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Putting a face on poverty Add to ...

When Tracy Johnson left Prince Rupert on British Columbia’s northwest coast, moving to Vancouver at age 12, she had hopes of a full, happy life.

But she soon found herself living in poverty, sharing a bedroom with three other children, as her aunt struggled to make ends meet.

By age 18, Ms. Johnson had dropped out of school and was pregnant. Now the 28-year-old single mother of five is raising her family in the same poverty trap she grew up in, barely getting by month after month.

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Ms. Johnson appeared at a press conference in Vancouver, Wednesday, along with Reyna Izaguirre, another single mother living in poverty, to help give a human face to the 2010 report card on child and family poverty in Canada. The report, with a focus on the provincial situation, was released by First Call: BC Child and Youth Advocacy Coalition. Relying on 2008 Statistics Canada data, the most recently available, it shows one in ten children nationally live in poverty; in B.C. it is one in seven. The rates are the lowest in a decade, but a spike is expected when the 2009 data is released next spring because of the economic crisis that began in the fall of 2008.

Adrienne Montani, provincial co-ordinator of First Call, said the statistics “are shameful” given this country’s overall wealth, and show the need for a stronger government focus on poverty, particularly in B.C., which has among the worst rates in Canada, and the lowest minimum wage, at $8 an hour.

Ms. Johnson, the mother of children aged 5, 6, 7, 9 and 11 years, said she “moved to Vancouver with my auntie looking for a better life … and ever since then I’ve been in the welfare system.”

Unable to work because she couldn’t afford child care, Ms. Johnson said the biggest challenge has been in finding a decent place to live.

“At first I was in a one bedroom. I tried to find a two bedroom … I just couldn’t find a good place,” she said.

“I was forced to go to the shelters,” said Ms. Johnson, wiping away tears. “I was in that situation for two months.”

Six months ago, she moved into a subsidized four bedroom apartment in a Vancouver Native Housing Society project.

Ms. Johnson said it is the first decent place she’s lived in – but she is still struggling to get by, with provincial support that sees her get $375 a month for food and $785 for rent.

One of the hardest things about poverty, she said, is having to explain to your children that they can’t have what other children have.

“It makes me feel a failure as a mother because I can’t get my children what they need,” she said, crying.

Ms. Johnson goes weekly to food banks, but there are no fresh fruits or vegetables available.

She wants to work and because her children have recently been accepted into after-school care, she is planning to get her Grade 12 equivalency, and hopes to get a job with a social agency.

“I want to work in the community where I’ve struggled – to show women living in poverty there is hope, there is light,” she said.

Ms. Izaguirre, 41, a single mother of two children aged three and five, moved to Canada as a refugee from Honduras three years ago.

Like Ms. Johnson, she came to Vancouver hoping for a better life, to escape an abusive husband, but got stuck in poverty and is still struggling to get out.

“It’s not easy to talk about these things without crying,” she said, wiping away tears.

“As God as my witness, I’ve been fighting, to go out and get a job and have a normal life,” she said. “I wouldn’t like to be on welfare five years … I would like to go out and have dream like everyone else has.”

But Ms. Izaguirre said it is hard to dream when you go to bed each night burdened by the bleak realities of the day, which includes keeping her family clothed, housed and fed on provincial, monthly payments of $641 for rent and $400 for food.

She lives in a two-bedroom, subsidized apartment, provided by the provincial women’s transition housing and support program, but the two-year term is about to run out.

“You have to move, jumping one house into another house,” she said. “It’s hard to think you might not have a place to live.”

Ms. Izaguirre was an office worker in a church in Honduras for 12 years before moving to Canada. She hasn’t been able to find a job in Vancouver because she can’t afford child care. Her youngest child is autistic and child-care centres have refused to take her without funding for one-on-one support.

“I’m a person. I believe I have a skill. I am a smart person. I can have a job here … I want to believe things can get better,” she said. “I am asking for an opportunity. That’s my request.”

Follow on Twitter: @markhumeglobe

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