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Coalition sets up soup line outside Federal Finance Minister's office

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On a cool September morning, a server lifts the lid on a steaming container and carefully ladles soup into plastic bowls while standing on the northwest corner of Bay and University in the heart of Canada’s financial district. She hands a bowl to John Andras, a portfolio manager at a nearby investment company and chair of the Recession Relief Coalition, a broad-based group of organizations and individuals concerned about the impact of the recession on Canada’s most vulnerable and marginalized residents.

Andras and his colleagues have assembled outside 150 King Street West, where the Federal Finance Minister has a regional office, to send Jim Flaherty a message: Things are getting worse for the unemployed, students and people of colour and something must be done about it now.

“For the agencies that are trying to help people, it’s absolutely brutal,” says Andras. “Demand is way up and donation levels are down.” One agency told him that they’re serving fourty four per cent more people in their food program than they were a year ago. “People are desperate. They’re relying on agencies for their basic needs.”

At the same time, government and foundation grants, private sector sponsorships and individual donations are down; fundraising events aren’t pulling in the same kinds of revenues they did in the past. “So a lot of the agencies are hanging on by their fingernails, praying and hoping for better times,” he says. “And I don’t think those better times are going to come for a while.”

Andras anticipates that over the next six months, some agencies are going to have to close their doors because they’ve gone bankrupt or they’ll be forced to cut back on a lot of their programs. To prevent that from happening, the Recession Relief Coalition wants additional EI reforms. While they admit the $1 billion already pledged is going to be very valuable, they’re waiting to see when and if that actually happens.

In addition, the Coalition wants widespread reform to social assistance. “For a single person to try to survive on $572 a month is absolutely ludicrous,” says Andras. “It can’t be done.” To even qualify for welfare, people have to be destitute. That means selling all their liquid assets. “So you’re being maintained in poverty with very little hope.”

But according to the headlines the recession is over, so it appears the government has little interest in helping those in need. Mainstream media is full of reports about how stimulus funding has fueled unprecedented growth in the North American economy.

So if the economy has rebounded, why has the Recession Relief Coalition and its supporters gathered at King and University on Wednesday?

“You scratch the surface of the headlines,” says Andras, “and the story isn’t so great.”

In July, with stimulus spending at full tilt, there was no growth. The decrease in the numbers receiving EI benefits may be the result of people having run out of EI without finding employment. Experts predict that even if the recession is over, unemployment will continue to rise for several years; most of the unemployed aren’t even eligible for EI.

What happens to them? Their stories appear to be of little interest to the Harper government.

But Jenny Ahn of the Good Jobs for All Coalition (GJFAC) says she’s fighting to improve living and working conditions for all people, regardless of employment status. She knows that the so-called economic recovery is, in fact, a jobless recovery. In the last two recessions, the unemployment insurance system was the most powerful economic stabilizer. But now, less than half of all workers qualify for a benefit that insures them for less than a year.

“We need serious EI reforms,” says Ahn. “Not just some hokey, pokey change because of a possible election.”

Last week the GJFAC met with unionized workers, students, non-unionized workers and members of the community at Ryerson University in Toronto and promised to challenge the Harper government and Jim Flaherty to make the much needed changes to the EI system. Besides signing petitions and lobbying the government, the GJFAC wants a standard 360 work hours in every region of the country to qualify for EI.

“Not in some regions but in every region,” says Ahn. “Why should one area differ from another area in Canada?” Right now, the hours (420 to 700 hours) are based on where you live and the unemployment rate in your economic region at the time of filing your claim for benefits. But with a $57 billion dollar surplus, Ahn sees no reason why the qualifying hours can’t be reduced and standardized with the payout and benefit periods increased.

Unemployment amongst students (rarely discussed by governments) reached 19.2 per cent over the summer months, the second highest rate since comparable data became available in 1977. In addition to a high unemployment rate, the average number of hours worked during the summer by students was the lowest since 1977, at 23.4 hours per week.

“Students can’t access EI,” says Nora Loreto of the Canadian Federation of Students. “So they drop out of school because they can’t afford to attend.” Others can’t access the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) because they’re attending school part time or their parents’ employment earnings are too high. Students say they’re at the end of their rope and need help.

“Flaherty, where is our bailout money?” yells Loreto as she addresses the crowd outside Finance Minister Flaherty’s regional office. “Where is the bailout money for the workers and the students and for low income Canadians and for people who are down on their luck?”

Bob Rose sees where the money is.

“It’s up behind those closed doors,” he says, pointing at the building where Flaherty has his regional office. “And it’s in those banks and that’s got to end because the dough is not going where it needs to go – into the hands of people, into the hands of children, and the lonely and the elderly and the traumatized.”

While Rose admits life can get complicated and people can get down, he says they should never be left out. But that’s exactly what’s happened. People have been forgotten because the recession has focused solely on economic recovery, economic formulas and projections of the week.

“But that kind of talk is the kind of talk that sacrifices lives,” says Rose, who wants to talk about the recovery of people. “That means talking concretely about specific steps to provide funding that can be used to save lives that this recession is taking and preparing to take in very large numbers.”

Rose and his colleagues, who work with the homeless and those at risk of becoming homeless, need money to sustain their programs that ease poverty. They spend most of their time and energy trying to prevent soup lines, like the one set up outside Bay and University last Wednesday. But in spite of their efforts, thousands of people line up outside drop-ins every day in Toronto waiting for a spot at a table to get a meal.

Rose works in a drop-in in the west end of the city that will serve 89,000 meals this year to the 1,000+ people who come through their doors every day. “We are the biggest food support program in the west end and we are grossly under funded,” says Rose.

His drop-in receives no money from the Ministry of Health and only a small sum from the city of Toronto. It survives on donations from Daily Bread Food Bank and Second Harvest. He says they never planned to have a food program nor did they plan to grow as they have.

“It was forced on us in the last recession and it grew in response to the rising cost of housing, the end of social housing construction and income assistance that got slashed to the point that people couldn’t live on it. That’s when our attendance numbers doubled. So we invented a food program.”

Now that the recession has returned, all food programs are in financial trouble.

In unison they ask the same question: Will we have enough to serve every one? Community meal programs need help to meet the current demand and deal with the onslaught when things don’t get noticeably better for several years.

“We know the drill,” says Rose. “First the loss of job, then the personal trauma, the disappearance of home, families splintering, drifting to the street, then finally arrival at the drop-in.”

Click here to see more photos from the rally.

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