Agents of change rise from the streets

Carol Goar

June 19, 2009

The four-month interlude between the announcement of Ontario’s poverty reduction plan and the release of the provincial budget was a tough time for Children’s Minister Deb Matthews.

The economy was deteriorating. Her government colleagues were questioning the wisdom of a new financial commitment. She knew low-income Ontarians were counting on her.

What guided Matthews as she wrestled with these conflicting pressures, she told anti-poverty activists this week, was the image of Linda Chamberlain and the words of Mike Creek.

Chamberlain has pink hair, a 10-megawatt smile and schizophrenia. She once lived on the streets, slept in a plastic bag and feared for her life. Now she can read and write, earn a living and advocate for others with mental illness. A one-bedroom supportive apartment made the difference.

Creek is a cancer survivor who lost his job, his home and his savings as he battled the disease. He is now one of the leaders of the anti-poverty movement. During Matthews’ consultations, Creek told her: “When the economy is good, everybody ignores the poor. When it’s bad, they say they can’t afford to do anything.”

Both Chamberlain and Creek are graduates of a program called Voices from the Street, a kind of poor people’s academy. It trains men and women who have lived on the margins to become agents of change.

“You kept me grounded,” Matthews told them. “It’s not tokenism when I say you are the experts.”

She was speaking at this year’s graduation ceremony.

Judging from their public debut, the 14 newest members of Voices from the Street will be equally persuasive. They delivered their graduation speeches with passion and confidence. They urged policy-makers to listen to people who know what it’s like to be homeless, hungry, trapped in an abusive relationship, addicted to drugs and paralyzed by shame.

“Poverty makes you invisible,” said graduate Jo-An Samuels. “It’s hard to break the cycle.”

She tried. Despite growing up in public housing with a mother who struggled to support four kids, Samuels dreamed of going to university and becoming secretary general of the United Nations. “I was determined not to be a young black female from the projects who dropped out of school because of pregnancy.”

But she did get pregnant. And although she finished school, she didn’t go on. No one encouraged her. She got involved in a bad relationship. Drugs and misery followed.

Samuels is now a recovering cocaine addict with three children. She is speaking out so their lives will be better than hers.

“I’ve never had a graduation – except from a treatment program,” said Kelly Macklin. She was sexually abused as a child. “For almost all of my life, I wanted to die.”

She drank and took drugs at 11, had her first brush with the law at 13, never finished high school and became a crack addict.

It wasn’t until she was 41 that she decided to face her demons and build the life she never had. “As an adult, I’ve found my voice. I know that I am resilient and determined. Now I can help others.”

Mike Riley, who grew up in a series of foster homes, never fit in anywhere until he showed up at the Good Shepherd Centre one night. He got shelter, treatment and help finding housing.

Now he and his dog, Angel, are a team. They look out for people who are falling through the cracks.

Theresa Schrader was the class valedictorian. She fought her way through depression, poverty, prostitution and a vicious assault.

She hailed her fellow graduates: “We are the chosen ones. We are the voices from the street. We can give others back their voices.”

Credit: Social Policy in Ontario

Dawnmarie Harriott