just get different clothes rather than doing laundry.  Anything to save some money.

My point is that, you can make it as long as you don’t make a mistake which in the end, is the Government of Saskatchewan’s goal.  Coming up with Social Services rates is tricky business.  If you set the amount too low, people just can’t live but if you have too high of an amount, it discourages people from working and you can really upset voters.  In the end you get stuck with the number that we have now.  Just barely enough for someone to live and definitely not comfortably. 

This takes a toll not only on individuals but also on a community if in high enough concentration.

As for the family, I understand a bit of that.  My mom raised a family of four of us on $1350 a month plus what we got for Family Allowance.  $700 of that was mortgage and the rest was just paying for life.  From 1988-89, we kind of totally disengaged from society because we had no money at all. We didn’t go out, we didn’t take weekend trips, we didn’t do anything. There was just no money.  We were involved in the church but even things like youth group took money and so I didn’t attend those weeks.  Our summer vacation consisted of a trip to a used bookstore on Primrose Drive.  They sold a two cubic foot box of books for $1.  There was a bunch of Harlequin Books but there was other cool stuff as well… university textbooks, Instant Replay by Jerry Kramer, The Game by Ken Dryden and The Winds of War by Herman Wouk.  We went three times and our expenditures outside of bills that summer was a total of $3.  That was it.  That was all of the extra money we had.  I find myself looking back it with some nostalgia but it was a horrible summer and a part of a grind that went on and on and on.

NeuragenIt isn’t just one single thing that poverty does, it just grinds you down day by day by day.  My  mother was diabetic and living under that kind of financial stress does not lend itself to eating well.  She started a downward spiral that took her leg and later contributed to her inability to fight the cancer.  Diabetes is called a “disease of poverty” and as a Type II diabetic I understand that now more than I ever did then.  On top of the food that is diabetic friendly (which isn’t cheap), I now spend $100/month to control the nerve pain.  Neuragen and Alpha Lipolic acid aren’t covered by the Saskatchewan Drug Plan (while highly addictive Oxycontin which does nothing for the pain was covered).  Poor quality food, inadequate diabetic care, and enormous stress. I didn’t realize it at the time but in a lot of ways, those years changed all of us for the worse.  We withdrew from our community, our friends, and an edge developed that has probably stuck with me for far too long.  There wasn’t one thing that did it, we just got ground down and that was only a couple of years of it.

We have seen the impact on poverty on an entire region.  One of the most enjoyable things I had the opportunity to do while as the pastor of Lakeland Church in Spiritwood was listening to some of the older members of the church tell their stories of the Great Depression.  Those stories all started light hearted and funny and then turned serious and sombre as the years took their tool and the stories got darker.  Don’t take my word for it, read Pierre Berton’s book, The Great Depression and read the stories yourself.  If you are looking for a current version of it, read this eye opening series called The New Poor in the New York Times.

Frequent contributor to The Star Phoenix, Doug Cuthand wrote this back in 2008 about intergenerational poverty.

Intergenerational poverty leads to despair and this is the root of much of the gang violence and social dysfunction in today’s aboriginal communities.

I would argue that Cuthand is too specific and intergenerational poverty is the cause of social dysfunction in any community but his point is right on.  He goes on to link poverty to the rise of gangs in aboriginal neighbourhoods but he could be speaking of any community.

Gang activity is commonplace among disadvantaged minority groups including Afro-American, Hispanic and aboriginal groups. They are drawn together by a sense of race, protection and shared experience. When the economic and social doors are closed or hard to open, people tend to turn to illegal activity as a quick fix. Couple this with drug and alcohol addiction and you have the recipe for young people to group together in gangs.

Gang life is hard with few real rewards. Recruiters let the uninitiated think that in a gang they will get the iPod, the fancy car and other status symbols. Gang activities include violence, robbery, prostitution and drug dealing. In the end the reality is nothing compared to the dream presented by the gang recruiters.

When gang members reach their late 20s they have no education or work experience, they have rap sheets as long as their arms and they most likely have a drug problem. They are burned out and unemployable.

And those are the lucky ones. Some will be killed and still others will do life for murder or other long stretches for their crimes. The dream of the 15-year-old for power and wealth is gone and it never existed.

