Saturday, December 17th, 2005

Poverty vs the Snowstorm

Filed under: random — alison @ 16:43

We had a big ‘un this week: total over 30 cm of snow Thursday night and Friday with still more to come. When I got to work Friday morning half our team had taken a snow day. Good thing we’re in brownout, which means a slow work period for us: we have a moratorium on touching the network until the beginning of January, because any time you touch the network you introduce the possibility of error, and just think what Toys R Us would be saying to us if their phone or debit card lines went down for four hours on a Thursday afternoon before Christmas… Anyway, we *don’t* like to think about that sort of thing so we just don’t touch the network during the holiday season (or on Mothers’ Day). Meaning that for us network engineers, nothing we are doing right now is terribly urgent.

Oh, and it seems I’m a major Centraide / United Way donor. Those of you who’ve known me for a while are aware that I’ve been through some hard times. I was never on welfare, though there were times that would have been a step up in income, and I never used a food bank, though I did compromise in other difficult ways. So when I started getting regular paycheques from Evil Corporations I was truly grateful for the stability and food and control over my life I was now able to secure for myself. And as soon as I found out that I was able to have Centraide donations taken out of said paycheques I immediately signed up, thrilled to be able to contribute towards someone’s relief if not in my own direct labour, then at least in cash.

So every year Centraide invites me to attend some sort of philanthropic activity. I envisioned them as schmoozing opportunities for people who liked to think well of themselves, or perhaps as disguised trips to the zoo where rich people could meet tame poor people in a safe and controlled environment, and I always firmly declined with a little moue of distaste. But then I got an invitation to visit the Montreal Diet Dispensary, and accepted that one because I’d studied their protocol in detail at university and was interested in seeing what it actually looked like. And yes, it was exactly what I had feared it would be, and I was very impressed with the abilities of the MDD administration who clearly felt completely at ease both with their clientele and the philanthropists. Because while it was very interesting and educational, I just felt uneasy all over.

This year I got an invitation to volunteer at a Magasin de Partage (Sharing Store) in my neighbourhood, and I accepted that one too because I wanted to meet my neighbours in a way I don’t usually get to. So yesterday afternoon I left work early and headed over to the Maison de la Culture (a combination local library, museum, concert hall, teen centre and other stuff that I don’t know) to do my two hours of volunteering.

Karine, the volunteer organiser, was busy orienting someone else so I waited in the volunteer’s refreshment corner, enjoyed a coffee and muffin and talked to Gilbert, a guy in his sixties “with Centraide” who looked like a defrocked priest. He explained the principle of the Magasin de Partage. It replaces the traditional Christmas baskets that food banks used to give out. There were two main problems with the Christmas baskets: one is that people don’t get to choose their basket, which is both disempowering and means they are likely get something inappropriate for them. Another is that each organisation would do its own baskets, which meant that people could go from organisation to organisation and collect several. (Actually, I never really thought this was a problem: it rewards the entrepreneurial spirit, which is supposed to be a good thing – right?) Anyway, now we do the MdP which are like a grocery store laid out in a gym (in this case). People get a pushcart and a budget and load up what they want (though most items are rationed) and at the end they pay 10% of the value. So for instance, a single person is assigned a budget of $50. They get to choose $50 worth of groceries and they pay $5 at the cash. Then they get to choose a free present for everyone in the household and they get a lift home. There’s a driver and also a livreur (deliverer) who actually carries their groceries up to the apartment for them (the clientele of the MdP are all in walk-ups) and gets a quick look around. If there is clearly a serious problem with the household then social services can be alerted.

Allowing people to choose is important. Which means allowing people to criticise and reject: that’s what we’re there for. The entrepreneurial tendency is controlled by having a central registry across the island, so that people can only sign up for one grocery basket.

When Karine was ready for me she explained that I would be an accompagnatrice and accompany people through the aisles counting up what they spent, helping them budget and explaining the rationing. Very important to smile and relieve people’s embarassment about being there. Ok, sounds fun. But there were no shopping baskets. I waited around for a while and finally got fed up and found one that was full of Christmas decorations that hadn’t been put up yet, unloaded it onto a chair and got the next bénéficiaire (client) on the list.

I got a little tag like they staple onto your bags at the grocery store when they deliver your groceries and a budget sheet to fill out. People’s budgets were assigned when they applied: $50 for a single person plus $10 for every other person in the household. So a couple with four children would have a budget of $100 – but that had already been calculated for me. I always filled out my paperwork before picking up my clients, fully expecting that I’d have to redo half of it because people hadn’t shown up for their appointments. My stereotype of poor people is that they have very complicated lives because they can’t just pay for services they need, they have to trade services with other people who may or may not be reliable. So for instance if they need babysitting to come get their grocery basket, they might or might not be able to make it. I was astounded to realise that *everyone* made their appointment. On time. “Of course,” observed one of my clients. “We’re hungry.” Because of the snowstorm, however, there was a volunteer shortage and the organisation was behind schedule.

Anyway, my first customer was Carole, and I learned a lot from her. We went through the aisles of canned / rationed goods, and I explained what she was entitled to. (“You have a child, so you can take two big cans of soup.”) She took everything she was entitled to and argued with me about the rationing. By the time we’d finished that section she’d used up her budget and she had nothing left for bread, fruits and vegetables or milk and eggs. She had a nice big grocery basket and her canned / rationed goods lined the bottom of it forlornly. Someone else passed by with a small grocery basket overflowing with a couple of nice high-volume bags of bread, a big bag of chips and a big bag of potatoes. Carole was livid comparing her measly take with the other woman’s cornucopia. She accused me of shortchanging her and the other woman of abusing the system. I could see her point, so I went and got Karine and handed her over, saying maybe I had miscalculated or misunderstood the system, but there was a problem with Carole’s basket.

