It would be an exaggeration to say Shauna Milne and her two sons are living in Surrey.
Existing would be nearer the truth.
Sitting in the principal’s office of Holly Elementary, the single mom explains with admirable stoicism the difference between living and living in poverty.
“Do we have enough to eat? No. My kids don’t often miss meals, but me? Three times a week — sometimes more. I won’t eat, so they can. I have to feed them first,” she says.
For Milne, having a life would mean freedom from hunger, money to buy clothes, going out occasionally together to see a movie, being able to buy her boys birthday and Christmas presents, being able to afford the bus, having internet, cable TV, not being terrified by an unexpected expense like the $300 she needed this year to have a tooth extracted.
But none of this is possible when you are living so far below the poverty line that an existence without hunger and privation must seem like a dream.
Statistics Canada sets the poverty level for a three person family at $38,335 a year.
So how far away from the threshold between poverty and sufficiency is she?
Milne lost her job two years ago when her health began to fail and she now receives $1096 a month in income assistance. Her rent is $1093. For now.
“It’s going to go up in April. I’m not looking forward to that.”
Federal child tax benefits bring in $913 a month and she gets $75 “from my ex.”
Sum total: $2084 a month or $25,008 a year. So it would take an unimaginable, for her, $1,100 a month extra to move her into the upper echelons of poverty.
Asked how she manages, she says: “I don’t.”
“I struggle every month. I can go for a (provincial) crisis grant ($120 limited to six times a year) and when the weather’s good I can walk to the food bank.”
But that takes 90 minutes there and back and with her health problems it’s a physical struggle she’s losing.
“It’s getting too hard to do that.”
Can’t she take the bus?
“No we can’t afford that. I have to save the bus for emergencies like getting the boys to the doctor.”
Her fixed medical costs for the family also takes out a substantial part of her budget.
When she runs out of money and food, Milne falls back on principal Andrew Shook.
“He gives me gift cards to Walmart so I can buy food, sometimes clothes. I make it stretch as far as I can. … Without this help we’d be really hungry and sick.”
However, Shook is only able to give out those gift cards because The Vancouver Sun’s Adopt-A-School campaign provides the school with the money to buy them.
“Having those funds allows us to help families. We see the benefits with the kids getting the food they need. The parents make the decision what to buy it could be food or it could be shoes because we see some kids with their shoes falling apart,” said Shook.
Milne says it’s hard to keep her children properly clothed and they often have to make do with hand-me-downs.
This year, the school is asking for $3,500 to help families, like Milne’s, when they have nowhere else to turn.
Adopt-A-School also provides the money for a breakfast program at Holly Elementary — a program that feeds Milne’s 12-year-old son each day. That’s a lifesaver, too, she said.
“We couldn’t do without the meals the boys get at school. It’s a big help and saves me money.”
Last year, The Vancouver Sun’s Adopt-A-School campaign distributed $437,275 to dozens of Surrey schools to feed, clothe and care for children and families in need. It provides breakfast for more than 1,000 children a day in a multitude of schools.
Milne — although she regularly misses meals — can’t let hunger take too much of a hold.
“I’m diabetic and if I don’t eat at all, I’ll end up in hospital and then what would my kids do?”
Given what she is attempting to live on, there is no room for extras such as going to the movies or out to dinner. With no cable TV or internet, she will occasionally buy a movie to watch with the boys at home.
“They can handle not having enough food and clothes, but what they really miss is us not being able to go out as a family.”
And the long winter and summer holidays are particularly hard on them as school is closed, so she loses access to much of the food her children need during the day.
“And it’s a bit of a curse having a kid with a birthday in summer. How do I tell him he can’t have a gift because I need the money for food?”
By Gerry Bellett (firstname.lastname@example.org)