Escaping the poverty trap

RICHARD LAUTENS / TORONTO STAR Order this photo Mike Creek recently took ownership of his own condo in Regent Park after a cancer diagnosis pushed him into poverty for 17 years. Destitute, he had ended up couch-surfing and in homeless shelters.

Mike Creek recently took ownership of his own condo in Regent Park after a cancer diagnosis pushed him into poverty for 17 years. Destitute, he had ended up couch-surfing and in homeless shelters.

Laurie Monsebraaten

Jul 19 2010

For years, “hope” was just a four-letter word to anti-poverty activist Mike Creek.

After working his way up in the hotel industry from dishwasher to head office manager, Creek lost it all in 1993 when he was diagnosed with cancer. He was just 37.

As he would later tell a packed Queen’s Park forum, it wasn’t the cancer or the depression that broke his spirit. It was the poverty.

With no workplace disability benefits, he clung to Employment Insurance while enduring nine months of chemotherapy, two surgeries, blood clots, seizures and gaping skin wounds that wouldn’t heal.

When his EI ran out, he washed up on welfare. Within a year, he had lost his downtown Toronto apartment, overstayed his welcome with friends and was sleeping in homeless shelters. Eventually he ended up in a subsidized apartment in a gloomy Regent Park highrise where a man was murdered the weekend he moved in.

He was frightened, depressed and alone.

“I was very sick,” Creek recalls. “Basically, I was just waiting to die.”

But he lived.

This past spring, Creek, an outspoken champion of the poor and advocate for welfare reform, marked his own escape from poverty.

In late May he signed the mortgage for his new home in Regent Park’s first condominium complex at One Cole St., near the corner of Dundas and Parliament Sts.

He may be a medical miracle — Creek’s non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma is in remission — but he believes his flight from poverty is no fluke. Instead, it is proof that with the right support, anyone can break poverty’s grip.

“I want my story to be an inspiration to others,” the new homeowner says with pride. “I’m an example of how people can escape from poverty when given the opportunity.”

“If I can do it, others can too,” says Creek, 53, as he looks west at the city skyline from his spacious terrace, which is next door to Councillor Pam McConnell, who bought the corner unit.

The 292-unit complex — in phase one of the city’s 15-year Regent Park revitalization plan — is just blocks away from the decrepit highrise where he lived for a decade.

“When I was able to move, I didn’t want to leave the community,” he says. “I think it’s important to stay, to show others it’s possible.”

During 12 years on welfare and Ontario’s Disability Support Plan, Creek lived on about $666 a month. With no money to go out with friends or to entertain at home, he became a recluse.

“I felt deserted, buried in a system that doesn’t work for people or the social workers who run it,” he said.

In early 2007, Creek saw a poster in his doctor’s office inviting people with a history of homelessness to participate in a new advocacy program. The 12-week program, Voices from the Street, provided a TTC pass, meals and a weekly honorarium of $60.

Creek signed up and soon learned he was not alone. He met others who had been set on the pathway to poverty by mental illness, addiction and domestic assault. And he began to understand how government programs for the poor become a trap.

When the program coordinator’s position became available in early 2008, Creek applied. He got the job and soon was earning $40,000 plus benefits.

That fall, the shy, quiet-spoken cancer survivor told his story to a Queen’s Park forum of more than 500 social activists — including Children’s Minister Deb Matthews, who was leading the province’s anti-poverty efforts.

As a leader in the 25-in-5 Network for Poverty Reduction, Creek helped to push Ontario into adopting a goal of reducing child poverty in the province by 5 per cent within five years.

When the first Regent Park condos went on the market in February 2009, Creek was the fourth in line. He saved $1,000 a month for almost a year for the $11,000 down payment on his $200,000 600-square-foot unit.

“When I first moved in, I cried for a week,” he confesses, still barely able to believe how far he has come. “It was very emotional for me. It still is.”

The move has also improved his health. He has shed almost 60 pounds since he began regular workouts in the condo’s exercise room. His skin wounds are healing and he has been able to go medication-free for the first time in more than a decade.

He credits good health to his better living conditions and sense of financial and personal security.

His personal journey has reinforced his passion to push for change.

“I never dreamed of home ownership, let alone a job and place in society,” he says. “I have been so fortunate to have been given choices again. It is those choices and opportunities that I want for all citizens.

“Hope is not just a four-letter word,” he says. “It is a dream that can come true.”

Credit: Toronto Star

Dawnmarie Harriott