No easy solutions

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Editor’s Note: this is Part 2 of an interview with Phillip Mock, project co-ordinator for the CK Prosperity Round Table on addressing the issues behind poverty, addictions and mental illness in the community.

The CK Prosperity Round Table, working with Family Service Kent and many community agencies, has been working on how to effectively tackle the societal issues associated with poverty and has been having discussions with community members, business owners, people living in or with poverty, addiction and mental health issues, including the continuing problem of property crimes and the current “catch and release” style of justice.

A complex issue, there is more to people living in poverty, however, than just people on social assistance or the homeless.

“There is a correlation between lower income and poverty. That being said, when you look at the statistics, just because someone has a low income doesn’t mean they are a criminal or unethical or immoral. We have to realize that poverty is not a character deficiency, poverty is a set of circumstances. It’s obstacles and barriers that people are facing and there is nothing helping them get around them or break through them,” Phillip Mock, Round Table project co-ordinator said in an interview.

He said so when you look at crime statistics and poverty, it’s less of a character flaw and more of a potential flaw of the community. And what he means by that is C-K is a caring, collaborative community but still more can be done to have better outcomes for people and less crime. Mock said Chatham-Kent Police Chief Gary Conn mentioned in a recent interview the public can act as the eyes and ears of the police to help prevent crime.

Mock understands the feeling of violation people have when they are the victims of theft; his car has been broken into.

“That being said, there are people living with serious addictions and mental illness and we have to consider that a disease. That changes the conversation because this isn’t about someone who wants to hurt you, who understands the repercussions of his actions towards you as another community member. These are individuals dealing with a very serious disease of the mind that affects their ability to make those connections between relationships with people in the community,” he said. “Their actions are based on the moment, to survive to access substances when they need that fix right away.”

Looking at addiction and mental illness as diseases, people tend to see them as choices a person made, rather than diseases such as cancer that can strike anyone, no matter their health or status.

Mock said people will say, “Why should I help you out when you keep choosing wrong?” He said the conversation needs to shift where we say, “Yes, there is a choice in everyday life, but those choices are not really choices when they are scoped by a disease.”

“When your choice is to either go through withdrawal and the extreme physical sickness that comes with heavy addiction withdrawal or steal some copper wire to go out and get that next fix, what are you going to do? Those are your two options,” he said. “And the idea, well just go out and get a job, just go back to school – it’s easy to say but a lot harder to do, especially when you face those barriers.”

Looking at addicts as whole people and the reasons behind their addiction is another piece to an already complex issue, and needs consideration when looking at barriers they face and support options.

“Poverty, addictions, mental health – all of these serious social challenges are very messy and that’s why it’s really tough to talk about them. Everyone brings different values, ideas and experiences to the table.”

At the Prosperity Round Table, Mock said they take a very different approach. They don’t try and shy away from or simplify the issues. He said they fully recognize it is messy and complex and they want people from all walks of life to always be at the table when they have their discussions, so they can learn from one another.

Having someone living with addiction or poverty across the table from a businessperson can help each learn new ideas or perspectives from the other.

Since 2008, the Prosperity Round Table group has been working in the community, and Mock said they have decided to try a new approach “so we can actually see less poor, not just better poor in our community.”

He said they are working on expertise from other communities, as well as Tamarack Institute, to develop a five-year action plan to end poverty and achieve prosperity for all.

Mock said some people may say that’s a pretty tall order, but what this method does, instead of a bureaucrat in an office looking at stats and coming up with a plan, it’s about acting together.

“This is not the people that have been coming together to help the have-nots. We want to bring everyone together and we have businesses, non-profits, faith-based communities, government at all levels and people from all walks of life struggling from those challenges coming together around different tables to come up with really innovative and creative ways we can really act outside the box together to achieve the outcomes we are looking for,” Mock said.

He said in other communities using this model, each method has to be outside the box, and different than what is already being done for a win-win situation for all involved.

For example, a group of grocers were having trouble filling part time cashier positions, and single parents were having trouble taking shifts because of childcare needs, so the grocers got together to create a single training session and a common calendar. If a mom could only work three days a week at certain times, the grocers would slot that person in those times, whether it was at Sobey’s or No Frills. That way, jobs are filled, and single parents can take shifts that mesh with their childcare needs. Everyone wins.

“Does it solve every issue? No. But with very little cost, and shifting what we are already doing, we are creating job opportunities for single parents, businesses can thrive and survive and it’s a win-win solution,” Mock explained. “That’s what we’re trying to achieve here. It’s not a multi-year, billion-dollar funded initiative that’s going to take years to put into effect with very little impact. We want quick wins, short-term projects that can have huge impact for the community.”

He said they need the project to be rooted in two things: to look at the evidence; the data that says what poverty looks like in our community, and ensure that the solutions are built for and driven by the community.