Karine came back to me later and said I had calculated just fine, but that Carole was simply a difficult person. It had taken three volunteers twenty minutes to calm her down and she had been demanding to talk to the manager. (Seems to me that she should have been entitled to talk to the manager, but whatever.) That’s what I thought, and that was pretty much what I had been prepared for: poverty damages people and I expected the people I was accompanying to show the damage. Second surprise of the evening: Carole was the only person I met who was needy in that way. The damage other people showed was more in the form of passivity. They were extremely compliant and cooperative.

The rest of the afternoon/evening was uneventful. I had signed up to work from three to five, but I ended up staying until eight-thirty. I was having a good time, I felt useful, and they were short of volunteers. I developed a routine, learning from Carole’s experience. I would take the smallest available grocery basket. I would greet my customer with a smile and a “vous” and explain what we were going to do. If they ate meat, we would place an order for meat first. Starting the aisles of canned / rationed goods, I would suggest an amount they should be spending per aisle in order to have money left over for bread, fruits and vegetables, and milk and eggs. I made a point of saying that I would tell them what they were allowed to take, but they didn’t have to take it. Once we’d finished those aisles I would ask them if they wanted milk and eggs and tell them how much they had left to spend on bread, fruits and vegetables and the unrationed table. Budgeting in manageable bits, one section at a time.

When I started the clientele was mostly single canadiens-français in their sixties and up. After five it started to be more families from “les communautés culturelles,” mostly haitian.

I particularly enjoyed:

Waiting in line with the old people. I would ask them if they were born in Montreal (nope) and ask a little about their history.

Accompanying a young couple, she newly pregnant, and watching him fuss over her and instruct her to get vegetables and whole-wheat bread while she looked longingly at the chips and chocolate cake.

Accompanying a muslim woman with a $100 budget who was having trouble making her full $100 because she wasn’t taking meat. I helped her decide whether there were animal products in the canned goods and went and found some shampoo that had been hidden away. She said merci when I dropped her off at the cash and seemed to mean it.

Accompanying families, showing the kids how to reject dented cans, look for expiry dates and inspect eggs for breaks.

Intervening on behalf of Paule who needed to call her brother-in-law for a lift from a pay phone: ‘Paule, do you have the quarter for the pay phone?’ so that she didn’t have to ask the cashier for the quarter herself.

But then I came to Marie-Annaes and her teenaged son. It was after eight, and they’d been waiting since 5:15. When I called her name she didn’t respond; Gilbert knew her though, and looked her in the face and said “Is there anyone here named Marie-Annaes?” and she got up with a start. When she got to me she was clearly exhausted; I realised that she hadn’t had supper and might not have eaten all day. She was kind of out of it, so her son did most of the shopping. Because he was a teenager I provided a little more “encadrement” than I did for other people, suggesting particular choices: ‘If you take the box of cereal you won’t be able to take both loaves of bread you’re entitled to. Which would you rather have?’ And Marie-Annaes would murmer little things to him from time to time.

When it was time to stand in line for the cash I went and got a little snack bar for Marie-Annaes so that she wouldn’t collapse. And then there was the problem of how to get the groceries home. They weren’t going to get delivery until very late, what with the combination of the lack of volunteers and the snowy roads, and they weren’t going to be able to carry it all. Hm. Ok, I suggested: maybe you could separate what you need for supper tonight and walk home with that, and then it doesn’t matter if they deliver the rest at two in the morning? We thought about that while we waited, the line being exceptionally slow. Marie-Annaes’ son and another teenager with his mother waved at each other a couple of times without actually talking or hanging out. The second time I asked if it was a kid from his school (no, from his old school) and said ‘Isn’t it nice when you see someone you know here, you feel less alone. Anybody can come through here.’ And Marie-Annaes touched my arm and said Merci in a way that made me think she meant it, not that she wanted me to shut up already.

So we got to the cash and I explained that Marie-Annaes might want to separate out what she wanted to take home for supper and have the rest delivered. Hm, said the cashier. One of them will still have to wait here to go home with the driver.

I was stunned. Ok, so giving people a lift home is a nice thing to do, but grocery stores routinely deliver groceries to people who have left the store. What’s going on here? They aren’t going to get their lift before 10:30 at the earliest. And they haven’t eaten.

And I looked around: in the waiting area were families waiting for food because they were hungry. The parents had been working all day, had picked up their kids from daycare and shown up on time for their appointments. We were three hours behind in getting them their grocery carts, and we were now going to make them wait here until all hours for delivery? Gilbert was still in a relaxed, upbeat temper doing tricks with plastic bags to amuse the kids. This was unreal. Perverse. I was tired, my blood sugar was dropping despite the regular snacks I had access to in the volunteer corner, and I was all of a sudden not having a good time any more.

Marie-Annaes said it was ok, they would wait and go home with the lift. I warmly wished her a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, she went off to wait in another line to choose a gift for herself, and I got my coat and went home. I didn’t even say goodbye or alert anyone.

*** *** ***
That was the end of the story the first times I told it. Then I told it to Anne, who sternly reframed my experience for me: “Alison, you’re a major donor. That’s why you’re there. You are in a position to write a letter to a director and be paid attention to. And if you choose to become involved with that organisation, you are in a position to ask to be listened to.”

Oh. She’s right, you know. Oh dear. Now I have choices. Empowering but scary.

[originally transmitted by e-mail December 17, 2005]

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