All of this starts to explain a bit of what happened to 20th Street and the city core neighbourhoods in general.  I used to enjoy 20th Street.  It was home of to Joe’s Cycle and Walter’s Cycle.  Along with the Mayfair Sporting Goods, they took most of my discretionary income.  It was home to some great restaurants.  For many years The Golden Dragon was the finest restaurant in town (visited by Bill Cosby, Bing Crosby, Dean Martin, John Diefenbaker, Wayne and Shuster, Pierre Trudeau, Gordie Howe and many others).  Many hockey/softball/rugby/football seasons finished up in a banquet room at the Wah Qua restaurant.  20th Street used to have it’s own particular vibe in the same way Broadway does now but things changed.

One of the things that have bothered me as I read The Life and Death of the American City by urban theorist Jane Jacobs is that she speaks of a strong neighbourhood bond is needed to maintain safety and prosperity in a community.  I kept wondered what happened to it in parts of Saskatoon.  The answer is found in bits and pieces in a variety of books I read this summer (at the end of this series I’ll post a reading list if you want to read more) but the short answer is that poverty grinds away those ties that keep a community together, especially when poverty is concentrated. (which I think is at the core of what Pat Lorje is saying and something I’ll spend some time exploring when I post the next post in this series Monday night).

A decade ago there wasn’t the need for the concentration of poverty in Saskatoon.  In 1997, a great apartment I had in a fun part of City Park went for $250 a month.  I was making a little over minimum wage working at Burron Lumber.  The combination of low rent, great location, and a simple lifestyle (bills were food, phone, and $268 car payment) meant that despite making minimum wage, I had money to spend.  I watched every Rider game at Seafood Sam’s with a pacing, anxious, chain smoking Sam himself living and dying with every Saskatchewan Roughriders win and loss, and we used to walk down to a downtown coffee shop named Nervous Harold’s many nights for a iced coffee and a late supper.  By choice I didn’t have a television but I had money to spend to enjoy life around Saskatoon.  I don’t have any vices but I think I could have even afforded to smoke a bit.  Today that very small one room apartment is going for almost $800/month, which is more than my mortgage.  To find an affordable apartment on minimum wage, I can’t live in City Park unless I want to pick up a second job which grinds one down in a different way.  Over the years both Wendy and I have worked two jobs when we have needed to.  What seems sustainable at first slowly grinds you down in different ways and you have that same kind of withdrawal from your community, often from fatigue and exhaustion.  Again back to Doug Cuthand’s comments.

When the economic and social doors are closed or hard to open, people tend to turn to illegal activity as a quick fix.

This was best articulated to me when I was at a Correctional Services of Canada seminar on women’s corrections.  One of the things that was mentioned throughout the day was what many women in poverty will have to do to survive.  It ranges from robbery, prostitution, drug dealing… the illegal activities that we all see in Saskatoon but never really get to what is really causing them.  When caught in poverty, you have to turn somewhere.  I have heard the police talk about prostitutes starting working the street and losing their virginity to johns at 13.  The girls often recruit each other as they see it as a good source of easy money without ever having the chance to realize the cost they are about to pay.  Again, its the pursuit of the iPods, cars, or as I wrote about a couple of years ago, even food.  There is what Cuthand said, an easy turn to the riches that gangs offer up (read the first chapter of Freakonomics to see that most gangs pay very poorly at the bottom of the pyramid).  Or there is a turn to substance abuse… beer, hard liquor, crack, meth, modelling glue, solvents, paint, Lysol, Listerine, methadone, hand sanitizer, you name it, I have seen it abused.  It starts out as an escape and turns into a prison and later a personal version of hell.

This kind of aligns itself with a conversation  I had a with a local politician who said to me that they were surprised at the level of racial anger they have heard lately.  Being married to someone of mixed Guyanese descent (Amerindian, Bihari, British, and Black according to her DNA tests), racism has always both interested and concerns me.  Racism (which is going both ways) seems to be coming out the micro economic future that people are looking at.  It’s their personal economy that doesn’t work.  Income doesn’t cover rent or food which creates a lack of hope.  Soon the the despair sets in, especially when you realize that hard work won’t deliver you out of this and it gives to anger and a need to blame someone else.  You see this in American political and race rhetoric.  How many times did Lou Dobbs say,   “These Mexican illegal’s are taking good American jobs” which ignores the fact that American’s don’t want them and the jobs aren’t very good in the first place.  Is it a coincidence that Roma’s in France are being persecuted during a time of difficult economic times?

