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On the Edge of Welfare

‘It’s a very scary feeling knowing that you are almost homeless’
Dolores Campbell is fighting to keep her apartment and battle the stigmas surrounding welfare.

‘It’s a very scary feeling knowing that you are almost homeless’

The first time you meet Dolores Campbell, you see her perfectly tanned skin and ebony hair. You might notice her designer handbag, her well-fitting jeans and blouse, dangling earrings and how she holds herself strong. All of it betrays the truth: that Campbell is on the edge of welfare, that she feeds herself by hopping from food bank to shelter lunch, and that she is borrowing from friends and bartering with her landlord so she can keep her apartment just one more month.

When Campbell first stopped by the Monday office last August, she wanted to talk about B.C.’s welfare system. She was outfitted in posh sunglasses, white capri pants, and I can still remember thinking — how could someone so put together be on welfare? It is a bias she is used to.

Campbell is aboriginal, a recovering alcoholic, and has been battling poverty since the day she was born. She’s used to judgments, she tells me. It’s at this moment she removes her sunglasses, and I see the worry built into her deep brown eyes, the tiny white scar below her jaw, and an almost indeterminate amount of makeup she’s used to cover the odd wrinkle. She’s pretty; the kind that doesn’t always last into midlife, but Campbell is 47.

She tells me she shops selectively with her tokens at the Women In Need store, so most think she looks “rich,” especially when she follows her food trail to frequent soup kitchens or Sandy Merriman House for lunch.

Campbell has steered clear of all hard drugs and prostitution. She has avoided “the bottle” for nearly a year now — “it already ruined enough of my life,” she says, and I can see her embarrassment, but she tells me all this the first day we meet.

Right now, Campbell is scrambling to make $650 in rent for a low-income apartment she worked hard to secure. Income assistance offers $375 for the shelter portion of a single individual, with the remainder for living expenses at $235, leaving total assistance at $610.

But Campbell is in her own snag — she came to Victoria almost two years ago from Calgary with her friend Jim. They moved in together and registered as common law, as instructed by a welfare agent, granting them the couple’s rate of $877 to share.

This covered the $650 for rent and a meager $227 to divide per month for everything else, until Jim found casual work (which affects assistance levels for both of them) and moved out. But because the two are still in contact, and because Jim has no other fixed address, the government has stated they are still common-law and has rejected Campbell’s requests to be set on a single-person’s assistance.

“When we first got here, I thought surely I’d be able to find at least secretarial work, but times are really bad,” says Campbell, who worked for the Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs for a year in Alberta. “It’s a very scary feeling knowing that you are almost homeless, and that you actually have nowhere else to go.”

Her story sounds familiar, but there’s something different about Campbell — maybe the way she stares at you, like a child who knows she has ignited a fire.

A shattered history

Campbell’s story comes to me in fragments.

In our first follow-up interview, she talks about her visits to the welfare office and the advocacy groups she is working with. Then about how she ran away to find her mom the summer she was 14, away from Little Black River Reserve in northern Manitoba, the six foster homes, the beatings and abuse. She talks about watching a woman being dragged by her hair, screaming, along a gravel road — just a detail — and how later a passerby found Campbell, broken and attacked, sleeping in someone’s car.

She tells me about her year at the residential school in Fort Qu’Appelle, Saskatchewan, how she made a friend and went to live with her family the summer she was 16, only to be molested by the girl’s dad, then kicked out of the house. She tells me about her first suicide attempt, but then how she found her Christian faith — a faith, she says, that still holds her through.

The next time Campbell comes in, we talk about how she’s applying for disability due to roving arthritis and osteoporosis, but how it will take three to four months to be approved, even with the doctor’s note. She tells me how she met the father of her first son at age 19, then married a man at 26 who would father her second son, but turn abusive. She tells me how she started drinking and slowly watched her marriage and self-esteem erode for the next 10 years. When they divorced, her ex won full custody of her sons, and she suffered another breakdown and a suicide attempt.

She found the church again. Campbell tells me she wants to fly her sons out here to see her, but that will have to wait, for now. She wants to get to know her new grandson.

Soon, Campbell is coming in every week or two while I wait to figure out what direction to take the story. I make calls and visit the welfare office, but no one will talk to me about her case.

Campbell has no phone, no internet — luxuries she can’t afford — so I wait for her to contact me. She tells me how she borrowed money for rent from a friend this month, which will count as income, according to the welfare agent.

“They are suspicious of how I can afford such high rent,” she says. “And the agent keeps asking me, ‘What are you going to do? You can’t afford that place.’ And I don’t know what to do. Having to fight this hard is so exhausting. I’m having panic attacks all the time. I feel like the only thing I can do is pray.”

Pushed to the brink

One week, Campbell comes in crying, saying this last fight with the welfare office has almost pushed her over the edge, and it looks like she will lose the apartment. I ask if she has anyone to talk to. She says she will find someone, and that she’s meeting with a lawyer from Duncan who may be on her side.

The next week, she doesn’t come in for our appointment. A few weeks pass and I receive a call from the hospital. It’s Campbell’s voice on the line, and I don’t realize the anticipation I’ve been holding until I hear her. She tells me she’s admitted herself after “a bit of a hard time;” that she has to stay in for a while, for tests and things. I tell her I’m glad she called.

Weeks later, when she calls again, we agree to finish the interview at the hospital. I meet her there, and walk in while she is braiding a girl’s hair — she used to be a hairdresser. She’s wearing a blue gown, but has taken the time to put on makeup. She shows me her art, intricate aboriginal drawings, life portraits and nudes, and plays a song she wrote on her guitar. She tells me she’s feeling better, but that things have taken another turn for the worse — her income assistance cheque will be even lower this month, to account for her time spent at the hospital.

I watch quietly as she battles with the hospital social worker who explains for what sounds like the hundredth time that yes, the government has decided she doesn’t need as much financial assistance when utilizing hospital facilities. I feel my own guts twist against the irony: no way to pay for the apartment, no way to keep yourself healthy.

In another few weeks, Campbell is released from the hospital. She comes to visit me the first day she is out, and brings more art, drawn on dollar-store construction paper. She says she’s asking Santa for art supplies this year, then laughs.

“Sometimes, it feels like it’s hopeless, and sometimes I feel very fragile, but I know it can be better than this, so I am just hanging on, waiting for that door of opportunity to crack wide open,” she tells me.

She smiles when she adds that she talked to her sons on the phone recently.

“I wish people wouldn’t assume I’m just ‘another native who doesn’t want to work.’ This is harder work than any job I could imagine. No one wants to live like this,” she says. "And it’s not just me — there are so many people out there who need work, and they need help, and they are struggling just to stay a float."

Campbell has been able to work with her landlord to keep her place for now, but is nearly $1,000 behind on rent. She is still waiting to be approved for disability assistance, and is in the process of working with a legal-aid representative to apply for an independent assessment, which could adjust her rates.

Now, she says, all she can do is wait.

“Life will surprise you, but if you focus on the good you can see surprise blessings, too, like the fact that I didn’t know I was really an artist until I was in the hospital,” she says, adding that she has started doing volunteer haircutting and reception work at the Action Committee of People with Disabilities. “It’s always been a dream of mine to be able to go to the beach, and I can see it every day now, so I have a lot to be thankful for. I really do.” M