Toronto may be the richest city in Canada but there's a dirty secret: in order to pay rent many of the working poor can't afford to feed their families.
This issue was addressed Thursday during the Home Safe Toronto documentary screening and expert discussion in at The Royal Theatre.
The evening was moderated by Michael Shapcott, Director of Housing and Innovation at Wellesley Institute. Shapcott has been behind some of the most up to date research on advancing urban health. He is considered as an expert on community-based housing and homelessness.
Dr. Stephen Hwang, Research Scientist, St Michael's Hospital, begin the panel stating that when housing is unaffordable the working poor suffer with hunger, mental health issues and the stresses that not having a stable home base put on overall health. While good housing can provide a location that is a base to every aspect of positive health not being able to afford housing brings on the negatives to staying healthy. Too often researchers and doctors don't look beyond the first layers of the inadequate housing issue when it comes to health, not allowing a full picture of the life long problems that the stresses of not having a stable base that can develop.
Professor Dr. Valerie Tarasuk, at University of Toronto, is an expert when it comes to housing insecurity. While it is common sense that when one has to choose paying rent over paying for food there is a health price. That price though does not go away when food is more available, setting up a lifetime of health issues with both physical and mental issues. Kids that deal with hunger have a lasting health disadvantage.
Tarasuk said that for many of the working poor the stigma of having to ask for help means that pride stands in the way of going to a food bank. Often it is only when there is no other option and a family has given up everything that these working poor in Canada ask for help.
"As housing becomes more dire the amount of food becomes more dire," Tarasuk explained, "In Canada there are 3.9 million people who are hungry."
Referring to the documentary Tarasuk said that "it strikes me in the people's comments during the film that the talk was often about food."
Food banks are a band-aid to a much more serious issue. There are not enough safety nets in place for the working poor to be able to afford both a home and a secure amount of food. Food banks depend on donations, which are generally of food that is not that healthy.
In the City of Toronto there are 152,000 on the waiting list for affordable housing. It's not that Toronto doesn't have homes for these people that wait up to a decade for a home, it's that the homes that are available are not an option for the poorest families. Add in the fact that 16 percent of homeless programs are being cut in the next year. People who have immigrated to Canada to have a better life for their families are facing hunger for the first time in their lives. It doesn't seem possible that a nation with so much land to produce food has people who go to bed night after night with nothing to eat.
Tarasuk said that research has shown that the health of women who are food insecure are also diagnosed with a mental health issue on top of physical health issues. Having mental health issues or being disabled means that there are even more problems when it comes to accessing services. The circle of poverty, homelessness and hunger becomes a unending battle.
Ms. Colleen Richards and Ms. Rene Adams, both participants in the film Home Safe Toronto rounded out the panel. They gave first hand accounts of the cost of insecure housing and food have on a family. One of those issues is feeling safe to ask for help without losing their children to Children's Services. This is a realistic fear. One of the stories related was of when children go back to school and their teachers send home a list of items that are required. Some of those lists in other parts of Canada have included a warning that children without the needed supplies would be reported to Children's Aid.
As Hwang said as the evening was ending "unless the problems are visible and in your face the government doesn't look at them." With so many of the working poor not demanding that they get help when it comes to food the issue is an invisible one that will not end any time soon.