During the times that my family was at our poorest and things looked extremely bleak, I never had any doubt that eventually life would turn around and things were going to be better one day if I worked hard.  To use Doug Cuthand’s language, the door was pretty easy to open.  My first apartment was in a prime downtown neighbourhood for $250 and affordable with a minimum wage job.   Your options are limited today if you do not have what many would define as a high paying job or are a one wage earning household.

I have spent hours this week trying to articulate the change in the residents of the shelter over the last four years.  It clicked in today that the difference was that there has been a loss of hope.  The wages haven’t changed but everything else has gotten more expensive and less accessible.  While I have only lived in Saskatoon since 1984, I have been here long enough to see some bad times before the good times hit.  While a large majority of Saskatoon has benefitted from the economic prosperity that has come to Saskatoon.  Not all have.  Of course the question that all cities have is, “what’s the best way to address this?”  I’ll start looking at solutions on Tuesday.

Related: The United States Council of Catholic Bishops put together this video to demonstrate what life is like below the poverty line.

Can I have my dog back?

A couple of years ago I had just become the residential coordinator at the Salvation Army Community Services in Saskatoon and we had this guy sleeping on the front steps of the chapel.  He wouldn’t come inside because he had a dog (it wasn’t a dog but that part will come later) and couldn’t bear to be separated from him.  We tried to come up with a solution.  We called the SPCA (who didn’t return our calls), we called some kennels but this guy would not give up his dog.  The problem was it was cool out at night and he was getting sicker and sicker.  Myself or another staff told him that if he went down to Social Services, we would keep him and the dog in our lounge area.  The dog has no collar, no leash, and had a piece of binder twine for a leash.  The guy told the dog (her name was Cleo) to stay and he wandered off.  Social Services was busy that day and he was gone a couple of hours but the dog never moved.  We checked on her all morning (we didn’t want anyone to take her or the dog catcher to be called) and made sure she had food and water. 

While he was gone, I got an excited phone call from the Social Services worker he saw he was both elated and surprised that we were going to keep the dog and at the same time was trying to come up with a way to see if she could pay for dog food.  We had a donation of dog food come in from Safeway so it wasn’t a problem.  The client was happy, Social Services was thrilled, and the staff was all excited.  Well most of the staff.  I wasn’t sure if there was a policy prohibiting dogs from staying at the shelter but I was sure I was breaking at least one rule.

The client came back and by that time my phone was ringing off the hook from other agencies who had heard we were taking this client and Cleo in to the Centre and wanted to help out.  Over the next couple of hours Cleo had a proper collar and leash compliments of Wendy, a pink bandana, dog food dishes, grooming supplies, and multiple beds that came from the cushions of a wrecked couch that had been dumped in our parking lot.  Cleo was quite an attraction and there was a literal lineup outside the door of the lounge as people came in to see and pet Cleo.  We have a television set in the lounge and it wasn’t turned on that evening.  Why would you?  There was a dog to pet.

I mentioned that it wasn’t a dog earlier… it was actually part coyote.  This became relevant when I was being lectured by a co-worker about me letting dogs into the Centre and I replied, “It isn’t a dog, it’s part coyote.”  That didn’t defuse the argument but in the end no one cared as it was a toothless coyote. 

The toothless part was a bit of a problem as the dry dog food that we had wasn’t going to work so the kitchen was making special meals for her.  That stopped when some social workers who had found out that our dog wasn’t just a dog but part toothless coyote came by with a couple different soft dog food meal options.  Later that day a vet phoned to offer his services if needed because he had heard through the grapevine that we had a dogote prowling the grounds.   Another agency had a new bike and a baby carrier for him that with a little work became this…

Walking the coyote outside the Salvation Army in Saskatoon

In hindsight, it was the least productive yet most enjoyable couple of weeks we had at the shelter.  I was amazed at how attached even the staff got to the dog.  It isn’t something that we have the ability to do but it is something that we have done from time to time over the years with the occasional dog and cat.  The video is pretty raw and while I don’t agree with his economic views, I can feel empathy for his pain of giving up someone that means so much to him.