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Pandemic financial pressures deplete finances, spirits as festive season approaches

Like many Canadians financially hurt by the pandemic, her family of four is struggling to stay afloat even with the help of social assistance, food banks, clothing donations, and loans from friends and family.
People wear face masks as they shop at a Christmas market in Montreal, Saturday, November 28, 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues in Canada and around the world. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

TORONTO — Pandemic restrictions and financial strain mean Christmas will look different than past years for Tia Cyr and her family, so she enlisted Santa in breaking the news to her son.

The Alberta mom says she told her six-year-old that the big guy has been hit hard by COVID-19, too, and she read aloud a letter she said Santa Claus had penned to warn children they may not get everything they ask for this year.

"There was a note from Santa that said: Due to COVID restrictions he and his elves are going to have a bit of a harder time with accessing some of the materials that they might need," Cyr recounts from Legal, north of Edmonton.

"I also have been taking the time to remind him consistently (that times are tough).... He's been pretty good about that so far."

Cyr didn't write that Santa letter — she found it on a community Facebook page and recognized that it might help her family brace for a less-than-festive holiday season after an especially tough 2020 forced them to make-do with about $2,200 a month.

Like many Canadians financially hurt by the pandemic, her family of four is struggling to stay afloat even with the help of social assistance, food banks, clothing donations, and loans from friends and family.

With the country's unemployment rate still hovering above 8 per cent, experts note pandemic-related hurdles have depleted incomes, savings and spirits in alarming ways  — plunging many families into hunger and housing woes for the first time while pushing those who were already on the margins deeper into poverty.

Hunger expert Valerie Tarasuk, a nutritional sciences professor at the University of Toronto, expects societal consequences will reverberate years and even decades without significant policy reform including livable wages, better working conditions and a pharmacare program.

She acknowledges the federal government's response "has been absolutely unprecedented" with a $100 million investment in food charity in April and another $100 million in October, supports for lost wages and additional funds from the provinces.

But she also says that approach "is not an effective way to respond to this problem."

Tarasuk takes issue with seasonal donation campaigns, fearing it leads some Canadians — many of whom have thrived during the pandemic and even increased savings — to believe the issue is being addressed.

"It gives us the illusion that somehow the less-fortunate have been adequately helped," says Tarasuk.

"It feels like we're headed to hell in a handbasket and what have we got? Donations to food banks." 

Recent hunger reports from poverty agencies paint a worrisome picture of escalating deprivation, including a Nov. 30 plea from Feed Ontario that found first-time food bank visitors jumped more than 25 per cent during the first four months of the pandemic.

The network of 1,200 hunger-relief agencies found usage largely driven by lack of affordable housing, insufficient social assistance programs, and increasingly precarious work, such as part-time and casual positions. 

"If food bank use continues to rise, the scope of need will far outpace the capacity of any emergency charitable model to respond," it said.

Edmonton support worker Mohammad Alam of The Family Centre is used to helping others access government assistance but says he, too, had to defer his mortgage payments because of financial strain. 

He says his wife lost her daycare job during the spring lockdown but they're "blessed" that she was able to find another position two months ago.

Emily-anne King of the Vancouver charity Backpack Buddies says the face of poverty is diverse and pervasive: "It's in all of our communities, it's down the street, it's next door sometimes and people aren't aware of it."

"What's been most alarming to me is the increase in newly vulnerable families — people who were never worried about putting food on the table before," says King, whose group provides food to children and their families in about two dozen B.C. communities.

"We're doing what we can to try to fill that hunger gap as best as possible but to be very frank with you we're not even skimming the surface of the real demand," says King.

"We're supporting almost 3,000 kids a week in our province but there are tens of thousands of kids that are struggling, and families. It feels like an insurmountable task."

Cyr, who also has a one-year-old boy, says she's stretching economical meals of pastas and stews and expects the holidays will involve no-cost entertainment such as movies, video games and card games.

Her partner lost his well-paying job as an ironworker about two years ago and has struggled to find steady work since. She says he has not applied for employment benefits because he's behind on his taxes.

Meanwhile, Cyr has been a stay-at-home mom for about five years and says she gets about $1,200 in monthly income support and another $1,000 in child benefits. 

It doesn't go far. She says expenses include $1,400 a month for their two-bedroom condo and $40 for a shared cell phone. Cyr stopped insuring her truck, which broke down and costs too much to repair.

Then there's debt: two maxed-out credit cards owing about $1,300; $600 in past rent and more money owed to friends and family. 

Cyr holds little hope things will turn around in 2021.

"It sounds very negative and dark. I've been trying really hard to work on my mentality and hopefully stay positive as best I can, but it's getting really difficult," she says, noting she's "dead broke" until her next payment mid-December.

"I know I'm going to end up having to borrow some money again soon, just to be able to afford food and basic necessities. So I don't know what that's going to look like as far as (Christmas) presents go."

While much has been made of recent data charting food bank usage, Tarasuk says it's difficult to draw any meaningful conclusions about the whole picture from piecemeal reports, noting past StatCan figures that suggest for every food bank user, another four people also go hungry.

She believes many people must be worse off as the second wave continues to batter the economy, CERB has been replaced by more fragmented income supports and moratoriums on evictions have evaporated. 

Sarah Bailey, who founded the non-profit Full Plate to help hospitality workers weather the COVID-19 crisis, says many in her field feel especially unsettled and suspect bars and restaurants will be among the last sectors to rebound.

While many workers have lost income because of business closures, she says others have given up shifts because of infection fears. Ongoing flux in public health guidelines add further emotional stress.

"There's a lot of workers that I can just speak to anecdotally that I've talked to that are feeling a lot of fatigue around the multiple recalls and layoffs," she says.

Allan Undheim, vice president of Community Building and Investment at United Way of Alberta, points to myriad other woes linked to financial stresses, especially during the holidays: marital strain, family violence, and physical and mental health problems.

A surging second wave only intensifies these issues, he says, suggesting it's a less obvious but crucial reason to curb infections.

"You still have people choosing not to wear masks and not following through on what's required, not recognizing the severity of it," Undheim says of the pandemic's impact. 

Cyr says she sees signs of hardship throughout her community and hopes her story fosters greater awareness of how much average families are struggling.

"It's been really tough on a lot of people. Especially in this town and everyone that I know has been having some form of struggles," she says.

"It's kind of hard to feel confident and proud of yourself when you're constantly scraping by."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 7, 2020.

Cassandra Szklarski, The Canadian Press

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