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Ranks of our poor growing

Volunteer Robert Weston fills shelves at CMS Food Bank Tuesday to meet the growing demand of Cowichan people who find they need the extra grub to make it through the month. - Andrew Leong
Volunteer Robert Weston fills shelves at CMS Food Bank Tuesday to meet the growing demand of Cowichan people who find they need the extra grub to make it through the month.
— image credit: Andrew Leong

Dave knows hunger, deep down, belly-shriveling hunger.

“If you take a plate of food and put it down in front of a hungry person, they’ll gulp the food down and everything is OK,” said the 63-year-old Cobble Hill man who asked his real name be withheld.

“When you put food down in front of a starving person who’s gone five or six days without anything, it’s absolute agony once you take a bite of food because your stomach has collapsed and food going down is extremely painful,” he said.

“I found myself in that position several times before I found out about the food bank, but when I did find out about it, it actually saved my life.”

Dave is no professional player of the welfare system, nor is he begging on downtown streets.

He’s a man who once owned his own business in Duncan before he was forced to claim bankruptcy and eventually, because of failing health, is now living off a monthly disability cheque. He’s also one of the new faces of Cowichan’s poor — those who never once believed they would have to ask for help just to live.

More and more, the number of older folks and working poor who depend on food banks to stretch their dollars is growing in the valley.

Tracy Waite is the co-ordinator of the CMS food bank serving those in need in south Cowichan.

“About 20 per cent of the people I see here now are senior citizens,” she said. “When I started here, I didn’t see any seniors — it was mainly single moms and single guys and I never saw two-parent families.”

Experts predict the situation is going to get a whole lot worse before it gets better. As of Dec. 4, the unemployment rate across the province was 8.5 per cent.

While the number of job postings around the country is growing, B.C. is one of just four provinces to see a decline during the past couple of months, according to CareerAIM.com.

According to the B.C. Ministry of Housing and Social Development, the number of people on welfare who are able and expected to work has increased by 50 per cent during the past year.

In September 5.2 per cent of Cowichan residents — approximately 4,050 people — were receiving basic income assistance or employment insurance benefits.

The figures do not include people on continuous assistance, the disabled or those with persistent multiple barriers to employment, children in the home of a relative, seniors living on old age security benefits or Indigenous people living on reserve, according to B.C. stats.

All the while the average cost for groceries for a family of four increased 6 per cent, from $653 per month to $715 per month between 2005 and 2007, according to a study, the Cost of Eating in B.C. 2005 and 2007.

A couple with two children on social assistance in B.C. has $1690.25 per month to pay for housing, heat and electricity, food, clothing, and other necessities.

The amount allocated for shelter costs to those receiving Income Assistance Benefits and Long Term Disability Benefits ranges from $375 for a single person to a maximum of $590 for a family of four, according to Human Resources and Development Canada.

It’s not a lot of dough, especially when the average rent in Duncan and North Cowichan for a bachelor apartment is $474, $560 for a one-bedroom apartment, $661 for a two-bedroom apartment, and $767 for a three-bedroom apartment. That’s up 6.9 per cent from April 2007 to April 2008, higher than the provincial increase of 5.6 per cent.

And more and more people, including those with jobs, are discovering they can’t afford to pay for a roof over their heads.

And if they do pay rent, they find there is little left in the account for much else.

“This young woman, about 25, walks in with her five-year-old daughter,” said Waite, who recalled the woman, who works at a minimum-wage job, has been using the food bank for about four months.

“One of the volunteers walked out with her and the woman said she wasn’t going to have a Christmas because she didn’t have any decorations and all of a sudden she just began crying uncontrollably,” she said.

“She’s divorced or something and this will be her first Christmas alone and she just can’t believe she has to go to a food bank — it’s really hard for a lot of people to come to the food bank.”

But the unidentified 25-year-old and her child are better off than some.

The Duncan branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association has provided temporary cold, wet weather shelter for the past three years and during that time the number of overnight stays has gone from 681 in 2006/07 to 3,486 in 2008/09.

Michelle Nowzek, executive director of Social Planning Cowichan, said with the economic downturn, the related unemployment and the loss of industry on the rise, it’d take a concerted, community effort to help alleviate the problem.

“Reducing hunger and poverty in Cowichan and across the province and nation will require all sectors of society come together and work collaboratively to address the complex social and economic causes that contribute to these issues,” she said.

Social Planning Cowichan’s Regional Affordable Housing Directorate recently received funding through the Canada-B.C. Labour Market Development Agreement to create a regional affordable housing strategy.

Pam Alcorn is co-chair of the directorate.

“That money allowed us to hire a person to take the information we’ve gathered about housing needs in the Cowichan Valley over the last couple of years and take that data to different communities in the region to look at what their primary needs are,” she said.

“The goal is to take some action by coming together community by community to plan for affordable housing and move forward together.”

Alcorn said the committee will look at what other communities, like Nanaimo, did when they created a strategy that saw plenty of social housing come to their communities.

And Alcorn knows some groan at the words social housing.

“There’s research that shows to build strong communities, we need adequate income, housing and supports for people,” she said.

“If we have those, then that’s the road to stronger communities.”

Before anything happens, though, the communities will be consulted, said Alcorn.

“There will be local meetings throughout the region, focus groups and other spots where we’ll be asking people for their opinions.”

And it’s vital everyone works together, said Waite.

“People have to know what’s going on out there,” she said. “These people are your neighbours; they’re your friends.”

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