I've lived in Toronto my whole life. I grew up in a three-bedroom rooming house over on Gerrard Street, right by Broadview. It wasn't the nicest area, but it was okay. My sister went off on her own at 16 to get married and my brother was always getting in and out of trouble. He got into it more than he got out though and ended up in foster care as far as I remember. I think my brother actually got the best end of things really. I think maybe things would have turned out different for me if I had of been taken to some other family too.
My parents drank a lot, more than anyone should really. My mother couldn't stop drinking even when she was pregnant with me, and they say I ended up with some kind of 'cognitive delay' because of that. I think it's a fancy word for saying I can't understand as much as I should. I went to a special school when I was four, and stayed there until I was twelve. I learned how to ride the streetcar and use the subway, and how to talk to people in grocery stores. 'Basic Life Skills' they called it. At school I couldn't focus much because I was too busy thinking about what would be waiting when I got home. The house and my parents were usually a mess by the time I walked through the door in the afternoon. I'd clean everything up, then make dinner with whatever we had around. Sometimes, on lucky days when there wasn't any beer in the house, dinner would be ready. We'd have fish cakes, mashed potatoes, vegetables and everything. Those days my parents seemed like the best a kid could ask for. Why they drank I never knew.
When I was nine I started a small paper route. I would pick up all the newspapers for people in and around our building. People would pay me 50 cents each day, and I would take it all home and save it up. I've always been a 'saver.' I learned early that I had to be. My father knew I saved everything, and a few times a month he'd ask for my money. I knew he was taking it to get beer, but what can I do at nine years old? By the time I was 11, I had saved up enough to buy my parents a Christmas gift at Bi-Way. I was so proud of my ceramic dish with artificial flowers. My mum really liked it too, and once a year she would wash it carefully with Javex. I remember thinking that she must love that flower dish more than anything because nothing else got that much attention. Even me. Those days, my childhood days, were not the best. I don't think about them too often, because what's the point?
When I was 16, my mum left me and my dad to fend for ourselves. I lived with my dad for a year after that but everything had changed. Everything felt empty. I came home one day, and my dad had our apartment full of people. Someone has gone into my room and stolen the money I had saved for rent, and I knew I couldn't live this way anymore. I finally realized that even though I was a kid, I was still more 'grown-up' than my parents.
I moved here and there for a while, taking care of myself and figuring things out like I always had. I got my own job and worked in a grocery store. I felt free for the first time in my life. I lived like that for a long time, just taking care of myself and saving my money.
When the grocery store closed, I couldn't get another job. No one wanted to hire someone with a grade six education, and I still had trouble understanding things. I hated asking for help, but eventually I knew that I had to. I went into a welfare office, and they had me meet with doctors who did all kinds of tests and things to determine exactly what was 'wrong' with me. It's been years since then, and I'm not sure anyone knows yet.
A lot of people ask me why I'm still on ODSP (Ontario Disability Support Program). People think maybe I'm lazy or just don't want to work. I want to work. I want to work so badly and live with that freedom and independence I had before, but I can't. At this point it feels impossible. Same as before, no one wants to hire someone with a grade six education who can't understand all the things they should. I work sometimes cleaning houses, and I make $45.00 day. It doesn't sound like much, but when you save like I do it can really add up. I just have to be careful that I don't make too much. On ODSP, I'm only allowed to make $200 a month or I get bumped off the list. You may wonder why I don't just work enough to support myself, right? Here's my answer, but it is a little hard to follow and even harder to believe...
On ODSP I get $366.00 a month, and about $320.00 a month from my Canada Pension Plan. That's $686.00 a month. Last month my expenses were, $189.00 (rent), $36.00 (phone), $50.00 (Cable), $150.00 (groceries), $193.00 (dentist) and $140.00 (TTC). If you've added all that up, you see that my basic needs each month are $758.00. Some months I'm able to save something, but again, I have to be careful not to save too much. On ODSP, I'm only allowed to have $5000.00 in assets at any time. This includes things like cash, money in a savings account, pre-paid funeral plans, antique furniture and RRSPs. Being on ODSP I also get a drug plan card to cover most of my prescriptions. Without that card, I'd have to pay $538.00 a month for the medications I need. Working a minimum-wage job with no benefits, I just couldn't afford it. Being on ODSP sometimes feels like I'm trapped in a bubble I can't get out of. I can't even touch the edges of the bubble or it bursts and then I'm sunk.
I'm not trying to sound ungrateful, because I know the system helps, but it also keeps people trapped in a cycle of dependence. I can't work, I can't save money, so I can't even hope for a future where I support myself. Yes, some people on government support are happy to sit at home and not work, but not all of us are. Like I said before, I would love to work. I've worked hard since I was nine years old just trying to survive. I'm an honest person who wants to contribute to the world and help people. My dream life would be to have a good job, spend time with people, and live and let live with my heart in the right place. I'm a lot of things, but I promise you I'm not lazy.
I hate to say 'what if,' because that doesn't get anyone anywhere, but I really wonder where I would be if I things had of been different. I think you'd wonder too. But hey, life is what it is. I can't lose sleep over it. I just try to keep my head up, and take things as they come. I attend classes at the Street Haven Learning Centre to work on understanding things better, and I always hope for a happy ending. You've always gotta hope for a happy ending.
ALSO ON HUFFPOST: