by Rosemary Gray-Snelgrove
I suspect my fundamental calling is to try bridging gaps and making gates in walls. This is a holy-enough purpose. I’m targeting what I see as The Wall separating those who live in poverty (the Urban Powerless or UP’s) and those who are able to manage their bills (the Comfortable or C’s). The latter don’t, I think, have much of a sense of what’s different for the UP’s about living – about getting through life.
Here’s my effort at describing some of what I’ve seen from the UP side.
Early Lessons in Feeling The Wall
For the wall to be both ever-present and taken for granted there has to have been awareness of it from early days. Among the UP, who first exercises power? The biggest and strongest, at first. Might be Daddy, whose big voice (and/or fists) keep everybody in line. But who does Daddy listen to? Sometimes it’s another person who’s bigger and more physically intimidating. But often it’s authority figures: the Police, Children’s Aid, the Housing Manager, the person who Daddy or Mommy owe money to, the Principal – collectively, The Man. Even if the particular Man is nice, the message is always clear. We have little say, and he (or they) can make bad things happen: we have to move again, or Daddy disappears, or Mummy cries. And then we do.
So there are people who have control over our lives while we and our neighbours do not.
In C homes, Dad and Mum talk to a policeman at the door in an ordinary voice, few people come seeking money owing, parents don’t seem afraid of strangers, few of whom come looking for them. Often one of the parents is actually a Boss.
The Wall is Rarely Visual
In the old days, there was The Wrong Side of Town. Now there are few obvious slums. And we all dress similarly – thrift shops ensure decent clothing circulates. [Note: shoes remain a big clue. For people with low funds, when mental distress frustrates the shopping experience ill-fitting shoes or boots result; worn all seasons, soles worn out and heels broken down.] Generally, appearances aren’t where lives fall on to one side of the Wall of the other.
The Grocery Experience
In districts where there are low food budgets, grocery shopping isn’t as easy. Many customers visit the grocery store daily – to catch the specials, and to permit carrying home small manageable bags. A big order requires a taxi, half a dozen of which are lined up outside (not at my Toronto grocer…). Inside, bins of outdated best-before items have been picked over. The line-ups at check-out are long – part of the economy of cut-rate food sellers. People count out coins – many don’t have charge or debit cards because they don’t have bank accounts.
Moving About The City
The Wall becomes evident when people talk about going to a part of town where people live who are different from one’s neighbours. The C are nervous about being out of their safety zone – where they know the rules and won’t be attacked. (though they could lower any risk, if there was one, by driving or taking a cab). Similarly, the UP avoid being where they might be embarrassed, and asked to leave, where they don’t know the rules. But there isn’t money for an escape by cab.
Having no money can really interfere with reasonable movement into C territory. Randy, needing knee surgery, walked to and from his surgeon’s appointment five miles away – from Regent Park to St. Clair and Yonge – for every appointment. The $5 return fare was more than he had. Similarly, Rebecca, found an affordable apartment in North York, but had to walk daily to and from work at Parliament and Gerrard because of the travel cost. Most Comfortable people I know would be startled and unhappy hearing about these friends and their trials. But in the big picture it does serve to keep the poor in their place.
Neither Side Wants To Be The Other
For all the struggles of those who feel powerless – or maybe because of them – there is a shared sense of community. They don’t want to ‘trade up’ to be like the C Yes, more money and better housing would be great. But the cost of changing sides is, I think, recognized: losing their identity and solidarity. Also, we C folks are not exactly models of the way to live. Our flaws – hypocrisy, preachiness, snobbery, cluelessness, pickiness – are spotted (if exaggerated).
Does the Wall Matter?
Apart from protesting the fact of the growing financial disparity that maintains and builds the Wall, is there any point to becoming more aware of the experience of being on the UP side?
At the very least, policies based on encouraging or managing compliance are less likely to work unless there’s some understanding of where the natural resistance is coming from. Even cooperation won’t work without checking many assumptions at the door.
The poor, as Jesus said, may always be with us. But is it a loving position to remain clueless to the large sub-culture that exists on the other side of our comfort? Seeing what is before us, hearing the complexity of what the voices are saying, opening and not closing out hearts, isn’t that what Jesus would do? Or Mohammed? Or Buddha? Or one’s deepest self?