If the single mother was barely making ends meet then — paying rent of $2,500 a month — what has happened since is crushing her.
It’s just as well there is a box of tissues handy in the small meeting room at the back of the Surrey school district’s headquarters because sometimes stoicism can only last so long.
For half-an-hour the mother, whose name is being withheld, quietly described the unbearable weight of trying to house, feed and care for seven children that for lamentation would rival the Old Testament Book of Job.
Then she breaks and the tears come.
“I just don’t know how I’m going to pay my bills. It’s too much for me.”
She is a single mother, a refugee from central Africa whose children range in age from 26 to five years old, and helping tell her story is Jon Ross, a supervisor with the school district’s Safe Schools Wraparound Program.
Her eldest son died from a drug overdose three years ago. His 18-year-old brother is recovering from being stabbed six weeks ago in a case of mistaken identity and is slowly recovering but can’t yet work.
Her eight-year-old son has Down syndrome, her five-year-old is autistic, and she is receiving a monthly disability pension of $2,000 for post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.
Many families living in poverty have found the unprecedented increase in living costs is leaving them with little money for food after paying rent.
And this is what that looks like.
A year ago the family had to move because the house they were living in leaked rain through the roof and the damp and mould affected her youngest child’s breathing.
If she was barely making ends meet then — paying rent of $2,500 a month — what has happened since is crushing her.
“It was difficult. I had to find a new house, we couldn’t live there,” she says.
She did and the landlord had her sign a two-year lease at $3,500 a month (cash no cheques) plus pay all the utilities, which are about $1,100 a month. Then he moved two families into the basement and still insisted she pay all the utilities.
“He took advantage of her,” says Ross. “She didn’t understand the implications of the lease.”
He refuses to give her a key to the house so the door is unlocked night and day and the heating broke down two months ago with no sign of it being repaired, something which led to Ross — using money from The Vancouver Sun Children’s Fund — buying them space-heaters.
“It’s so cold there,” she says.
The mother works as a cleaner at BCIT in Burnaby four days a week, her shift is from 4 p.m. to midnight and, if she works a full month, she earns $1,800 before deductions.
But that seldom happens because her son with Down syndrome often requires her to stay home to care for him. Sometimes she only works two days a week.
Even if she worked a full month, that, plus the $2,000, plus $280 from the federal child tax credit, plus the $500 a month she receives from a daughter who is working leaves them with next to nothing to live on after paying rent.
This month she’s behind on the utility payment.
“It’s 80 per cent of her entire income. When she pays rent there’s nothing at the end of the day for food or clothes,” says Ross. “Everyone in the family is trying to do what they can right now with whatever little control they have over their lives. And we are trying to give what they need to keep everyone healthy and safe.”
The Wraparound program helps the most at-risk and vulnerable children in the school district. But the program has no budget for helping families when they’re in need and is asking The Vancouver Sun’s Adopt-A-School campaign for $25,000 so they can assist them with food, clothing and basic necessities.
“She needs to find another place to live but look at the cost of rent — $4,000, $5,000 a month. And there’s a lot of competition from people with a lot more money than she has,” said Ross. “This is a family that needs a lot of help.”
By Gerry Bellett (email@example.com)