With a few days left in his one-month welfare challenge, Jagrup Brar’s food supply is dwindling.
The Surrey-Fleetwood MLA has been in his temporary home in the Downtown Eastside since January 17, as he completes his 31 days of living on $610, the monthly welfare rate for a single employable person.
Some of the groceries remaining in his 11-by-11 foot room on Jackson Avenue include oatmeal, some bread, and a box of Mr. Noodles.
Until he returns to Surrey on January 31, Brar plans to volunteer in exchange for lunches and wait in food line-ups for some of his dinner meals.
But while food is on Brar’s mind, the politician is currently spending what much of his challenge has consisted of—speaking with people who are living on income assistance rates month after month.
Prior to his stay here, the Surrey MLA had little interaction with residents in this community. After hosting a town hall meeting with about 100 people and meeting with tenants and organizations in the neighbourhood, he said his perspective has changed.
“As a member of the community and a member of the legislative assembly, I saw this from outside, the face of the community, without going inside, looking at the struggles and challenges of these people living in poverty,” he told the Straight in an interview. “So when you see that, then it’s a complete different story.”
Brar called the challenge “a very, very eye-opening, heartbreaking experience.”
“It certainly made me a different person,” he remarked.
Among the lessons that Brar intends to bring back to the legislature with him include common factors for people ending up on welfare that he has been recounted through hundreds of stories. Those include someone losing their job and being unable to find further work, being hit with a life-changing tragedy, facing abuse at home or in their community, or dealing with the effects of improper parenting and education.
Brar said one thing that has struck him about his brush with poverty is the compassion of the low-income people around him. He recalled the story of a senior who approached him on a bus in Surrey to let him know where all the free meal programs in the area were.
“This is the height of caring and compassion that you can see in these human beings, which I haven’t seen in other people who are wealthy,” he noted.
On this particular afternoon, Brar has agreed to volunteer in exchange for a meal served by a community group at the Balmoral Hotel, on East Hastings Street. As Downtown Eastside residents line up for a free meal, Brar brings out his notebook and sits down to talk with several people. Among them is Herb Varley, a resident of a single-room occupancy building who is currently on welfare.
He tells Brar about what he sees as one of the most challenging aspects of living on income assistance.
“It’s undignified to stand in line for three hours a day to eat—crappy food most of the time,” he said.
“If you had asked me when I was working how much would I sell my dignity for, I would have said my dignity’s priceless,” he added. “But now I’m on welfare, $165—that’s what I get for giving up my dignity.”
That $165 is what Varley is left with after his rent payment is sent directly to his landlord. Like Raise the Rates, the coalition of anti-poverty groups organizing the welfare challenge, Varley wants to see income assistance rates increased, including the $375 a month that is currently allocated for shelter.
“I have no incentive in raising the shelter portion, because I never see that,” he noted. “The only incentive I have in that is trying to find something halfway decent.”
Varley explained this is the second time he’s been on welfare. The first time, he was on income assistance for a month, before finding a job. He lost the job eight months later, and wasn’t able to regain income assistance until he was homeless. As a result, he lost all his belongings, including his clothes and his personal mementos that he’d been collecting over the years.
“In order to get clothes, I go to the churches,” he said. “So almost everything I have is hand-me-down, and you know when you’re forced to go to the church to get hand-me-down clothes, it’s always hit or miss."
"I’m either wearing something two or three sizes too big, or something that barely fits," he added. "And then how are you supposed to go look for a job when you don’t even have something to look presentable?”
In the corner of Brar's Downtown Eastside room are two pieces of paper—one is a handmade card from his daughter, who is almost 12 years old, and the other is a drawing from his four-year-old son.
It was Brar’s daughter who helped him make the decision whether to do the one-month welfare challenge.
“She said ‘do it and make a difference’,” the MLA recalled.
Brar said after going through this experience, he plans to return to his NDP caucus to “make a convincing case” to take action. Among those steps he will recommend is developing an anti-poverty reduction plan, focusing on pillars including housing, child care and training programs.
While hunger will be one of the things the MLA is likely to remember about his stint on a welfare budget, he noted the strongest lesson will be what he’s witnessed about the day-to-day lives of low-income residents.
“The strongest feeling out of this for me will be the memory engraved in my mind about the struggle these people live everyday,” he said.
“It is unethical that in this very wealthy society we have people living in conditions that are worse than third world countries,” he added. “It’s hard for me to imagine, but it’s happening right here, in the most beautiful city we have in the province—just a few blocks away from beautiful tall buildings, you see the complete different picture. And we just drive by, close our eyes for a few seconds, thinking that this is not part of us.
“This is part of us—this is part of our responsibility as well. That’s what I think.”