Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Chronicling a life of poverty

Woman's story highlights state of Winnipeg's inner city

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Claudette is so poor she knows to the penny how much a brick of margarine costs at different stores in the North End.

And the 45-year-old woman also knows when she doesn't have enough of those pennies to buy one for $1.25.

"I was walking down the street (on Tuesday) trying to panhandle for a pound of margarine," she said Wednesday.

"Of course, I didn't get it. Nobody I asked had $1.25. But today I got lucky -- I've got a free lunch."

That free lunch came courtesy of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, which released its fifth annual State of the Inner City report at Thunderbird House.

The CCPA report maintains some of the news is good: The percentage of households in the inner city living in poverty has decreased from 48.25 per cent in 1996, to 29.60 per cent in 2006. The non-inner-city rate is 20.20 per cent.

But the CCPA also says some of the news is not good: The percentage of aboriginal people living in poverty compared to the non-aboriginal population in the inner city didn't change over the same 10-year period, with aboriginal poverty 2.27 times greater than non-aboriginal.

But to put a face to inner-city poverty, the CCPA gave journals to seven people on social assistance to chronicle their daily experiences over a four-month period.

Claudette -- not her real name -- was one of them, and that's why she was eating the free sandwiches and preparing to pack some for later.

She was born on a northern reserve and came to Winnipeg when she was 13, pregnant with her first child. The parents she left behind were alcoholics and her father was verbally abusive, leading her to have emotional breakdowns.

At 23, Claudette married and had a second child. But both she and her husband are totally dependent on social assistance and disability assistance because neither can work.

When Claudette is able to scrape together a few extra dollars, she wrote in her journal that she plays bingo to try to get more money to pay for what welfare does not and with the dream of getting ahead.

"I won $30 last night -- that's how I got my tea bags, wieners and buns and mustard. These things are extras I can't afford on (her husband's) and my welfare. Things other people take for granted. I haven't had a cup of tea in two months! You won't believe how good that tea tasted!"

Claudette said about three weeks ago she put together $10 and went out shopping for lard, milk, soup and meat.

"I went to (a store) and paid $1.99 for one litre of milk instead of $2.29 at my usual store," she said.

"But the no-name lard was $2.69. I almost fainted because for a no-name brand I didn't want to pay close to $3. So I walked out and went all the way to Powers and Selkirk where it was $2.39. That's a lot cheaper than $2.69.

"Then I went to another store searching for tomato soup because I got a cabbage from (Winnipeg) Harvest and they said Campbell's tomato soup was 99 cents, but no name was 66 cents a can. I grabbed three of them.

"Then they said bacon was on sale for $2.50... I grabbed it.

"I got all the way home and I got everything I wanted for $8. But I had to walk a lot and it was cold."

Jim Silver, a politics professor at the University of Winnipeg and a founder of the CCPA, said the focusing of attention and provincial dollars is seeing results at the Lord Selkirk Park public housing complex.

Silver said since 2005, when the CCPA saw little that was positive there, there is now a resource centre providing a drop-in service, an adult learning centre, an adult literacy program, and soon a child-care centre providing 47 spaces, 16 of them for infants.

"What this shows is it is possible to make significant change in even the most difficult neighbourhoods."


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 10, 2009 B1

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