Cost of living puts a strain on low and middle-income residents


Julie Bertram

Special to the Tribune

The rising cost of living is a growing problem for many across the globe, driving more people into poverty and distress, even homelessness, and West Nipissing is no exception. Individuals are banding together to help the crisis in our area. Joanne Blais and Kathleen Toland-Descoteaux created the Facebook Group No More Tears West Nipissing to at the grassroots level. Blais was frustrated this winter, “I couldn’t help people get shelter on the coldest nights of the year. In previous years, North Bay or Sudbury would take people from Sturgeon, but the shelters in those places are full. We need services in Sturgeon.” Blais says they started the group to “get the homeless food, a place to stay, blankets, and immediate help,” wanting to form local alliances with others. “Our plan is to reach out to other organizations in the area to get more knowledge and find where best we can help. We need new ideas. The system just isn’t working.”

Kathleen Descoteaux joined Blais to face the issue head-on. “I’m one of these people who needs information, so I contacted the Mayor, Councillors Rivard, Tessier, and St. Louis. They didn’t know anything. The Mayor sent me a link to the Nipissing Social Services [Administration Board], but there was nothing in Sturgeon and it was freezing cold, and I thought, well we’re going to have to do something! So, I sent several emails to the person responsible for outreach and shelters in North Bay, but no response whatsoever. I asked the city [North Bay] what services they provide us and didn’t get any information from them either. We’re at our wits end. These are people’s sons and daughters, there are a lot of mental health issues, and local people have to go to Pembroke or Timmins for inpatient rehab. I said to Anne [Tessier], you’re our Councillor, find us a place to meet so we can start working on this. The Church in Verner gave us the space [Paroisse St. Jean Baptiste]. There is another group collecting donations for the homeless [FB group: Helping the less fortunate of Sturgeon & North Bay] so I started dropping stuff off with them but realized we needed to partner up because at that time they didn’t have anyone available to hand out the stuff. We’re also talking about training with Crisis Prevention and Intervention,” which provides verbal and physical non-violent techniques to improve interaction during a crisis.

On Saturday, April 2, the group held their first donation drive. Members gathered at the Marché lot on King Street in downtown Sturgeon Falls. Donations were coming in all day, and individuals and families in need were grateful for the warm clothes and free food. Blais and Descoteaux were joined by Kris Primeau, Theresa Rivet, Tammy Pretty Commanda, Amanda Wells, and Lucie Brousseau, to help people find what they needed among the donated hats, mitts, clothing, blankets, toiletries, sleeping bags and tarps.

Other groups have also been working hard to help people cope with rising costs, from local food banks to second-hand clothing outlets. The Sturgeon Falls Pentecostal Church on Dutrisac Rd. hosts a Free Clothing Room which has helped many people find what they need in a non-judgemental space. The generous donations of clothing and footwear for children, women, and men, and a few other household items are sorted and displayed in various spaces by volunteers. Barbara Ford runs the Clothing Room and appreciates the donations from community members. “This clothing room started many years ago. Before Covid, we had one back room and one person working it, putting the clothes online and delivering them to anyone in need. (…) During Covid, we would allow ten people in at a time, and once restrictions were lifted we were allowed 50 people in at a time. We were meeting that limit 2 days a week, having up to a hundred people each day, many had to wait outside in line. It’s terrible when you have to worry about clothing your kids, paying your rent, and paying your bills, at least this alleviates some of that. We have families that come in with four or five kids and they’re in tears because buying clothing for that many kids is insane. They bring their kids so they can try stuff on.”

The Clothing Room also works with True Self Debwewendizwin, an outreach organization supported by Nipissing First Nation, and with the Horizon Women’s Centre in Sturgeon Falls. “True Self comes in to collect stuff for homeless people, like blankets, coats, and hoodies to keep them warm. Women from the shelter get clothing, and now some of them have come here to help in the Clothing Room.” The alliances don’t stop there. “We are on the list for community hours at the high schools, if students want to come in and fold some clothes then I sign off on community hours, and at the same time they can look for clothes, it’s a bit of a perk. We also put bins together for schools so that when kids have wet mittens from recess, they can get another pair. We do it for clothes as well, different sizes for different classes. If there’s something like a fire, we will go in after hours and meet with the people to get them what they need so they don’t have to come in during opening hours because they’re stressed enough. For any extenuating circumstances, people can message me, I will be more than happy to put a bag of stuff together for them and I’ll even bring it to them.” Monday to Thursday, 10-4, donations that are appropriate to the season are accepted. Mondays from 10-2 the Clothing Room is open to everyone.

Inflation hurting low and middle-income families

While many had hoped to see food prices flattening in the new year, Canada’s Food Price Report 2023 predicts they will continue to rise. Sturgeon Falls resident Amanda Gagne wrote a social media post about grappling with surging food costs with an attached picture of the items she had just bought: a loaf of bread, a couple of peppers, various fruit, it cost her over $50 at the cheapest grocery store. “With this $50 I could have bought 2 cases of pop, 10 bags of chips, 4 packs of wieners, 2 bags of buns, and 4 packages of cookies with a little to spare. Or, at sale price, 32 boxes of Kraft Dinner. We tell people to eat healthy but we make it impossible for well over half the population. Our food banks are overwhelmed. This is not okay. It cannot continue on like this or we are going to have an even bigger problem. If a middle-class family like mine is just making ends meet, it is no wonder why we have so many people on the streets. We are almost at a crisis point now,” she wrote.

Nearly 50 comments later, all sharing the difficulty in making ends meet, they were all looking for answers. The North Bay Parry Sound Health Unit recently released its 2022 Cost of Eating Well report, noting that it takes $1,125 per month to feed a family of four. Throw in rent or a mortgage, rising interest rates, and high gas prices, and we see a bleak picture of affordability. Poverty is the root cause of food insecurity, which ranges from worrying about running out of food to filling up on cheaper, less nutritious foods, skipping meals, or going without eating. The report acknowledges that food insecurity is only part of the issue, “Evidence continues to show that food-based programs do not reduce food insecurity because it is an income problem much bigger than just food. Households who struggle to pay for food also struggle to pay for the other costs of living. The compromises food insecure households make because they do not have enough money include, but go far beyond, food-related decisions. These households spend less on food and the other costs of living such as housing and transportation than food secure households.”

A study called Inflation’s Toll on Canadian Families: The Fire is Hottest in the Middle, by TD bank economists James Marple and Rannella Billy-Ochieng, notes that middle-income families are also being hit extremely hard. They write, “Elevated inflation is hurting everyone, but, given their relatively higher share of spending on food and transportation, middle-income households are likely facing the highest inflation rates.” They are also most often mortgage holders, and with several successive interest rate hikes by the Bank of Canada in 2022 and 2023, many have seen their borrowing costs balloon.

More bankruptcy filings this year

Joel Grisé, a Chartered Insolvency and Restructuring Professional with Fontaine & Associates in North Bay/Sturgeon Falls, has seen a major spike in clients seeking debt solutions since the beginning of 2023. “In 2019, filings were high, but what’s interesting is that throughout the pandemic we saw filings halt completely, people were not going out and spending money. People could actually service their debts because expenses were low. Now, we’re seeing filings at an all-time high with inflation and higher interest rates, preventing people from paying down their debts.”

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