She lost her job as a bookkeeper in 2009. A victim of workplace bullying. 

Since then, she’s been looking for another job. But several of her front teeth are missing and she can’t afford to get them fixed. 

Yet somehow she barely manages to survive on welfare.

“I’m kind of between a rock and a hard place,” she says.

Michelle Hruschka can’t go back to school because she can’t shoulder the debt burden. Without a bursary for school or a decent job, she feels as if she’s run out of opportunities.

She refuses to work for temporary help agencies. She’s done that before and was a victim of wage theft.

“Even if you go through the process with the Ministry of Labour, the legislation still isn’t strong enough to ensure that you’re paid,” she says.

She shares an apartment with a roommate. But she has no savings. Her $599 monthly welfare cheque doesn’t go too far. So she shops carefully and tries to stretch her money as far as it will go.

Even then, she’s still forced to rely on a line of credit that’s quickly approaching its limit.

“I don’t know how much more before everything totally collapses,” she says. “When your employment insurance runs out everything is at risk.”

The 53-year-old used to have a car. Used to have more than enough money to pay her rent or buy food. Bought whatever she wanted. But that was when she had a job that paid her $15 an hour.

She fears that if the government follows through on the Drummond report recommendations, more people will end up in her situation.

Hruschka and a few hundred others gathered outside the Ministry of Housing for a rally Friday organized by the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) to demand the right to a living income, affordable and accessible housing and good quality public services for all.

In the lead up to the 2012 provincial budget on March 29, the McGuinty government hired former Toronto Dominion bank economist Don Drummond to recommend cost cutting measures to eliminate the deficit.

Following a fabulous meal provided by the Ontario Nurses Association and several speeches, protesters marched through the downtown core to voice their opposition to the proposed austerity measures and demand the reversal of previous cutbacks.

“Everybody should be looked after,” she says. “There should also be better retraining opportunities.”

Like Hruschka, Ursula Samuels lives on welfare with her 16 year-old son. 

She makes several stops at a local food bank every month just to make ends meet. Other times, she has to decide between paying a bill or putting food on the table or sending her son to school without a lunch.

She worries that she’ll fall behind even more, if the Drummond report recommendations are adopted.

While Hruschka and Samuels struggle on welfare, Patti Encinas, a single mother with two boys, is forced to get by on an annual income below the poverty line.

Her take-home pay has only increased $200 a month in the last nine years. Yet she estimates her living expenses have gone up by at least 40 per cent during that same period.

She’s looking for a new apartment because she can’t afford the rent where she lives right now. Encinas shares a two-bedroom apartment with her sons but her limited income puts severe restrictions on where she can live.

Even a two-bedroom that rents for $825 a month plus hydro is too much for her. “That’s almost 50 per cent of my income,” she says.

“So we are looking for a cheaper place to live.”

She doesn’t go on vacations. Or eat out in restaurants or go to sporting events. No cable television or cellphones. Cooks everything from scratch.

“We watch every single penny,” she says. “I’m working so I’m far better off than a lot of these people are.”

So she’s got enough money to pay her rent and transportation costs as well as put food on the table.

“But that’s all I have,” she says. “Just the basic necessities.”

And she may not even be able to meet her family’s basic needs if the province adopts Don Drummond’s recommendations.

“There’s a huge possibility I’ll lose my job,” she says. 

“And then I’ll be on welfare with my family until I can find another job, leaving more people dependent on services that Drummond says we can’t afford to offer.”

Without a job, she says there’s no chance her children will be able to go to college, leaving them trapped in a life of poverty.

“It’s going to be a grim future for them if they graduate from high school and have to go work for $10.25 an hour,” she says. 

“Because they’ll never be able to build a life for themselves.”

Click here to see more photos from today’s rally and march.

John Bonnar

John Bonnar is an independent journalist producing print, photo, video and audio stories about social justice issues in and around Toronto.