Living on $18 a week leaves welfare challenge participants intellectually drained and emotionally exhausted

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      It’s difficult to describe the toll that hunger takes on a person, Mary Clare Zak told the Straight.

      The City of Vancouver’s managing director of social policy and projects recounted the changes she felt while taking part in the annual Welfare Food Challenge, where participants are only allowed to spend $18 on food for an entire week.

      “My train of thought started to break down,” she said in a telephone interview. “There was a difference in emotions, for sure. I think they were stronger than they would have been normally.”

      At that moment, Zak began to cry.

      She continued the interview, attempting to explain how the experience affected how she thinks about programs and public policies for people living in poverty.

      “In my role, you intellectualize it,” Zak said, audibly holding back tears. “You know the data, you know the stats, you see people who are struggling with it every day. But until you’ve walked in their shoes even for this little bit, it’s hard to relate to. It drove home the cruelty of the system.”

      The 2016 Welfare Food Challenge ran from October 16 to 23. The organization behind it is Raise the Rates B.C., which calculated the figure of $18 per week for food from the province’s social-assistance rate of $610 per month for an employable single person. Under the B.C. Liberals, that’s where the province’s welfare rate has remained frozen since 2007.

      From $610, it is estimated that a “realistic” rent for a single-room occupancy hotel in the Downtown Eastside costs $479. Raise the Rates B.C. then subtracted $20 for a damage deposit, $25 for a cellphone plan, and $10 for hygiene. What’s left for food is $76 per month, or $18 per week.

      A colleague of Zak’s who also took part this year was Andrea Reimer, a city councillor with the Vision Vancouver party. Reimer lived on the streets for most of a decade, beginning in 1986. In a telephone interview, she recounted how much the experience brought back memories of that time she was homeless.

      “A lot of trauma, I didn’t even realize I had,” she said. “And you think about that and all of the decisions that might have gone differently in my life without that submerged trauma.”

      Reimer said those thoughts surfaced at a Welfare Food Challenge event held earlier this week, where there were many people in attendance who are on social assistance.

      “I was realizing that everybody in that room who was on welfare was, in real time, right now, building up that trauma sediment that I dragged up,” Reimer said.

      Vision Vancouver councillor Andrea Reimer used her $18 per week food allowance to stock up on calories and protein.
      Andrea Reimer

      Another politician who took the challenge was Melanie Mark, the NDP MLA for Vancouver–Mount Pleasant. Updates she posted on Facebook throughout the week provide a snapshot of day-to-day life on social assistance.

      From day five: “Breakfast two pieces of peanut butter bread. Lunch plain toast with hard boiled eggs. Dinner chicken noodle soup.”

      From day six: “Bowl of LIFE cereal for breakfast. Chicken noodle soup for dinner. Two hard boiled eggs for a snack.”

      And from day seven: “Cup of tea, 2 hard boiled eggs and 2 pieces of dry toast for lunch. Chicken noodle soup for dinner.”

      Katrina Pacey is the executive director of Pivot Legal Society. She told the Straight she was one of seven women employed by the nonprofit who participated in the challenge last week.

      Similar to Zak, Pacey described how the experience posed challenges beyond physical manifestations of hunger, fatigue, and weakness.

      “I was finding myself to be easily distracted; I was having trouble focusing on my tasks; and I was just having trouble keeping up with the pace of my work,” Pacey said. “Everything just felt harder. That made me think about what the experience would be like to be on social assistance and being in the very difficult position of trying to seek work.”

      Pacey went on to describe other psychological effects that manifest beyond one’s own mind.

      “The first day was really interesting because it was my first time, frankly, moving through the city and not being able to access many different spaces that were ordinarily available to me,” Pacey said.

      She explained that while on the Welfare Food Challenge, she could not afford to pay for the coffee that normally allows her to spend hours working in cafes, for example.

      “It felt like exclusion,” Pacey said. “It was a window into how excluded one feels when they can’t access those social spaces where people eat.”