Writer D.M. Gillis doesn’t have to participate in the annual Welfare Food Challenge starting next Wednesday to know social assistance isn’t enough to get by on.
During the last week of the month when he’s run out of money to buy food, Gillis, a social assistance recipient, says he eats spoonfuls of sugar to prevent his medicine from making his blood sugar levels go too far down.
Gillis, 52, has had insulin-dependent diabetes for 24 years. He’s on social assistance for people with disabilities and receives $900 a month because he copes with bipolar disorder.
He pays $600 a month to rent in the West End, the same apartment he had when he lost his advocacy job with the Canadian Diabetic Association four years ago. “The stress of losing my job made me sick,” he said.
He says he lived on disability money from a private insurer until that ran out and then went on social assistance. Once he pays his bills, he has insufficient money left for food.
For the first three weeks of the month, Gillis skips lunch and takes less insulin in the afternoon. “I haven’t bought a pair of socks in four years,” he said. “If I wasn’t such a clothes hound to begin with, I’d have nothing.”
Diabetics need to maintain their blood sugars to avoid health complications including nerve damage, kidney disease and blindness.
Gillis says he could apply for an additional $50 allowance per month from the government but he hasn’t. “I apply for work continuously and I have this magical thinking going on in my head that with my background, my education and my experience I’ll get a job,” he said.
Gillis experiences extreme anxiety in crowds and a visit to a welfare office triggers stress. “It’s a welfare office. I’m a person with a disability. I get treated, when I go in there, almost like a criminal when I ask for something,” he said, noting clients can’t download a form, get it signed by a doctor and fax it in.
Anxiety also keeps him from queuing up at food banks.
Gillis wrote about eating sugar from the bag for the summer issue of the Right to Food Zine that’s published through the Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood House to draw attention to food insecurity in Canada.
“I’m lucky because I’m on disability. I get $900 a month, but yesterday I was handing bananas out to people standing in line for a cheque for $600,” he said. “They will have to get along as best they can for the rest of the month, standing in line here, standing in line there waiting for a meal, spending big chunks of their lives waiting for something to be given to them.”
Gillis wants a living wage instituted in B.C. He also wants more vocational rehabilitation for people with disabilities.
Raise the Rates contends social assistance and minimum wage rates must be increased and indexed to inflation. The coalition of organizations concerned with poverty and homelessness is asking residents of B.C. to eat for $26 a week, the amount of money it calculates a single, able-bodied person on social assistance has to spend on food, Oct. 16 to 22.
For more information, see welfarefoodchallenge.org.