How $1,500 cash in an envelope made a difference [broken welfare system]

Posted on January 5, 2010 in Health Debates – News/GTA – How $1,500 cash in an envelope made a difference
Published On Tue Jan 05 2010.   By Catherine Porter Columnist

It’s negative 15, the Prime Minister prorogued Parliament in the midst of pesky questions about tortured Afghans and 76-year-old Norman Hemminger’s heart was shutting down as he lay on the cold concrete one recent morning while all the world just walked by on Jones Ave. … The prospects of 2010 seem grim.

Don’t despair. I have a story for you. Something to cast hope on the future of this cold-hearted place. Consider it a New Year’s gift.

It started on Christmas Eve with an email from one Ms. Hughes. It being Christmas Eve, I was half through a bottle of Prosecco, surrounded by laughing family and crying babies. Email was not top of mind. I opened it a few days later. It said: “A friend of mine dropped off an envelope with ($1500) cash in it for Linda Chamberlain c/o you at the Toronto Star yesterday. Did you receive it?”

I wrote about Chamberlain last month. She’s a 60-year-old woman who, after years of living on the street, landed her dream job at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Healthward: helping people on the very ward where she once spent years as a patient, convinced the FBI was out to get her. She’s so good at her job, she won a staff award of excellence in November.

Instead of getting her further ahead, her part-time job is putting Chamberlain in debt. She is proof of how our welfare system is broken. To note: When she wasn’t working, Chamberlain received $1,020 every month from the government and paid $109 to live in supportive housing. This summer, working 2 1/2 days a week, her Ontario Disability Support Program cheque plummeted to $183 and her rent – pegged to her income – soared to $623.

Intimidating legal letters keep arriving. Canadian Tire is threatening legal action. She owes $4,500 to Visa — also for paying bills through credit. Her housing notified her she will face a tribunal unless she pays the $600 in arrears. She worried Hydro would cut her off.

Her solution? To cut her hours, so her salary would drop and her rent along with it, even though she loves her job passionately — and is sure it’s the reason she no longer needs her medication for schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

“Work is healthy,” she says. “To take that away from people, you are keeping them depressed.”

I think Chamberlain should be working more, not less. So does David, this friend of Ms. Hughes, clearly.

But I wasn’t sure. I get a lot of emails. If I believed every one – like, say, a short note from Doug titled “kiss my ass” informing me I am a “mentally unstable freakin’ slut” – I would be a miserable woman. Who goes to the bank, takes out $1,500 and sends it to a total stranger?

I woke up in a cold sweat a couple days later. Maybe Ms. Hughes wasn’t crazy. I called my office. There was an envelope in my mailbox, a secretary told me. Open it please, I asked. She gasped.

I rushed to work. There, on my desk, was an envelope for Chamberlain. Inside that envelope was a Christmas card. Inside that Christmas card were 15 crisp $100 bills.

I drove directly to Chamberlain’s apartment.

“Oh my God,” she said, opening the card. “How much is it?” She doubled over in her chair. “It looks like Monopoly money. Is it real?”

Composed, she said: “Oh, this is good. To have someone who doesn’t even know me do this, it’s hard to believe. I can get my dreams back. I can get back on my feet.”

She picked up the smallest of nine cats in her apartment and started to make plans.

Of the many things I haven’t told you about Linda Chamberlain, here are two that make this story even more special. Two years ago, Chamberlain started a service fostering cats of people with mental illness while they go into hospital. She’ll tell you that when she was living on the street, her lifeline was her cat, Giorgio. “We lived together,” she says. “Neither of us had any teeth.”

She knows what it’s like to be hospitalized and lose your pet. The prospect, she thinks, dissuades many people from getting help.

Since she started the program two years ago, she has housed – together with a handful of fellow volunteers – 2,036 cats and five dogs. A Christmas card from one cat owner says: “Linda, you are someone I will always think of.”

The second thing: On New Year’s Day, Chamberlain organized a special lunch for some of her neighbours and a man up the road who eats just once a day. She cooked a ham and made devilled eggs. She didn’t have a tablecloth, so she spread two garbage bags on a table in the building’s common room, where she runs a food bank.

“It was really nice,” she says.

Chamberlain is a good person. Sometimes good things happen to good people.

On Monday, Chamberlain deposited the money into her bank account. She paid off her rent arrears, sent $400 to Canadian Tire and $500 to Visa. The same morning, a worker at Woodgreen agreed to pay $450 of her hydro bill as part of the community service centre’s “Winter Warmth” program.

In his card, David says the money is also from his two sisters. They lost a brother to schizophrenia. “You are amazing! Keep on going,” it says. “We hope this small token will make life a little easier.”

And it has.

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