I came into work a couple of years ago for a midnight shift, and the colleague I was replacing dryly said that among our residents that night was a man who had been eviscerated and just got out of the hospital.
The resident — I’ll call him John — casually told me that someone had broken into his apartment and was looking to steal some organs. I asked him, “Do you owe someone money or drugs?”
John immediately panicked and said, “How do you know? Who told you?”
Mine was a lucky guess. I don’t know what is and what isn’t in his life story (the one about organ theft definitely wasn’t true). According to him, he had been on his own since he was 11 and started using hard drugs when he was 13.
He had significant mental health problems, which could have been a result of the drug abuse. He suffered from fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, or FASD, and schizophrenia. I don’t know if it was the FASD or the drug use that stunted his emotional or cognitive development, but I always felt John was less capable and less mature than my son, who was eight years old at the time.
There is a road to recovery available. John later took rehabilitation for the drug issues. He was on medication for the mental health problems. I am sure he could get counselling for the psychological issues, but he still will remain an eight-year-old inside, unemployable and with serious health concerns.
So what do we do with men and women who are like him? They are left to fend for themselves in some jurisdictions, but in Saskatchewan we have a safety net in terms of health care and the Ministry of Social Services.
Most of us are familiar with health care, but life on social assistance for a single person is tough. It starts with $459 a month for rent and, if you are disabled, you can qualify for the Disability Rental Housing Supplement that provides another $262 toward rent. The total $721 is not that bad — until you try to find a suite for that price.
The accommodation also has to be close to supports, so even if you find a suitable apartment, you may not qualify. Many find themselves paying a portion of their rent from the $255 they get to live on. Very quickly that living allowance becomes $150 to make it through the month.
It’s been 15 years since I lived alone, and even then $100 didn’t get me that much in groceries. Even living on a nutritionally challenged diet of Kraft Dinner, Pizza Pops, Kraft Dinner Spirals, and Three Cheese Kraft Dinner I was spending more than that on food.
The next option is the Saskatoon Food Bank. It just completed its Food Basket Challenge, which invited noted Saskatoon residents to live on a typical basket of food for a week. The participants’ comments were all interesting, but I noted how many struggled with the discipline of having to live on the amount of food that was given out.
Of course, in a oneweek challenge, a lack of discipline means that you just cheated yourself. If they were in that situation permanently, it means that they or their children go without food later in the week. For those on social assistance, it’s week after month of rationing, going hungry, walking down to the Friendship Inn, stopping by the Bridge on 20th, and heading to the Salvation Army looking for enough food to make it.
On top of that, the money you get is supposed to cover laundry, clothes and other essentials. As Sharon Brown, one of the Salvation Army’s budget management workers told me, “You can make it if you make no mistakes.”
That’s easier said than done, even in my own life. Recent studies have shown that most of us have a finite amount of self-discipline. To use most of that on just obtaining and rationing food changes the rest of one’s life.
I know that it’s hard to set social assistance rates. Too high and it provides a disincentive to work and people flood in from all over. Yet you make it too low, and even providing food and basic needs become a struggle.
Over the years I have listened to politicians talk about indexing social assistance to inflation. Not a bad idea, but here is mine. In the process of reviewing rates, have the minister of Social Services live on the money he or she judges to be appropriate. If the minister can’t do it and function, why expect others to do it?