Mai Eaglespeaker: Lack of stable, affordable housing and childcare keeps families in poverty

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      By Mai Eaglespeaker

      Hello, my name is Mai Eaglespeaker. I've been asked to share my experiences as a single parent on behalf of the Single Mothers' Alliance on a number of issues impacting my life, and also because I am that single mother of four children who has never been able to access subsidized housing.

      I have been on the B.C. Housing list since my first child was born, and he is now eleven. My youngest is just four.

      Affordable housing for many is just not accessible, and it is this fact that drives my family into deep poverty despite all my best efforts to move us forward.

      In 2012, my partner, the father of my children, passed away suddenly and tragically. Distraught, alone, and grief-stricken, I could not stand the idea of staying in the place we shared, the place where he had died. Neither could I afford it. I was completely overwhelmed. I planned my first funeral that week and moved into a transition house with my children.

      It was a decent three-bedroom place, and I was really grateful. I began reapplying for subsidized housing all over again. I was there for six months and I still had not yet located affordable housing to transition to when I was evicted because my mother breached the security protocol by bringing a male to the premises—my younger brother.

      Homeless again, I moved in with my mother, adding five more people to the apartment she shared with my four youngest sisters. So there were 10 of us there, all together. This became unbearable at times, so my children and I moved back and forth between shelters and my mom’s place for the next two months. I finally secured market rental housing but at a cost of $2,000 per month.  

      Let me give you a window into my reality. I was born into a family on income assistance, I have seven siblings. I grew up in what people refer to as the projects, and I had my first child at 17, which was tough and far from ideal. What I want, however, is a better life for my children, and I am committed to making that happen for them, but it has been such a struggle I am not sure it is possible.

      I have completed one year of college credits because I recognize that my only ticket out of poverty is through education so I can get a higher-paying job with the right skills to support my family. However, my efforts toward furthering my education have been thwarted by the overwhelming expense of market rental housing and the lack of affordable nonprofit housing space for my family. I have not been able to undertake this further on my own.

      I am currently receiving disability assistance, and I work as a “casual” as a mental-health support worker. Even with that income, it is hard to make ends meet and harder still to move forward. I do not have childcare for the precarious shift work I sometimes do, and this makes it hard for me to work. Since I am a casual worker, I am not eligible for benefits, and since my children are not status—and I do not receive death benefits for the death of their father, nor do I have family that can help with childcare or finances—I am on my own.

      In the past four years, I have moved seven times.  Not only is it incredibly disruptive and stressful to be constantly packing and unpacking while managing four children, it makes it almost impossible to move forward economically with this kind of housing instability and expense.

      Most recently, we were renting a two-bedroom house until we were evicted because the tenants downstairs complained that my children were too noisy. There was nothing in place to protect us from eviction due to the normal activity of children being children.

      So today, April 1, we will move yet again. I was really excited when I located the house we are moving into: a four-bedroom with a huge yard for my kids to play in.

      Yes, since paying my damage deposit, I have learned that there is a rat infestation in the ground-floor suite of the house. The tenant there explained to me that the stove had been broken by the rats and can’t be used because it is full of rat urine and feces. The place has been flooded twice because the rats have chewed through the plumbing.

      The landlord has not returned my calls regarding these concerns, and I’m moving in today. I will be paying $2,500 a month to live in this condition, and the landlord doesn’t appear to care. I am not optimistic.

      I recently talked to a housing worker who was not shocked at all by the housing difficulties I am experiencing. She confided to me that in that particular housing society, they had only two four-bedroom units and one was on its way to becoming market housing at $2,500 a month.  Other four-bedroom units had been divided into two-bedroom units because they were more marketable. She suggested I try Surrey.

      Why are there so few large family units? It doesn’t make sense that my four children remain in such deep poverty caused by the cost of housing just because there are so few larger family units built in Vancouver.

      I don't know if my housing search will ever be over. What I do know is that with stable housing and affordable, accessible childcare, I would have an opportunity to move myself and my family forward. I advocate for policies that would make this possible, that would allow every parent to achieve their full potential for the betterment of their family.

      Today is my moving day, and in spite of this I have made a point of being here to share my struggle with you in hopes that change can happen, for all other single mothers and people raising children in poverty in B.C.

      Thank you for listening. 

      This speech was delivered by Mai Eaglespeaker at the Single Mothers' Alliance event Why Your Vote Counts: Women's Equality and B.C.'s Provincial Election, addressing issues impacting women's labour-market access. These include lack of affordable quality childcare, precarious part-time work trends, low wages, lack of affordable housing and large-family stock, poverty, plus low welfare and disability rates. The event was held in partnership with the SFU Woodward's Vancity Office  Of Community Engagement.