Monday, August 30, 2010

Ontario Works' Callous Stupidity

James, the youngest member of our household, is not a loser. Not by a long shot. Abandoned at an early age, his life has not been easy: foster homes, group homes, and now, a cold adoptive father. As you’d expect, he was delinquent in his teens, in constant trouble with the law. He was plagued by difficulties managing his anger—again, as you’d expect.

But at 21, James wants to put the past behind him and do better. He’s taken counselling to deal with his anger. From all the evidence, it worked; pushed beyond what even I could bear, I’ve seen him patiently withstand the stressors and respond maturely.

He doesn’t want a life of crime; those days are past. He isn’t irresponsible, nor victim to entitlement. He wants to earn a living, have a stable home, and get his life in order. As a roommate, he’s superb. When borrowing, he keeps his word and gives back what he takes—sometimes with a bonus just to show his gratitude.

Even though the disappointments can be soul-destroying, he puts effort into seeking work, and just two months ago got hired. You’ve never seen a man more proud, nor one more serious about the discipline of showing up and doing a good job.

I sing his praises here because the story I’m about to tell might lead the compassionless to conclude that James is just another piece of Vanier trash: shiftless, irresponsible, and out to milk to system. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Before James got his job, he was on Welfare. Of course, we don’t call it Welfare in Ontario these days: the correct name is Ontario Works, which, as I’ve pointed out in other posts, is pure Orwellian doublespeak—on several levels.

James was under the impression that Ontario Works assisted people moving off Welfare into the workforce by continuing to pay limited benefits for a few months, notably covering their rent. Therefore, when he got his job (full-time/minimum wage, ie a pittance), he purchased food and paid off debts. It left him little for himself, but he was happy knowing that he could, at last, behave responsibly. With the time he thought he had, he started laying money by against the day he’d have to pay the rent himself.

For a month, everything was rosy. Then the hammer fell.

Ontario Works doesn’t cover rent once you’ve started working. Oh, it seems as if they do. James’ Statement of Assistance looked exactly as it had the month before, with the usual amounts filled in for “Basic Needs” and “Shelter” It wasn’t till the landlord called to say he hadn’t got James’ portion of the rent that James discovered something evil was afoot. For every dollar he had earned, Ontario Works had subtracted an equivalent amount from the money they would actually pay out. Thus, while James’ Statement of Assistance duly noted what he was entitled to, it didn’t bother saying the entitlement was strictly theoretical. James never saw a penny. Worse, having reasonably counted on it (he’s not to blame; it takes a very sick organization to play this kind of accounting game with real people’s lives), after buying food and paying off his debts, he had no money left to pay the rent himself.

To say that he was pissed is understating things, but he didn’t let his anger take control. He realized that if he borrowed what he needed for the rent, he could, with careful budgeting, repay the loan and meet his rental obligations.

Then he lost his job. As near as I can tell, he’d been hired while the company was temporarily snowed under. Once the crisis passed, they found a pretext to dismiss him—conveniently before his three-month probationary period was over so it wouldn’t have to pay him severance.

Despite the blow to his self-confidence and income, James soldiered on and contacted Ontario Works. At the very least, he figured, he could count on them to pay the rent again, even if it left him with a debt not easily repaid.

Guess what? Ontario Works will, once again, be covering his portion of the rent on our apartment but not until next month. Apparently, they’ve calculated that the income he received for six weeks’ work should cover two months’ rent. How they figure this, I do not know. People earning twice what James was getting would be hard pressed paying two months’ rent on six weeks’ salary unless they didn’t eat or pay their bills.

So, thanks to Ontario Works and their callous stupidity, James is utterly destitute, carrying a loan for last month’s rent (borrowed from a person who himself cannot afford the debt incurred to help him out), and incapable of raising this month’s rent. Our landlord, whom I’ll call Mr. Wu, is threatening to evict all three of us. His response to James’ attempts to fill him in on what’s been going on and work things out was simply: “I don’t care.” I wonder if he studied the Ontario Works training manual.

In a final twist of the knife, James’ case worker is refusing to speak to him until he apologizes for hanging up on her in disgust over this whole, wicked absurdity.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Homelessness, Part IV : Romanticism's Folly

This fourth and final article on homelessness and unemployment, excerpted from a letter to my mom (February 2010), casts an objective eye on my upbringing, as well as on my history of choices as an adult. As noted in the previous post, the material gets very personal. I've spent a lot of time deciding what to include and what to excise, and hope that I've achieved a good balance between the specific (unique to me) and the general (applicable, by analogy, to everyone).

