Life

COUNTING THEIR PENNIES

Susan McClelland April 23 2001
Life

COUNTING THEIR PENNIES

Susan McClelland April 23 2001

COUNTING THEIR PENNIES

Life

Susan McClelland

For the past two years, Margaret has been living a nightmare. That’s when the 79-year-old widow, who asked that Maclean's not use her real name, and her 52-year-old daughter, Shirley, entered the horrific world of the homeless. Following a dispute with their then-land-lord, the two women moved into a motel. But the search for a new apartment they could afford on their total $ 1,000-a-month income proved far more difficult than they ever imagined. With their funds dwindling, the two moved out of the motel and into a car. Now, 23 months later, they are still living in a 1983 silver Plymouth, constantly shifting from one parking lot to another along Lakeshore Boulevard in Oakville, Ont.

Margaret, who seldom summons the energy to speak, looks as though she is close to giving up. The sly glances from passers-by, feelings of humiliation, and fear of the strangers who walk right up to the window of the car she calls home are all taking their toll. The once-vibrant mother of two is gaunt,

her cheeks are hollow from the teeth that have fallen out and her skin has turned yellow from malnutrition. “I just want to rest,” she says. It may still be a while before she gets her wish. Social service agencies and the local housing agency have tried to help. But her daughter—who plans to start a hunger strike this week to protest the lack of affordable housing for the poor and elderly—has objected to many of the agencies’ stipulations, such as separating the two of them. Besides, she says, she and her mother just want to live safely in an apartment of their own choosing. “We are not, she insists, a charity case.

How can this be happening in a country that the United Nations has consistently rated the best place in the world to live? Since the mid-1990s, the economy has been booming. But at the same time, the poor have gotten poorer. And although Margaret’s situation is an extreme example, a growing number of the poor are the elderly. The reason is simple: their fixed incomes, mainly pensions and old age security, have not kept up with the rising cost of living, particularly rent and utilities. Making matters worse, the federal government and most provinces have gotten out of the business of building affordable housing. That has prompted critics to call on Ottawa to immediately implement national affordable housing programs and develop an action plan to deal with an aging population. “A crisis isn’t looming,” says Lillian Morgenthau, president of the Toronto-based Canadas Association for the 50 Plus. “The crisis is already here.”

Numbers from various agencies hint at the problem. In Calgary, 314 people over the age of 45 were homeless last year— 20 of them over age 65. An estimated 1,400 seniors are on waiting lists for one of the city’s 10,500 affordable housing units. In Toronto, 12,000 seniors were among 63,480 people on the city’s list for subsidized housing last year. As alarming as these figures are, experts say they do not tell the whole story. “This population of seniors survived world wars,” says Val MacDonald, executive director of British Columbia’s Seniors Housing Information Program. “Many just won’t reach out for help.” Up until the 1980s, politicians accepted economists’ guidelines that Canadians should not spend more than 25 per cent of their gross household incomes on rent. Governments were committed to providing housing that met that goal. But during the Mulroney years, the federal government started to cut back on that commitment. Then, when Jean Chrétien reached office in 1993, the Liberals cancelled new construction of low-cost dwellings and downloaded responsibility for housing to the provinces and the municipalities. Over the past decade, the majority of them stopped building new nonprofit dwellings as well. The result: by 1996, more than 800,000 Canadians spent more than 50 per cent of their gross household incomes on rent.

Governments don’t appear poised to jump back into housing anytime soon. When the federal government allocated

band died from a heart attack in November. Now that she receives only a portion of her husband’s army pension, money is so tight that by month’s end she can barely pay her electricity bill. Since breaking her hip in January, the 80-year-old has been unable to leave her home, raising fears that if she falls again, it might be days before anyone finds her. But when she applied to a retirement home, she discovered that even if she sold her modest house, she could never afford the $2,400 a month the home charges. “I am a prisoner in my house,” she says. “It’s very frightening.”

Women like Brownfield tend to live closer to the edge than men because they were more likely to have stayed home and raised kids. As result, women, who on average outlive men by six years, have smaller pensions and savings. In fact, according to a recent Statistics Canada report, senior women have an average annual income of $16,000—$10,000 less than their male counterparts—the poorest earnings of any agegroup in Canada. “There are a lot of seniors who can make their payments, but barely,” says Grace Buller of the national nonprofit group Canadian Pensioners’ Concerned. “They live in this fear that next year they won’t be able to and what will happen then?”

Experts warn the situation will only get worse if change is not implemented soon. In the next 20 years, more than 3.4 million baby boomers will be over age 65—doubling the current population of seniors. “There is this misperception that baby boomers are all affluent,” says Gloria Gutman, a housing expert in Simon Fraser University’s Gerontology Research Centre in Burnaby, B.C. “A lot of baby boomers are singleparent moms. These women will be the starving grannies of the future and we need to be prepared for this.”

Sadly, Margaret’s story illustrates what can happen when society fails its seniors. Once, she and her daughter were scraping by. Feeling let down by an Ontario housing tribunal they say didn’t listen to their complaints about the land-

MANY SENIORS ARE LIVING IN UNSAFE CONDITIONS OR DIRE POVERTY-

and critics say government inaction on key social policies is to blame

$753 million in December, 1999, to deal with homelessness, it did not set aside funds for permanent, low-cost housing. And, critics note, the current Liberal Red Book housing plan, which would give developers $ 15,000 for every rental unit they build, will only lower rents minimally, if at all. “The plan doesn’t call for enough units or money for there to be much of an impact,” says Jack Layton, a Toronto city councillor and author of the just-published Homelessness, the Making and Unmaking of a Crisis. “What we need is a national housing strategy. We are the only democratic country not to have one.”

In his book, Layton writes about the alarming increase in socalled relative homelessness—people living in spaces that do not meet basic health and safety standards and who are precipitously close to homelessness. Calgary’s Johanna Brownfield is typical. Her household income plummeted after her hus-

lord, they wound up in their car. The younger woman lost a welfare cheque that had contributed more than $500 a month to their household. Then, when they tried to find a new rental apartment, they were greeted by the region’s 0.8-per-cent vacancy rate. Even if they had found something, following the Ontario government’s abolition of rent control in 1998, a onebedroom unit for which they used to pay $800 a month had jumped to more than $1,000. “I never thought I would end up like this,” says Margaret. “I knew life could be tough. But never this cruel.” Her daughter is more outraged: “My mom spent her life working hard and paying taxes. Now, society has left her to die homeless in a car.”

Are we as a society failing our seniors?

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