Teams are headed out now to engage with the community and talk about what we need to do to implement the plan, a true grass-roots effort.

“This will be a Chatham-Kent plan, built by and for this community,” Mock added.

All sectors and groups in the community will be part of the discussion including Indigenous groups, all levels of government, business owners, farmers, manufacturers, non-profits – with the perspective that if they want to see the change, they have to be part of it.

When talking about poverty, most think of people in the depths – on social assistance or homeless, but Mock said we also have 16,915 people living in this community below the low-income measure which is a measure of poverty, and about 7,000 on Ontario Works or Ontario Disability programs. In fact, there are more people living in low-income than the populations of Blenheim, Bothwell, Thamesville, Tilbury, Wheatley, and Ridgetown put together. Statistics show one-in-six people is living in poverty in Chatham-Kent and one-in-five children aged 0-17 years.

“These are people that are working in this community and the point is, there are many different faces to poverty. So, to paint poverty with just one brush and not get involved because you may have judgments against people on social assistance is the wrong way to take this,” Mock pointed out. “Everyone from all walks of life should be involved in this because this is a plan for everyone. Just because someone is $1 above that line doesn’t mean they aren’t struggling.”

“A lot of people are one or two paychecks away from losing their rent or losing their house, or not being able to afford their car anymore. A lot of people are on the edge and that’s a really fearful place to be.”

The discussion will be about how do we, as a community, shift that so people are more stable and less worried about what will come around the corner tomorrow, Mock said.

The Round Table volunteers are currently out in the community hosting awareness barbecues, where they are inviting everyone to come and have a conversation about poverty issues and what they think can be done.

Communicating with people who may not have access to computers or local media is also an issue for making people aware of the supports and services out there to help them, and Mock said that is a big barrier to overcome. That’s why getting out into the community to have face-to-face conversations is so important.

“That is one of the toughest challenges. We hosted a big gathering in May to kick off this five-year plan with over 130 community leaders across Chatham-Kent, including people with lived experience,” Mock said. “One of the top three challenges was knowledge of and navigation of services here in our community.”

For many people in depths of poverty, they don’t know who to ask and how to navigate the system, with no instruction available, he noted.

“The irony is on the flip side of the table, we are saying we don’t know how to best communicate with them, so what we find is there needs to be a more co-ordinated effort to get the information out beyond just a pamphlet.”

Mock said it can be frustrating for people to go to an agency they think can help them, only to be told to go to another agency, and by the third one where they don’t have the answer, they just give up.

Even at the large gathering in May, people with lived experience in poverty and addictions said they didn’t know this many people in the community cared and that this much was going on to try and fix it.

“When it comes to a solution, maybe its more boots on the ground. If there are more people in places that are readily available to answer questions where people feel comfortable, that’s where we could have the most power,” Mock said.

He said for instance social service staff are attending community meals and soup kitchens with flyers and meeting people where they are. Once trust was built up, he said more people were willing to talk.

Trust, he noted, drives a lot of they work that they do, and building relationships with people. If people don’t trust the system and the people working in it, they won’t connect.

When you take the time to build those relationships, Mock said, that’s when you get the best results but it takes time and it’s not easy.

People on both sides of the table are somewhat skeptical of the five-year plan, but Mock asks that people just trust enough to come out and get to know the people involved.

“We’re not here to preach, we’re not here to educate; we’re here to facilitate and mobilize people to build that trust and those relationships,” he explained. “When we don’t have those relationships, it’s easy for stigma and stereotype to creep up.”

People have been hurt in the community – on both sides – and he said this is an opportunity for people to come together, not to “blame and shame or disrespect,” but to come together and be productive so all can prosper.

“Change can be scary, but the beauty of change is that when it happens and it works, it’s like a light bulb goes off and it’s a breath of fresh air. We’ve tried doing the same thing over again, and we get the same results,” he noted.

Coming up for the Round Table group is another community discussion to have a deeper talk about what has happened in the community, what needs to change and what can be done together to achieve that change. Mock said they are looking for community-driven feedback because it is a community plan, even if feedback is negative.

Then they will be talking to target groups over the next four months like the BIAs, Chambers of Commerce, business community, farming organizations, faith-based groups, non-profits, service clubs and people struggling who would most benefit from the plan.

“People who are business owners or farmers may look like they have a lot of money and people assume, but some of them are also struggling paycheck to paycheck and we want to hear from them too.”

The 30-member volunteer “listening team” from all sectors of the community will look at the data compiled and what they’ve heard so far, and compile it together and come up with a plan.

Transportation, housing, childcare, education, food and income security are some of the big topics they expect will come up. Youth, seniors and the Indigenous community will also be consulted.

For more information on the Prosperity Round Table and what the community can do to help, go to http://www.prosperityroundtable.com. Mock can be reached at pmock@familyservicekent.com.

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