The article addresses itself (at last) to the first of the “3 Big Questions” posed at the start of this series: Where did I go wrong?

The original letter ended on what seems to be a downer note, which I considered removing. It doesn’t reflect my usual optimistism, and comes across, to those who do not know me, as self-pitying. Yet there’s truth in it: even those not predisposed to visiting the Wailing Wall can be brought low by homelessness. Therefore, in the interests of honestly, I've left the final passage as it was.

HOMELESS, PART IV : Romanticism’s Folly

Question 1: Where did I go wrong?

The big question. The one I could probably spend the rest of my life answering. Not “trying to figure out” -answering. I ain’t unaware that me and what was expected of me parted company a long, long time ago.

I can’t remember exactly when this habit of being unconventional started. It feels like it’s been with me my whole life. I don’t recall having made a decision to be this way, having chosen “different” as some sort of strategy or life plan.

I think back to my early childhood and sometimes imagine I see the beginnings there. But childhood is a time of unconventionality for nearly everyone, a time when you behave or think outside the box because you aren’t in one yet. Any oddities I might have exhibited then really aren’t much different from any other child’s.

What I do remember is that my unconventionality was, and always has been (or so it feels to me) supported and encouraged. And it certainly developed out of fertile soil.

I wonder sometimes if either you [ie. my mom; remember, this is excerpted from a letter] or Dad realized how different the Schaffters were, how isolated we were as a family from the rest of Mt. Hope [a village south of Hamilton, Ontario that figures prominently—mystically, one might say—in my novel, The Binbrook Caucus]. We did things very differently in the Schaffter household. There was, back then, “what everybody else does” and “what we do,” “how everybody else does it” and “how we do it.” Our way, naturally, was the right way—the proper way—so somehow different always equalled better.

I'm not casting blame, here. I wouldn’t want you to feel as if you’d done anything wrong. Au contraire—big time. I merely want you to understand that when one is raised to be different, and has pride in that different-ness (you and Dad taught us that, too), one isn’t likely to make the same choices everybody else does later on in life.

I'm a Romantic. It’s in my blood. I can’t seem to shake it. They say that if you’re not a liberal in your twenties you have no heart, and if you’re not a conservative in your forties you have no brains. Exchanging liberal for Romantic and conservative for some other opposite—Pragmatist?—I guess you’d have to say I have no brains.

I operate on faith. Not predisposed to wear the colours of religion, I cannot help but observe that my approach to everything is Taoist. I do not like to take action. My impression is that any time I try, I not only fail, but experience humiliation. I know when doing something “isn’t me,” and can’t seem to set the feeling aside. Rather, I prefer to be attentive to the flow (the Tao is often likened to a river), and act on things that come my way.

I'm not talking about merely doing what I like. In a world where luck and happenstance play a greater role than your average pragmatist wants to believe, it has always seemed the better part of wisdom to foster one’s talents, nourish one’s connections, and to keep an open mind; never to say no to anything that furthers, and to avoid the vanity of thinking that one’s life or destiny is under one’s control.

Most of the time, I don’t know what I'm doing. Or, more accurately, I don’t have a clue where what I'm doing is headed. If it feels right, if there’s love in it, if it meets my notions of fostering and furthering (myself and others), then I tend to go along. More than go along—devote myself to it. That’s where faith comes in. So far, I've trusted, absolutely, that the river is carrying me where it should. The fact that only now have I reached what seems an impasse is a tribute to that trust.

So where did I go wrong? At what point, or points, ought I to have made choices other than the ones I did? The question is, of course, academic. Not only can I not change the past, but even were I able to go back in time, it’s unlikely that my choices would be different—even with the knowledge I have now.

Ought I, for example, to have stayed at university, pursued my Masters and, who knows, a PhD? Become a Canadian Composer nobody’s ever heard of except other Canadian Composers, teaching future Canadian Composers nobody will ever hear of? By the time I graduated, I'd grown leery of the inward-looking gaze of academia.

Ought I, around the same time, to have chosen not to come out? To ignore the personal and social struggles of the time? To keep my heart and passions under wraps while I pursued the narrow course of currying the favour of the Toronto’s musical elite? Who would I be now? A materially richer man, perhaps, but one who had no knowledge of the pains and joys of life outside a narrowly-delineated clique.

