Continued from parts 1, 2 and 3 . . .
Yesterday, I spent most of the day with my new friend. We visited the public library, where we registered her for a card and she happily borrowed several thick novels. We sorted through her food bank hamper so that I could identify a number of items she's never seen or tasted. We did a little supplementary grocery shopping, we called up the Canada Revenue Agency to ask a few questions, we stopped by a government office to ask a few more questions, we attempted to access a government web site for some account information and determined that password she'd been given was just not going to work, and we filled out some forms. There is no end to the forms.
There was a time, not so long ago, before she and her children made the move from the motel to her little apartment, when she needed me almost every day. We'd blithely embark on one seemingly simple task and three additional and essential corollary tasks would present themselves for immediate action. My youngest was undergoing the usual bouts of new-kindergartner flus and colds at exactly the same time and the husband had to stand in for me on a couple of occasions, pushing back meetings so that he could stay with our youngest for a few hours until I could relieve him. The youngest even came along with us once or twice, upset and disoriented.
At the time, every task on our interminable list of to-dos seemed urgent and long overdue. It felt as if there was no individual support, other than me, to get her through this phase. Yes, there were many, many agencies from which we could seek assistance, but they appeared not to be connected, geographically or otherwise, in any meaningful way and there was certainly no guide or manual that set out the priorities or the appropriate settlement steps or the prerequisites to the steps.
One settlement agency, for example, helps with employment, but not housing. Another helps with housing, but not the income assistance required to pay for the housing. One agency offers financial assistance, but requires a bank account first, and there is no one to help with that, even though my new friend had never had a bank account and had no idea how to choose a bank, acquire an account or make deposits or withdrawals. And there were the usual hefty service fees associated with even the most basic accounts. When I explained to one customer service representative that the fees were excessive, that they were taking food out of the mouths of my friend's children, he agreed to waive the fees for three months. Would that have happened if I hadn't been there to advocate? I just don't know. And you know we'll be back there in three months, begging for an extension to the fee waiver.
I won't lie. There were moments when I wondered how, exactly, this was supposed to work. She never asked for help with anything other than the most fundamental human needs -- food, shelter, clothing, a source of income. And yet, there were moments when I resented the imposition. It's a hard thing to admit and even harder, I suppose, to accept in myself. But there it was. And of course the resentment was immediately followed by the complementary emotions of guilt and shame. How could I, for one moment, feel imposed upon, me with my car and home and winter boots and freedom from persecution and torture?
Ultimately, it was good to sort out all of those feelings. The bad along with the good, the generosity built into the system and the inequities. There is no doubt that I have had the great privilege of learning and growing in this and of extending exactly the kind of help to a family in need that I would hope to receive if the circumstances were reversed, as they easily could have been, but for accident of birth.
She's managing quite well on her own now, still volunteering at the drop-in centre while her children are in school and while she waits for permission to work. From here on in, I think we'll probably get together about once a week for errands or coffee or to fill out forms. We've begun to talk about how we can turn her experience into something from which other newcomers can benefit. There is still work to do and in the coming weeks, when the immediate pressures hopefully begin to subside, we'll get to work on that.
I promise to keep you posted.