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HOMELESSNESS IN PICTOU COUNTY: One roadblock after another

The anticipated location of the Viola's Place homeless shelter
The anticipated location of the Viola's Place homeless shelter - Sam Macdonald

Family finds social assistance is government applying bandage to problem

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Viola’s Place Society is currently fundraising in an attempt to purchase the building that once housed the LifeShelter. Their deadline is April 30. They are currently $13,000 away from their goal. In an effort to inform people on the issue of homelessness in Pictou County, The News has reached out to people who have first-hand experience either by living on the streets or who live life on the brink of it. For more information on how you can help Viola’s Place become reality visit Viola’s Place Society through its Facebook page or email at Donations can be made at any Scotiabank in Pictou County.

Don’t bother telling Mary that money doesn’t buy happiness.

Honestly, at this point she isn’t even concerned about happiness, she just wants to have enough money in her daily life to cover the basic needs of humanity.

“Money makes the world go around and they say money can’t buy happiness. A little bit of money… you are damn straight it would buy happiness. I am not looking to travel, I am looking for a roof over my kids’ heads and food on the table. I am looking for safety and security to be able to live. You can’t live on assistance like this.”

Mary is a mother and a wife trying her best to live each day without starving or losing her home. She is living on social assistance that allots her $920 a month for everything from groceries to heating her home as well as an additional $500 child tax credit for one of her children. Her middle boy just turned 18 so he is no longer eligible for the funding.

She wouldn’t do an interview unless it is anonymous so Mary is not her real name, but her story is far too common.

“I have been close to being homeless in the past. My husband has been homeless,” she said. “As much as I have been in that position and wonder if I am going to be in a cardboard box tomorrow with my kids, I know I have good parents, whether it is just 20 bucks to get milk and bread.”

Mary’s life started out as a child in a military family. She got her Grade 13 in the Ontario school system and even though she was pregnant in her early 20s, with the support of her parents, she went on to university to obtain a Bachelor of Arts from a school in the United States.

After this, her career goal to become a social worker slowly slipped out of her grasp. She moved to Pictou County because she had fond memories of visiting here as a child, but life was much more difficult as an adult. She attended community college for a year, worked several jobs and looked after her oldest son, but it seemed liked one roadblock after another was setting up in front of her.

“I was on assistance at the time as a single mother. They cancelled the bus system so I was leaving my house at 4:30 a.m. in December and put my son on a sled to walk him to daycare in New Glasgow and then be back at my school for 8:30 a.m.”

Eventually enough was enough and she left school. She has worked several jobs in the past, but a chronic illness has stopped her from being employed.

Mary now lives in Stellarton in a home her parents inherited. She takes care of her husband, who has addiction issues, and her two sons, ages 18 and nine. She said her third son, who is now 26, is struggling with his own addiction and lives with her parents.

Mary is not homeless, but she isn’t far from it.

She has had their power cut off in the winter, her home is falling down around her and her cupboards have the bare minimum.

“I literally have to flyer shop,” she said. “There are a few specific things I will buy brand name but I can’t look at steak to barbecue. I might be lucky to get hamburger. In the run of a month, I can’t afford meat, fresh vegetables, fresh fruit and milk. Keeping liquids in the house in impossible. How to do you tell your nine-year-old you can’t have milk right now?”

She visits the food bank once a month and takes advantage of the free fruit in baskets that local grocery stores put out from time to time so they can have a piece of fruit in their diet, but there are never any extras in her cart.

She pays $350 a month for oil on a fixed 11-month plan and electric heat is in the back portion of her home.

“Two years ago, I had my power disconnected because I got behind in bills,” she said. “I didn’t have power for Christmas. I was running extension cords from my neighbour’s house to make toast for my kids and have a light on in the house.”

On top of the day-to-day stresses, Mary said life always has a curveball to throw their way. Her poor health requires her to make trips to Halifax for care and her youngest son has his own health issues, as does her husband.

Even a trip to a doctor’s office or the emergency room in Pictou County has her figuring out how much a taxi ride will cost before she commits herself to going.

She has taken homeless children in their house for months at a time and gives advice to others struggling on low income. She knows people try to scam the system and landlords are tired of renting to people who are going to destroy their property, but wonders how government expects people to live on social assistance.

If she was to leave her home today with her family of four, she would be allotted $620 a month for an apartment and utilities.

“A lot people look to put a bandage on it. It has to be a combination of things to make things better for people. The government doesn't click together to accomplish it,” she said.

Every thought and every action she has to scrutinize to prioritize which is most important today.

“Right now, my priority is the house. Right now, I don't have shingles on my house. I had shingles and they got stolen,” she said, adding she applied for low-income housing grants in the past, but was first denied because the house wasn't in her name long enough and the second time her taxes weren’t up to date. Another time the money wasn’t available from the government agency.

“We just went to another housing meeting and it looks like we might get some assistance now, which is good because the house is falling down around us. As much as we rob Peter to pay Paul, it is difficult to rob both Peter and Paul.”

Like any mother, she worries about her children. Her teenage son is still in school, but he struggles with learning and being bullied because he doesn’t have what others do. She hopes he sticks it out and some day he will be able to stop the cycle she feels she cannot escape.

“I have been depressed for years,” she said. “If I didn't have kids I think I would have slit my wrists years ago.”


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