I was frequently guilty of accidental arrogance when I was young, stemming from an ignorance of other modes of living than the one I knew. My coming out set off a change I just cannot regret. I became attentive to how much I didn’t know. Experiencing real, flawed life with real, flawed human beings seemed the only antidote to what I now see as my spiritual blindness.

Ought I to have learned another trade instead of typesetting? In retrospect, perhaps yes, but hindsight’s twenty-twenty. Who could have known the trade I learned in order to ensure employment would, after centuries, be dead in 2010? Should I have stayed with any of the companies I worked for instead of moving on? Given that not one is still in business, how would that have changed things?

Ought I to have said no when Dave [my lover for ten years, now deceased] proposed the fluid course of seasonal work we both embarked on for several years? Like me, he could see how stilted—crippled, even—life inside the “normal bubble” was. Remember, Dave came from a privileged family, knew all the right people in business and the arts, had worked for the Ontario Arts Council, had contacts in the CBC, etc. Though I fought with him tooth and nail as he dismantled the walls of preconception around my own upbringing, I knew, even then, that he was right to do so. Were it not for Dave, I would never have experienced the turning point, the spiritual watershed, that was the summer of my thirtieth year.

Ought I not to have decamped to Montréal twenty years ago, but rather stayed in Toronto and endured an increasing sense of alienation from the city? I'd be a very different person now had I remained, but would I be better off? And ought I to have stayed in Montréal at a failing company [Les Maîtres Typographes Zibra] instead of moving in with F [a roommate for eight years] and embarking on a course of state-supported poverty that let me write two novels and contribute 18,000 lines of code to groff, an open-source programme used around the world?

It’s hard to answer that one. Perhaps I should have stayed in Montréal and carried on a wage-slave. Maybe where did I go wrong? lies there. I don’t regret my choice to leave; I made it trusting that, however unconventional, it moved me forward. But it could be that’s where I went wrong, since it was at that time I committed to the journey that has brought me to my present state.

My disinterest in financial security has always been motivated by a feeling, possibly delusional, that I'm supposed to do more with my talents and abilities than any job I ever held allowed. Not want to to more with my talents, not imagine I could do more—am supposed to. I feel compelled, by some force greater than myself, to use the gifts I have, both those innate and those acquired in childhood—a childhood that, when others hear of it, they scarce believe. I am, in fact, overwhelmed by a sense of responsibility in this matter. I cannot seem to make it go away.

One could say, I suppose, that in the life I've chosen, I went wrong in whom I trusted. Trust comes easily to me, with the result that I have sometimes placed my faith in those who didn’t merit it.

Who could have known that F's desire for things material would supersede our friendship? Or that Lauren [a roommate for three years] was faking—god knows why—when she claimed to love the intellectual, cultural and creative Bohemia of our little family? [Lauren had a teenage daughter, aptly named after a precious stone, who was the light of my life while we lived together.]

I trusted F completely. I was prepared to sacrifice a lot for him rather than to prove disloyal as a friend. As for Lauren, I always knew that she was flaky. But I believed in her, in her capacity to become the wonderful person no one but me had ever granted her to the freedom to explore. Should I have said, after a year or so of living with her: “This is way too tough. I'm devoting far too much time to fostering Lauren and her daughter when there are better things I could be doing? Time to move along.” Maybe so. But, as I've said, I tend to operate on faith. Devote yourself to something, work hard without complaining, get better at it, sacrifice as need dictates, and somehow it will pay off. I placed my trust in her because I trust myself and live by faith. It’s apparent now I shouldn’t have.

This past year has been hell. Not just because of all the upsets, moves, anxieties, etc, but because my faith has proven false. Mostly, these day, what I feel is humiliation, leading me to wonder whether vanity, not faith, has been my operating principle—the desire to prove something to the narrow-minded, the conventional, the unimaginative.

As things stand now, I have nothing to hold my head up high about. I have nothing to show for who I am or how I've lived that doesn’t sound like hollow bragging. Prior to this year, I could justify my following what seemed “the path with heart” Now I can’t. I feel utterly ashamed, even though I still believe I've done what morally, spiritually, emotionally and creatively I'm supposed to have been doing.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Homeless, Part III : Sticking to Your Guns

The first article in this series on homelessness and unemployment, excerpted from a letter to my mom (February, 2010), asked “The 3 Big Questions”: Where did I go wrong? What have I done to deserve this? and What do I do now?

