Lisa Britton turns anger into poverty advocacy

Posted on in Debates

StCatharinesStandard.ca – News/Local/CLOSEUP
August 28, 2015.   By Cheryl Clock

In simple terms, survival is a matter of math.

If she works 24 hours a week or more, she and her husband can make ends meet.

Less than 24, and they can’t.

But then there comes a point when it’s beyond frustrating, futile even, to look for hope in numbers. When the numbers are so desperate, they can’t be stretched to fit the uncompromising, rigid realities of life.

Like when 48-year-old Lisa Britton, a wife, mother and grandmother in St. Catharines, had her hours cut to eight a week, working the night shift at the 24-hour gas station.

Eight hours.

Every week.

“We need to have some part-time jobs that have some damn guarantees,” she says, heaving a sigh one day a few weeks back during one of many conversations about poverty over the span of a year.

Lisa has been a part of The Standard’s Faces of Poverty of Series since the beginning; she has been a panellist in each of our two live-streamed community discussions. And when we first asked the community to share their thoughts and experiences with poverty more than a year ago, Lisa was one of the first to write:

I’ve felt as though I don’t have a voice for many years, because I’m poor. There’s still a lot of stigma attached to being poor. That needs to change. I’m angry, I want to see change and I want to speak out. Poor people have been ignored and marginalized for too long. My income doesn’t determine my worth as a human being.

When we video recorded a series of interviews with people who have lived in poverty — asking the question: What is poverty? — there came a point when Lisa broke down in quiet, stifled tears. Her bottom lip curls upwards and she releases a breath. “Sorry,” she manages.

“That’s OK. What upsets you?”

“Family is everything,” says Lisa, in the video clip.

She pauses again, then continues: “And I feel like I fail my family.”

“Why?”

Her final three words have the weight of an inescapable truth behind them: “Because I’m poor,” she says.

Back then, she was working 36 hours a week. Now, it’s eight with a top-up from Ontario Works. Her husband, Mark, is also on OW.

“I work because I want to eat,” she says, firm in a staunch matter-of-factness. “For us, this is rock bottom.

“We are now deep into poverty.

“And I’m mad as hell.” But nothing, least of all life, or poverty, of life in poverty, is ever as simple as math.

It’s never only about the numbers.

The true story of poverty is about the human experience. The life under the weight of those numbers.

In one of Lisa’s many journal entries, a form of therapy and self-discovery, she writes:

• • •

Nov. 10, 2014:

Living in poverty is like living on the edge of a cliff. It’s an unstable, unforgiving existence. The cliff can suddenly erode, leaving me with less support for my anxious, meager existence.

Sometimes there’s a landslide. So many things I don’t control.

• • •

And yet, in the last year, Lisa has been in control of a new destiny: advocacy.

She has turned her anger, into activism.

Lisa has joined committees of the Niagara Poverty Reduction Network, a community-based organization with the vision of all Niagara residents living above the poverty line. She’s met with NDP Leader Andrea Horwath in Hamilton to discuss poverty issues with NPRN colleagues. She is promoting the Put Food in the Budget campaign to raise social assistance rates and minimum wage to levels that lift people above the poverty line. The movement advocates for an automatic $100 monthly increase to people on assistance to address food security.

Lisa is part of a workers’ rights group, Road to Empowerment. She supports the $15 and Fairness movement to increase minimum wage to $15 and provide benefits to part-time employees.

The government needs to increase social assistance rates to reflect the cost realities of food and rent, she says.

And then there’s the issue of stigma.

“Individual failings aren’t the cause of poverty,” she says.

“It’s systemic.

“We have a system of government benefits that don’t provide enough money for people to actually survive, let alone have enough dignity.” Indeed, it’s been said that poverty isn’t only about money, but it’s always about money.

And the way out of poverty isn’t as simple as having a job.

• • •

March 21, 2015:

I’m stuck working meaningless, low paying, precarious, part-time jobs. I worry a lot about having enough for us to eat at home. I’m only working one shift a week. We’re at rock bottom right now. I hate it and it makes me angry.

I’m able to do so much more. I’m fighting, but it could take a long time.

People think curing poverty just takes people getting jobs. Jobs without any guarantees don’t do the job. They just keep me oppressed, desperate and uncertain.

• • •

Lisa has always had a job. In fact, there was a time when she managed a full-time job at a call centre, and a part-time retail job. Before Mark, she was a single mom to two young children. Working full time was good.

“It felt good,” she says. “We were independent. We were taking care of our own needs. It meant independence. It meant dignity. It meant healthy kids and healthy parents.”

But mostly, her resume is a string of part-time positions, all without benefits. It’s left her feeling disposable. Throw-away. In fact, Lisa worked part-time for 15 years at one retailer, never guaranteed hours but always making herself available should someone call in sick, waiting, waiting for her chance at full-time employment that never came.

She lives with pain from arthritis and is in the process of applying to the Ontario Disability Support Program. And she is back to visiting food banks.

• • •

Dec. 27, 2014:

I’m the boulder in the riverbed, worn down over the years by the moving water. Pain, slowly getting more intense, seldom lessening, has just as relentlessly pushed us into poverty. We’re trapped there now.

• • •

“It was a slow erosion of dignity,” she says.

“There’s nothing available to help people when you start to slip.” “It teaches you that you’re helpless and that our social safety net is full of holes.” And yet, she has found a voice.

“I want people to know there’s a community.

“Poverty is such an isolating place to live. But there’s such a community out there. I have a voice and I’m using it. We need more people to come on board and work with us.

“People don’t have to be alone.”

• • •

Dec. 13, 2014:

It shouldn’t be this way. I’m not ashamed of being poor any longer. Being poor I often feel abandoned, swept aside like I don’t matter, like the government and people have turned their backs.

It feels like I’m just left to struggle, to scratch out a living. Why is that OK?

I’m human, I have value.

Give me a chance. Give me tools. I’ll show you what I can do.

cheryl.clock@sunmedia.ca

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