Poverty fo­rum

Mu­nic­i­pal poverty fo­rum be­gins ‘un­com­fort­able’ com­mu­nity dis­cus­sion

The Amherst News - - FRONT PAGE - BY DAR­RELL COLE AMHERST NEWS dar­rell.cole@amher­st­news.ca. Twit­ter: @ADN­dar­rell

Amherst is tak­ing a stand against poverty in the com­mu­nity.

The sto­ries are heart-wrench­ing, but they paint a pic­ture of a com­mu­nity strug­gling with poverty.

“I am at the age where I feel I have lived my life and I do not wish to strug­gle any­more. There are days when I just lay in bed and beg God to end it. I do not want to live like this any­more,” says a first-per­son ac­count read dur­ing Amherst’s mu­nic­i­pal poverty fo­rum on March 22. “I don’t have the strength to fight. I can­not work like I did in the past and I have such low self-es­teem I wouldn’t even hire me. I have rot­ten teeth, I am over­weight, I wear sec­ond hand clothes which are not that nice when you are over­weight.

“Peo­ple need to un­der­stand that there is no easy an­swer or so­lu­tion. I have no idea what my fu­ture will hold, but I know the strug­gle needs to stop. Life should not be about strug­gling ev­ery sin­gle day just to sur­vive. I hope you hear this and un­der­stand I am just one per­son; there are so many oth­ers in sit­u­a­tions like mine.”

This was just one of sev­eral ac­counts of peo­ple liv­ing un­der the poverty line that was de­liv­ered dur­ing the fo­rum that fea­tured pre­sen­ta­tions by so­cial ac­tivist and con­sul­tant Robert Wright and Chris­tine Saulnier from the Cana­dian Cen­tre for Pol­icy Al­ter­na­tives.

The ses­sion brought a group of peo­ple to­gether at the Com­mu­nity Credit Union Busi­ness In­no­va­tion Cen­tre to come with some ideas how Amherst, as a mu­nic­i­pal gov­ern­ment, can be­gin fight­ing back and chang­ing the lives of those strug­gling ev­ery day to keep their heads above wa­ter.

“I was very en­cour­aged by the turnout and a great, but dif­fi­cult, dis­cus­sion about poverty in our com­mu­nity,” Amherst Deputy Mayor Sheila Christie said. “We’re in the mid­dle of com­pil­ing the re­sults that will come be­fore coun­cil and we will see what we can do and what’s tan­gi­ble lo­cally from a com­mu­nity-based and mu­nic­i­pally-based point of view.”

The fo­rum was the first time Amherst has ever at­tempted to hold a fo­rum to talk about its most vul­ner­a­ble. Christie said as pol­icy mak­ers, coun­cil has an obli­ga­tion to look at all seg­ments of the com­mu­nity from the most af­flu­ent to the less for­tu­nate.

“Some­times as a mu­nic­i­pal­ity we have to step in and see what we can change,” she said. “We have to look for ways to makes bet­ter for all our cit­i­zens.”

Christie said she wasn’t shocked by the stats show­ing a high per­cent­age of poverty in the com­mu­nity, but she feels it was shock­ing to some of those who were in­vited to par­tic­i­pate in the five-hour ses­sion.

“It’s im­por­tant for com­mu­ni­ties like ours to take this se­ri­ously,” she said.

The event was co-hosted by the SOAR Com­mu­nity Health Board and its chair­man Bill Schur­man, who is also Amherst’s recre­ation di­rec­tor, said he was pleased with the feed­back that was re­ceived.

“We look for­ward to a sum­mary of what was learned and what was said. Hope­fully it will lead to some more un­com­fort­able con­ver­sa­tions com­mu­nity side,” Schur­man said. “The fact that we’re at such a high per­cent­age shows we have some work to do.”

Schur­man said very few com­mu­ni­ties of Amherst’s side have looked at poverty from a pol­icy per­spec­tive. He said the so­lu­tion is not as easy as sim­ply throw­ing more money at the prob­lem. Town coun­cil has a role to play by look­ing at its poli­cies to make life eas­ier for those at or be­low the poverty line.

“It’s en­cour­ag­ing to get a start,” Schur­man said. “The fact it was a bad weather day and 50 peo­ple still came shows there’s def­i­nitely in­ter­est in the com­mu­nity to con­tinue this dis­cus­sion.”

Dur­ing the fo­rum, Wright said there’s much Amherst can do to show poverty is not wel­come.

He said if poor peo­ple live in the com­mu­nity, the com­mu­nity is poor.

“This jour­ney you are tak­ing on is go­ing to chal­lenge you be­cause it will re­quire that you think dif­fer­ently, be­lieve dif­fer­ently and that you do dif­fer­ently,” Wright said. “It will chal­lenge your cur­rent be­liefs and prac­tices. You will know you are on the right path when you be­gin to have very un­com­fort­able con­ver­sa­tions. If you are not hav­ing un­com­fort­able con­ver­sa­tions you are on the wrong path.”

Wright called on those at the fo­rum to evict poverty. If Amherst wants to be a com­mu­nity where poverty is not wel­come, Wright said, it can start by stat­ing that and go­ing through what­ever process as a coun­cil and a com­mu­nity to clearly ar­tic­u­late that goal.

Saulnier said any dis­cus­sion on poverty has to look at the com­mu­nity as a whole, in­clud­ing the most vul­ner­a­ble such as sin­gle moth­ers with chil­dren un­der five, vis­i­ble mi­nori­ties and those fac­ing phys­i­cal chal­lenges and bar­ri­ers to en­ter­ing the work­force.

She said there is also a large per­cent­age of what would be called the work­ing poor, peo­ple work­ing in part-time min­i­mum wage jobs.

‘We need to stop judg­ing and re­al­ize there’s no us and them. Help peo­ple, that makes such a dif­fer­ence in peo­ple’s lives,” she said. “We need to take the ap­proach of of­fer­ing a ride to that sin­gle mother and child walk­ing down the road in bad weather. Don’t look at it as an in­con­ve­nience. Take a mo­ment and treat peo­ple with re­spect.”


Chris­tine Saulnier from the Cana­dian Cen­tre for Pol­icy Al­ter­na­tives speaks to Amherst’s mu­nic­i­pal pol­icy fo­rum on March 22.

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