The third having been addressed in the previous posts, I'll now look at questions one and two, in reverse order.

The material in this and the forthcoming post gets personal as I tussle with decisions, taken long ago, that were, in some ways, radical. Authentic choices are becoming an endangered species in a world ruled by corporations and defined by credit-driven markets. It isn’t that the present world differs all that much from, say Thoreau’s. The vast majority of people still lead lives of quiet desperation. They accept and do not question paradigms, particularly economic ones, that aren't in any way superior to others or even justified by facts. What has changed is the cadre of elites enforcing them. With saturation media, they have more power now to brainwash, hoodwink, threaten and cajole than in the past, with the result that implementing choices off the mainstream has become more difficult.

HOMELESS, PART III : Sticking to Your Guns

Question 2: What did I do to deserve this?

Nothing. Plain and simple. I only ever really contemplate the question on days it’s grey and cold and John has kicked me out for privacy (for which I do not blame him). The rest of the time, I know better than to ask.

“Deserve” implies a causal connection between the morality of actions and their consequences. Good actions deserve rewards; bad actions deserve punishment. When things go well, one never asks: “What did I do to deserve this?” One only asks when things go wrong, the implication being that one’s actions have unjustly brought about reprisal.

I don’t think I've done anything to deserve my treatment at the hands of F [a roommate of eight years], or Lauren [another roommate, whom I referred to in Part I of this series], or Jan [a schizophrenic friend of nearly 20 years who cracked completely, with disastrous consequences for me], or even the weirdness that was the Mad Professor (see Part II : The Arithmetic of Poverty).

In the first three cases, I was invited into their lives. Terms, both spoken and implied, governed our living arrangements, and I fulfilled them scrupulously—to the benefit of all, I believe. I never took advantage, shirking my responsibilities or making demands to which, in the inferior financial state, I was not entitled. I made no impositions and remained respectful of the other persons' needs. I tried at all times to be honest, and freely gave of what I had. I sought and offered friendship. My actions were impelled by love, respect and gratitude, coupled with the hope of furthering all aspects of my roommate’s lives.

I'm not claiming that I haven’t made mistakes, judgment errors that have paved the way for my present state of affairs. I have, and I'll get to those when I attack Question 1. But I don’t “deserve” this. I know which side my moral toast is buttered on, even if it’s fallen, as toast usually does, buttered side down.

The Jesus myth is one I hold dear, even though I cannot call myself a Christian. For me, it’s less about redemption or a reworked Covenant with an aleatory, vengeful god than about sticking to your guns. The Jesus who speaks to me is the one who never backs down, the one who’s willing to go the whole nine yards for his beliefs. It is the all-too-human Jesus who really doesn’t want to be tortured and killed, but who, at the end of the Gethsemane monologue, accepts that his ministry will have been meaningless if he abandons it just because the going got tough.

I extract from the Jesus myth a simple precept: What is the point of ethics or principles if you don’t stick to them? It’s obvious that the one thing Jesus of the Gospels truly hated was hypocrisy. It’s the one sin he does not forgive, and the only one he lifts his hand against. The Good Samaritan, the Pharisee at Prayer, the Cleansing of the Temple...these stories drip with contempt for anyone who proclaims one set of values but acts the opposite way.

(Another thing I like about the Jesus figure is that he’s a party animal. Why else would his very first supernatural act be to save the wedding at Canna by turning water into wine when they ran out of booze? And later on, he conjures up the makings for fish sandwiches—not once, but twice—for gatherings of thousands. Definitely an A-list guest if you’re planning a shindig.)

I've tried to live my life according to certain ethical and spiritual precepts. Or, more accurately, as I've matured and grasped the value of those precepts, I've worked at putting them into effect. That they’re in part—perhaps largely—responsible for my poverty and present state of homelessness doesn’t make them wrong. Neither does my sticking to them make me guilty in some way.

Next: Homeless, Part IV : Romanticism's Folly

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Homeless, Part II : The Arithmetic of Poverty

This is the second of three articles, excerpted from a letter to my mom (winter, 2010), on the difficulties of being unemployed and homeless. In this article, I'll look at some of the realities of homelessness and unemployment, the ones the hard-line, right-wing, tough-love set inevitably sweep under the carpet.

