Forum focuses on faces of poverty

Community Foundation highlights the role poverty plays in Penticton

Barb Haynes

Barb Haynes

A single mom working a part-time job charged with shoplifting to put food in front of her two kids and a parent with three children trying to live off $1,000 a month.

These are just some of the faces of poverty in Penticton that were highlighted at a forum held at the Shatford Centre on Tuesday by the Community Foundation. The forum was held to search for solutions to close the gap between the rich and the poor, a category that surveyed residents gave a D grade in the Community Foundation’s Vital Signs report published last year.

Bernadette Otto from the Penticton and Area Women’s Centre told the crowd of about 50 people at the forum about a man who recently turned 65 that came into her office. He was once a proud farmer, landowner, parent and partner, but now is living out of his van.

“Living on $80 a month for the past couple of years with the help of some friends and family. His first old age pension cheque was to come in. Tears welled in his eyes when he tells his story of how he wants to help his family, not be a burden for them,” said Otto.

The man was seeking help and wondering why his cheque hadn’t come in, worried he was going to be denied his pension funds.

“We smiled and laughed and (cried) together looking for solutions. Then he came back to give me a hug, the cheque came and he wanted me to know he would be OK,” said Otto.

The mom living off $1,000 a month with her three children needed assistance to complete the forms that would designate her as disabled.

“She told me her independence was very important for her. She needed to believe she was strong and capable so her children could understand no matter what happens in life you can make decisions not to be a victim — her words not mine,” said Otto.

Otto said over 30 men and women came to get toiletry supplies from their free shelf this past week. She said many of these people feel the system is against them because they have spent much of their lives battling to get what they need just to survive. Still, she sees those just struggling to get by often drop items off to the free shelf to help others.

“Though some seem a bit more battered and bruised, they all seem like me and like you. They have strengths and desires, funny stories as well as sad stories. And given a chance, they are likely to help someone else,” said Otto.

The stories were heart-wrenching, even bringing some at the forum to tears. But Otto wasn’t the only one to see the face of poverty in Penticton, panelists from the Downtown Penticton Association, Penticton and District Community Resources Society and Salvation Army also had their stories.

Christine Simmons, director of community and family services for the Salvation Army in Penticton, said the face of poverty doesn’t discriminate. She has seen people that work two jobs, seniors and others who feel they have failed or disappointed their families, reaching out for food. In fact, she herself once needed the service.

“I too can relate to these people. Some years ago, when my husband and I were first married, we had two young children, and when we were able to buy groceries it meant we could splurge and have hotdogs for supper. The rest of the time we ate bread and mostly oatmeal,” said Simmons. “What I have learned over the past 17 years is that poverty is no respecter of persons. It is not picky, it chooses at will and it affects us all.”

The Community Foundation held the forum to get ideas from the public on what changes the community can put into place to affect positive change. Barb Haynes of the Downtown Penticton Association said a recent report on poverty in B.C. showed it costs $2,100 for every man woman and child in the province each year. The Vital Signs report showed that an average family of four needed $14.44 per adult a day to survive in Penticton.

Gloria Talbot told the crowd she is a single grandmother who has been homeless for two years and often struggles to even find bus fare to get to the Salvation Army or any of the community services. She suggested that there should be a hotline for people looking for assistance to call. Talbot also commended a book called the Penticton Street Survival Guide published by the Downtown Penticton Association. It includes important numbers to community services for those in need.

“Often people get so disheartened, they don’t know who to phone. This book saves lives. These people up here save lives everyday,” said Talbot, motioning to the panelists.

The Community Foundation plans on setting up a Facebook page to continue the discussion. They also will be hosting another forum  on housing, which received a D- grade in the Vital Signs report, on Sept. 11. The public is invited to share their ideas at the forums, on Facebook or via the foundation website www.cfso.net.