Alison is an articulate, soft-spoken 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 returned to work from sick leave, but wasn’t sure if she would be able to continue the casual shift work she had been doing at a transition house in Kingston. Although she had worked there for 18 months before her sick leave, she felt unfairly treated since her return to work. She expected she would have to go back on social assistance and look for a new job.
Alison grew up in a small town outside of Kingston. She dropped out of high school and worked part-time 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 as the electricity was about to be disconnected 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.
When Briana was three, Alison decided to take a two-year Correctional Services program at St. Lawrence College (SLC). 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, because she had no money for groceries. Her retired parents rushed to Kingston with groceries. She felt badly taking groceries from them, knowing that they have limited resources and would have had to sacrifice something to help her, but she also knew that they supported her decision to attend college.
Alison was unable to access a childcare subsidy and had to pay for Briana’s daycare fees from her student loan. The daycare fees cost more than her tuition, and left her with almost no money for anything else. She also felt badly about losing the time she thinks she should have had with Briana. 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; before her sick leave, she was working almost full-time at the transition house. With so much work, she felt like she was rarely 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.”
The only way that Alison was able to attend college and work shift work was because Briana’s father stepped in to help out with childcare. Alison was very appreciative of his support, but she felt guilty that her need for his assistance with childcare was holding him back from doing something else with his life.
Alison thought that she didn’t deal very well with stress, and was grateful that her family supported her, as best they could. She didn’t use the food bank because of a bad experience, and this put her off using other community supports. 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 whose security personnel shadowed her whenever she went grocery shopping.
Alison kept her eyes open for free things to do with Briana. In the winter, they would skate and go to free indoor events. In the summer, they would go to the splash pad or walk along the waterfront. She worried about not being able to give Briana the things she wanted, and knew that the things she wanted would get more expensive as Briana got older. 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.