When you find yourself without a home, your first priority is getting one. Everything depends on it. Without a base of operations, hunting for a job presents nearly insurmountable obstacles, from not having an address to give employers (who, understandably, are leery of hiring someone in the mess you’re in) to not having a place to shower and shave so you can look your best at interviews.

Humanely-implemented welfare programmes acknowledge this need, and make it their priority as well. Welfare programmes like Ontario Works, whose first mandate is not welfare, but rather policing the welfare system, merely pay it lip service.

Read on.

HOMELESS, PART II : The Arithmetic of Poverty

There is no such thing as an affordable living situation when your income stands at $535 a month. Not in Ottawa or Toronto, at any rate. [$535/mo is the maximum allowed to a single person without dependents under the Ontario Works programme.] With that amount of money, even the congenitally frugal can’t afford more than $300/mo in rent, and the cost of single rooms—rooms!—starts at $400/mo. I know. I've been doing a lot of looking. The list of rooms and bachelor apartments at Aide logement/Housing Help has nothing under $400. Sure, there’s subsidized housing—I'm in The Registry now, as they call it (ominous-sounding to those of us who cut our teeth on Orwell)—but it takes months, sometimes years, for anything to become available. Not much help when you’re homeless in the dead of winter.

So Step one of my plan (” ..find an affordable living situation”; see previous blog entry, The 3 Big Questions) is already kiboshed. Let’s assume, though, for the sake of argument, we can skip directly to Step two (“...get a job”) and that Step one isn’t the prerequisite it most thoroughly is.

The minimum wage in Ontario presently stands at $10.25/hr. Assuming a 40-hour work week, that translates into a little over $1,600/mo. Subtract one-third (or more) for federal taxes, provincial taxes, payments into the Unemployment Insurance Programme and the Canada Pension Plan, and the total comes out to around $1,100/mo. That ought to be enough to get by on, right? Even when you take into account the $100+/mo for transportation that inevitably goes along with having a job.

Assuming it’s possible to find steady work without having a place to lay your head, the solution to homelessness, one might therefore imagine, is to get a job first, if only at minimum wage, and deal with the housing problem afterwards.


There are precious few full-time, minimum-wage jobs. Those there are don’t pay while you’re on lunch, so at the very least, you’re earning $105 dollars less per month than “40 hours per week” would seem to indicate (for half-hour lunches), or $210 less per month (if you take hour-long breaks).

Thus, even if you do secure a full-time, minimum-wage job, your net income is actually between $100 – $200 a month less than you think. Choosing a figure between the two—$150—your monthly disposable income, minus the cost of transportation (generously rounded down to $100), falls from $1,100/mo to $850/mo.

Now, it’s possible to live on $850/mo, even if just barely (god help you if you have a dental or medical emergency). I can pretty much assure you that the homeless, myself included, would flock to such work if it were available.

Reality is, though, most minimum-wage jobs fall well under the full-time mark. 25 – 28 hours per week is a more likely upper limit. If we perform the same arithmetic on 28 hrs/wk (I'm being generous here) as we did on 40 hrs/wk (incl. subtracting the 15-minute break per shift for which one is not paid), we end up with a net disposable income of approx. $635/mo. That’s exactly $100 more than the $535 a jobless person gets on welfare, so when you factor in the bare minimum cost of a boarding-house room ($400), what you’re left with is exactly the same disposable income you’d have if you were on welfare and living in the mythical $300/mo room!

And lets look at who actually gets hired for those minimum-wage jobs. Most of them are in the retail sector, marketing (ie telemarketing) or food services, most require no experience or education (although, invariably, a high-school diploma is required), and most are mind-crushers.

So who’s holding down the jobs? Kids, mostly, and students after pin money, or one-half of a couple (nearly always the woman) earning extra cash to pay for this year’s trip to Cuba. Even if I applied for a job mopping floors at MacDonald’s, I'd never get hired. Nor would any other man my age, especially one with my education and accomplishments.

So what is a homeless, jobless person past the age of fifty to do? Get a place to stay, then get a job? We’ve seen that that isn’t feasible. Get a job, and then a place to stay? Ix-nay to that, too.

In fact, there’s precious little anyone in my situation can do except pray for luck. The Mad Professor [a narcissistic psychopath I had the misfortune of staying with for a brief time in Toronto] was fond of intoning “Luck is not a strategy”, but when you’re stymied left and right, perforce it is.

Next: Homeless, Part III : Sticking to Your Guns