Municipal poverty forum begins ‘uncomfortable’ community discussion
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.