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A roof over their heads

Surrey Rent Bank

Bernice Michaluk is on her way to the Surrey Food Bank. She has finished her courses for the day at Vancouver Career College where she is training to be a medical receptionist. She walks home to her tiny condo and checks on her kids (she has three boys: 19, 17 and 14 – “Never a dull moment”). Then it’s onto the bus, hoping there’s a bag of free groceries in her future, maybe some vegetables with which she can make tonight’s dinner.

Michaluk doesn’t look too far ahead these days. She tends to think one month at a time. Two more months of school, then a practicum, then hopefully a job. That’s at least three months before a paycheck. She has enough to pay next month’s rent. That still leaves two months and no money coming in.

“I’ll figure it out,” she says. “I always do . . . It’s not a way to live but I have to be optimistic. What else am I going to do?”

Michaluk is 43 and separated. She hasn’t seen or heard from her husband of 19 years for some time now. Five years ago she kicked him out because of his drug use.

"Things just went astray for him . . . with the drugs, drinking, work, friends. He was smoking crack and who knows what else. For the last year he was around, I was sleeping with my wallet and keys under my pillow.”

Since then, it’s been a struggle financially to raise three boys and keep a job. She is surprisingly stoic and candid about her situation. Michaluk has joined the ranks of what Statistics Canada calls “low income economic families” – those who earn less than the “low income cut-off” (a very slippery term, which they define as “the income at which a family or individual spends 20 per cent more of their income on food, shelter and clothing than the average family”).

Geography and gender are important factors when it comes to economic status. According to the 2006 Census, 27% of families in the city centre area of Surrey (where Michaluk lives) are low income. Among families that are headed by a lone female parent in Surrey’s city centre, 46% are low income. It’s rarely just one thing that brings families to the brink, to the wrong side of this equation. It’s usually a series of events – a cascade of bad luck, bad timing or bad judgment – that together shake the fragile foundations of these families.

With her husband gone, Michaluk went out and got a job. She spent five years flagging at construction sites. Tedious work, but it paid the bills. In 2009, this came to an abrupt end when she was fired and deemed ineligible for Employment Insurance.

Thinking this would be a chance to go back to school and re-train for a better job, she enrolled and got a student loan. But it was barely enough to cover tuition. So she approached Social Services for help. She didn’t need much, just enough to get her through the last months of school. She’d pay it back when she got a job. They turned her down because of the student loan.

With no money coming in and no prospects, it didn’t take long to get behind in the rent. Michaluk blanches at the memory.

“Then the car broke down. I’m thinking ‘What am I going to do?’ I’m going to be out on the street.”

She heard the Salvation Army was a resource for free food . . . “When I checked it out, you line up, and wait for food from a Sally-Ann truck. You’re lined up with people who are using drugs – some are doing the “funky chicken” in the line-up. I didn’t want my boys seeing that. And besides, the older one was embarrassed. He thought he might run into his father in the line-up. That didn’t bother me so much – it’d be the first time we all had a meal together in a long time.”
Michaluk laughs. She hasn’t lost her sense of humour.

“Some nights it’s pretty tough for food,” she admits. “But I found Quest. I can go there and feed us for a week on $20.” (Quest Food Exchange “rescues” non-marketable food from the food industry and distributes it to those in need.)

Luckily, Michaluk also has a good relationship with her landlord. When the landlord saw a notice for the Surrey Rent Bank in the paper, she mentioned it to Michaluk.

“I went in to see them at the Rent Bank. They were really helpful. They were very reassuring as well. They told me that I wasn’t the only one.”

In fact, city-wide Surrey has 11,300 female lone-parent families and about 2,500 male lone-parent families, which means that as many as 5,000 of the female-headed families could be low income and could be in similar situations as Bernice Michaluk.

“It’s not something you want to talk about,” she says. “Thank goodness for the Rent Bank. If they didn’t help me, then I don’t know where I’d be right now.”

Michaluk got a one-time loan of $1,600, which she is paying back at $60 a month. It has kept a roof over her and her boys’ heads, and if she pays it back in full, there is no interest charged. It will help her re-establish a credit rating. Just as important, she also got a lot of financial advice and encouragement from staff.

Judy Peterson is the Team Lead at the Surrey Rent Bank. “Rent banks are a fairly new concept here in B.C.,” she says.

“We provide loans to low-income people in temporary financial difficulty. We cover their rent or utility arrears so they don’t get evicted,” she explains. “It’s sort of a loan of last resort.”
“And we look for other ways to support them, other than a loan. We get them to budget and look where they can find money in their existing budget.”

While there are hundreds in Ontario, currently there are only three rent banks in B.C.: in Surrey, Abbotsford and Prince George. But thanks to the generosity of local philanthropist Frank Giustra, plans are underway to establish a rent bank in Vancouver.

“We opened in March 2010 and later got a $30,000 grant from the Vancouver Foundation,” says Peterson.

Unfortunately, there’s no shortage of demand for their services. To date, the Surrey Rent Bank has approved 70 loans, and kept 200 people off the street. Loans average between $700 and $800, with an interest rate of 1.5 per cent over prime that is refunded once the loan has been repaid and participants have completed a financial literacy workshop.

Peterson says if they advertised, they wouldn’t be able to keep up with the demand. “Right now we turn down two applications for every one that we accept. For people who don’t fit our criteria we try to find another way to solve their problem.”

“There’s nothing we would like better than not to have a job.” Right now, Bernice Michaluk is thinking exactly the opposite. She graduated with honours from Vancouver Career College in June and is now looking for work as a medical receptionist. By the time you are reading this, she may have started a full-time job.

For the first time in a long time, there is a glimmer of hope – for a paycheck, for the future, for her boys. For the first time in a long time, Michaluk is looking forward, more than just a month at a time. She’s looking forward to paying off the Surrey Rent Bank, and that small loan of last resort that made such a difference.

For more information about the Surrey Rent Bank, call 604.547.0123. To donate to important projects like this, call Vancouver Foundation at 604-688-2204

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