Alison is an articulate, soft-spoken, kind and gentle young woman in her 20s, whose quiet nature belies her determination to achieve a brighter future for her daughter, Briana (a pseudonym). At the time of the interview, she had just come off sick leave, and wasn’t sure if she would be able to continue working the casual shift work she had been doing at a transition house in Kingston. Although she had been working there for 18 months before her sick leave, she felt she was being treated unfairly since her return to work. She expected she would have to go back on social assistance for a short time before looking for a new job.
Alison is the youngest of six children and grew up in a small town outside of Kingston. She dropped out of high school when she was 16, and had a part-time job that paid the bills until her daughter was born, when Alison was in her early 20s. At that point, she went on social assistance and found it increasingly difficult to make ends meet. Just before the electricity was going to be cut-off in her rental apartment, her name came to the top of the list for social housing in Kingston, after a five-year wait. In her small rent-geared-to-income apartment, rent included heat and lights and was calculated to be 30% of her income.
Living in Kingston was hard for Alison, away from her family and friends, alone with a young child. As a condition of receiving Ontario Works benefits, the Ontario social assistance program, she enrolled in an adult education centre to finish her high school diploma, but did not find it a good learning environment and dropped out before she finished. She decided to apply to a two-year Correctional Services program at St. Lawrence College (SLC). She found it incredibly frustrating to apply because the process was unclear to her and she had no help. She made ten trips back and forth because the College always needed one more piece of information, and she thought that anyone less determined would have given up at that point. She was eligible for an Ontario student loan (OSAP), but going to college meant she had to stop social assistance. Her social assistance benefits stopped at the end of August, but her student loan didn’t come until almost October. As she said, “So you’re going to school, trying to succeed with no textbooks, no paper, no, no anything.” Alison reluctantly called her family to help her out that month, because she had no money for groceries. Her retired parents, who live on a limited income, rushed to Kingston with groceries for her and Briana. She felt badly taking groceries from them, knowing that they probably did without that month, but she also knew that they were pleased to help because they wanted her to better herself.
Her daughter, Briana, was three when Alison started the program at SLC, and she paid for Briana’s full daycare fees out of her student loan because she was unable to get a subsidy. The daycare fees were more than her tuition, and left her with little money for anything else. Alison felt fortunate that the day care allowed her to pay the balance of the first year fees from her second year student loan. She feels badly about losing the time she feels she should have had with Briana. But she felt caught between a rock and a hard place:
But, which way? It’s a hard decision no matter which way you look at it, either, you don’t have that time with your daughter or you continue having nothing for your daughter. So I choose the school route.
Alison was hired directly from her college placement to work with the transition house, and before her sick leave, she was working almost full-time. With so much work, she felt like she was almost never seeing her daughter, but she was still just barely paying the bills, and didn’t have any extra money to spend on activities for her daughter on her day off. As she said, “if I’m never seeing her and still not making ends meet, then I don’t see how that benefits anybody.”
Alison was able to make everything work in terms of scheduling her studies and work because Briana’s father stepped in to help out with childcare. Alison felt fortunate that they got along and was very appreciative of his support. She didn’t think she would even have been able to attend college without him. Some days, her classes didn’t end early enough for her to get to the daycare before it closed and he would pick her up. And she could only manage shift work because of his availability to look after Briana. Alison worried that he was helping out mostly because he felt guilty about conceiving a child before either of them was in a position to properly look after Briana, and that he felt he owed it to her to help her make something of her life. She, in turn, felt guilty that her need for his help with childcare was holding him back from doing something with his life.
At the time of the filming, both Alison and Briana were experiencing health problems. Alison had been on sick leave, collecting Employment Insurance sick benefits, and had been travelling weekly to Toronto for treatments that were scheduled from Monday to Friday. Briana’s father moved into her apartment while she was away to look after Briana. Alison felt this was the best possible arrangement because she trusted him, and Briana got to stay at home in familiar surroundings. Alison had been worried about Briana’s health for more than four years, but had been brushed off repeatedly by her family physician. She was finally refereed to a pediatrician whose judgment she didn’t trust and manner she didn’t like. She got a referral to a second pediatrician whom she liked and trusted. But in the long wait for tests, that doctor left Kingston and Alison’s family doctor also changed. She was referred to another pediatrician, who was unable to diagnose a problem. At this point, Alison had found someone who agreed to see Briana at Sick Kids in Toronto and she was awaiting this appointment at the time of filming.
Alison felt that she didn’t deal very well with stress and was grateful that her mother and sisters would listen to her “dump” and get things off her chest. Her sister also helped out with toys and clothes for Briana. She didn’t use the food bank because of a bad experience when she was first on her own, and this put her off using other community supports, except for the snowsuit program. Alison also felt that her family supported her as much as they could, so she would leave the community programs, like the food bank and the Christmas food hamper program, for those who needed it more than she did. She said she could talk for hours about her poor treatment at various places in Kingston, including the Social Services office and the grocery store, where she is always shadowed by security.
Alison always kept her eyes open for cheap or free things to do with Briana. In the winter, they would skate and go to free indoor events, like the science fair at Queen’s University. In the summer, they would go to the splash pad and the Teddy Bears’ Picnic, or would just walk along the waterfront. She worried about not being able to give Briana the things she asked for, and that this would get worse as Briana got older and wanted more expensive things. She was also unsure about her next move in terms of employment. Even though her job at the transition house paid more than minimum wage, full time work was not enough to lift her and Briana above the poverty line.