Poverty a blight on the season

TheStar.com – Opinion – Poverty a blight on the season: At Christmastime, the pressure mounts for those who spend every day just trying to survive
December 24, 2008. Michael Creek

By most standards, I am not a rich man.

In 1993, I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. After a long battle to rid my body of this cancer, I found myself in a very new place – my illness, which I survived, had dealt me a cruel blow. Told that I would never work again, I started down the road to poverty.

I remained in poverty for the next 14 years, and I can honestly tell you that poverty has caused me more physical harm and emotional damage than any physical illness could have.

My first Christmas living in poverty was tolerable. I received gifts and cards, and I continued to attend all of the festive dinners and parties. Though I could barely afford it, I managed to hide the reality of my circumstances and celebrated with my family and friends. However, with each passing Christmas came the almost unbearable pressure to enjoy this special time, while simultaneously hiding the truth about how I was really living.

I spent 14 years trying to survive in the face of impossible choices. Do I buy myself second-hand clothes to replace the ones that have been laundered so many times they are threadbare? Or do I buy a pair of winter boots to make the long walk to see my doctor easier? Do I cut off my telephone, which at times serves as a lifeline to the outside world? Or do I choose to forgo the cost of public transit and walk long distances on legs still healing from the ravages of my physical illness?

In time, these choices start to consume you, and even Christmas becomes just another impossible choice. Do I spend my grocery money on gifts for those I love? Or do I find an excuse to avoid the season all together and spend the holidays alone inside my tiny apartment?

You really have no connection to the rest of society; you become a non-person, silenced by the stigmatization of being poor. I remember the pain of visiting the food bank, lining up shaking and sweating from the physical pain of standing with no place to sit, afraid to lose my spot in line. This is the reality for far too many who suffer from diabetes, cancer, HIV/AIDS and MS. When you are ill or dying you need special care when it comes to diet and nutrition. Even today the system denies this basic need to thousands.

Thinking back to my childhood, Christmas was always a magical and joyous time in my house, despite the fact that my family struggled with poverty. My mom, who was raising five children, never allowed us to feel the sting of poverty.

I remember waking up on Christmas morning long before sunrise and tiptoeing down the hall into the living room. I would check my stocking, first feeling the heft of it, knowing that it was filled with fruit and candy and other goodies. I would then check the presents under the tree to make sure that I was not forgotten – of course, I never was. I would then sit cross-legged in front of our Christmas tree and look over everything – how the tinsel hung from the branches and how unique all of the decorations were. I always felt so lucky and so special just to be there.

It seems to me that these days children who live in poverty are made all too aware that they are different. Just as our social safety net has weakened, so too has our sense of community, leaving families alone and scrambling to make ends meet every holiday season. And while we still come together during the season, it seems more and more emphasis has been placed on ensuring that we give and receive the newest gadget or the coolest toy. You can almost feel the pressure mounting for those who spend every day just trying to figure out how to survive.

Again this Christmas, armies of citizens will deliver gifts and food to many who are in need this holiday season. And in this spirit of giving, many souls will be soothed. And yet, there will be thousands of others, our mothers and our daughters and our neighbours and our friends, who will gather for a Christmas meal in a church basement or a drop-in centre or a hall. Strangers with their heads bowed not only in reverence but also with the unrelenting burden of poverty.

Christmas this year holds some hope for those who live in poverty. The Ontario government, in keeping with its promise, has brought forward a five-year poverty reduction strategy. It has made a commitment to reduce child poverty by 25 per cent, and it has promised major investments in child care, youth programs and employment.

It will be critical for all of us to make sure this commitment is kept over the next five years. We will also need to fight to ensure that no one, regardless of their age, status or circumstance, is left behind. The silent misery that accompanies poverty is a fate that belongs to no one.

Recently, a dear friend of mine mentioned that maybe everything you could say about poverty had already been said. And up until a few days ago I thought that maybe she was right. But during one of those nights when physical pain prevented me from sleeping, I realized that as long as even one person remained in poverty there would always be something new to say.

Poverty causes hardship and pain that many of us suffer with, but poverty is different in how and what it does to each of us as individuals and as communities.

I know that this sounds Dickens-like, but the chains that are rattled in A Christmas Carol are the chains of poverty, and as long as children, women and men remain shackled and enslaved by poverty, I will not enjoy the happiness that is meant to surround the Christmas season. The 14 years I spent living in poverty were years that I also spent without hope. I thought that hope was a concept wasted on those who really didn’t need it.

I have spent the past few years organizing for real change in my community, and the courage and spirit of those I have encountered has inspired me to believe once again. I believe in the hope that change is possible. To believe that, with hard work and perseverance, a better world is possible.

A better world. Is that too much to ask for this holiday season?

Michael Creek is the co-ordinator of Voices From the Street, a grassroots organization that empowers people who have been marginalized to speak out about poverty issues.

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