Ottawa saw a 22% increase in visits to food programs this year. Many social service agencies, like Bruce House, have added food programs in recent years to cope with the needs of our clients, but this comes at a cost—more work for staff and volunteers, more challenge to find space, and additional costs.
This is not sustainable.
On November 20th the Ottawa Food Bank released their annual Hunger Report at City Hall. Please read it.
Bruce House’s Patrick James Morley was asked to speak at this presentation, below is his prepared text (note: the text was not followed precisely when speaking).
I am asking you to follow me on a journey. You don’t have to go anywhere, you can do this from your seat. I’d really appreciate it if you do this. This is important. We are all here today because this is important.
Your journey starts right where you are right now. Take a quick inventory. Are you single, in a relationship? Kids or other dependents? What is your support system like?
What about work? Do you have benefits? What are your finances like? Do you have a bit saved for a rainy day? Are you trying hard not to think about your credit card balance?
Now time for some make-believe. It may be a little upsetting. It may be a bit scary. Please hang in there with me, let’s be brave together.
Imagine that everything changes for you today. Everything. Maybe it’s an accident. Maybe it that big scary thing that runs in the family… guess what, it didn’t skip a generation. Maybe something came out of nowhere. Whatever feels real to you, imagine it right now. The point here is you can’t work anymore. You may be dealing with ongoing medical issues. You may struggle with everyday tasks.
Welcome to disability.
Wow. This got heavy, right? While you sit with this, while you think about how it feels, let me share that this very thing happened to my partner. In 2008, after a few years of feeling increasingly unwell and after endless doctors’ appointments, we were told he would likely never work again. There went about 2/3 of our income. I really hope this never happens to any of you.
OK, back to you and your personal journey. You can’t work anymore. How are you paying the bills? You can cancel Netflix and Spotify and Disney+… but what about rent, or your car payments, or your mortgage?
If you have benefits at work, great! Uh, great, right? But how long does that last? 2 years? 1 year? Six months? And how much of your normal salary are they paying? 80%? 60%? What if you don’t have benefits, there is EI, right? Right? Yup, but that means living on 55% of your previous income. For at most 26 weeks. Now what?
Enter ODSP. The Ontario Disability Support Program. If you’re single that means less than $1500 per month. Have you looked at rental princes lately? What can you rent for less than $1500? Of course, you can apply for subsidized housing. Enjoy the years, perhaps a decade, on the waiting list. Meanwhile, you’re lucky to have a few bucks left in your pocket after paying rent.
Welcome to the intersection of disability and poverty.
We’re going to turn the page now. If you followed along with me, thank you. I know it wasn’t a comfortable place to be. But I want you, I need you, to understand that the numbers presented in the Hunger Report aren’t just figures on a page. Those numbers tell the stories of people struggling to have a home, worried about having food for their kids, and just trying to survive day by day.
Bruce House exists to help people living with HIV overcome the challenges they face—challenges which could prevent them from staying on treatment. Challenges which could jeopardize their health. 90% of our clients receive ODSP benefits. Remember that intersection of disability and poverty I mentioned? We see it every day at Bruce House.
If you struggle with multiple health issues, including mental health, treating HIV may not be your priority. It may not even be possible. If you don’t have a robust support system, then any crisis in your life may derail everything.
And if your basis needs are not met, including food and housing, then taking a pill a day and seeing your doctor won’t happen.
If your basic needs are not met, your health immediately suffers.
In 2019, my colleague Ayan had a chat with me, and with others in the office. “Our clients are hungry. By the time rent is paid, and essential bills, there is not enough left for food. We’re referring them to local food banks, but they still run short most months. What can we do? Let’s set up a pantry, have a few things on hand, maybe a few cans of soup, to tide people over.”
“Good idea! Problem: who will pay for this food? Let’s go make friends with the people at the Ottawa Food Bank.” Six months later, give or take, Bruce House was a member of the Ottawa Food Bank network, and we were in the food business.
Fast forward to 2023. Lack of food and other basic needs has joined housing as a top reason for new clients to come to us. It is the most common need listed on new intakes. More than 70% of our clients now visit us once a month or more for food, household essentials like toilet paper, and grocery store gift cards.
This is not all bad. It has increased traffic in our office, created opportunities for conversations with clients, connecting them to other services and offering them a chance to explore options available to them.
It has also been, and continues to be, a challenge for us as an agency. The food provided by the Ottawa Food Bank is a true gift, but we still have to find a way to pay for other items—like the TP I mentioned—and the gift cards. A new program providing food means more work for staff, and who will pay for that? And what about space? We are in an office building without a freight elevator, so Food Bank delivery days aren’t easy. We had to convert a small meeting room to be used as our pantry, leaving us short of private meeting space to talk with clients. We annexed the fridge in our boardroom and stuck a freezer near our photocopier for perishables, which works but means running around three parts of the office for every client.
We are in a constant scramble. A staff of 8, two of them part-time, always doing more with less. Constantly applying for small grants, doing fundraisers, asking our donors for more money. We extend staff contracts, sometimes a few months at a time. We fear missing a funding opportunity, but we also know that the hours and days and weeks that go into a grant application may be wasted if we are not awarded the funds.
Meanwhile, what about our core work? Do we feed people, or run programs to deal with social isolation? Do we work on finding more affordable housing options, or do we run a pantry program? Do we have time to attend meetings like this one, today, or should we be in the office serving clients? Which priority suffers so we can meet other priorities?
To is not sustainable.
Food insecurity. Homelessness. Poverty. For far too long we, as a society, felt that these issues were someone else’s problem and someone else would, magically, do something about it.
Changing this won’t be easy, but it is simple. We must make compassion, empathy, and care our priorities. We need to face the reality lived every day by so many people in our city, and we need to commit to doing what it takes to tackle poverty, food insecurity, and other inequities.
No one should have to go to bed hungry.
You can support our programs, including our food program, by making a donation. It takes only a few minutes, and a tax receipt will be issued shortly after your donation. Thank you.