The 350-square-foot, two-bedroom apartment is a cramped, no-frills space, but it provided a safe place for cabinet-minister-to-be Shane Simpson, his little sister and his mother when they desperately needed a home.

As Simpson walks through the tiny unit in the large East Vancouver housing project, he recalls a frugal time when his single mother raised two kids there on welfare wages after leaving her husband in the late 1960s.

“My dad beat my mom up. And one day, when my sister was about eight and I was about 11, we left. We walked out the back door and down the alley with what we could carry,” said Simpson, the NDP MLA for Vancouver-Hastings.

“I grew up poor. I grew up in a housing project in the Downtown Eastside. The thing about poverty is, it’s really hard when you get in that situation to get out.”

Fifty years later, it is now his job as the minister of social development and poverty reduction to make it easier for people to get out of poverty.

Despite its high cost of living, B.C. is the only province without an official poverty reduction plan. The NDP promised to change that when it formed the government in July, taking over from 16 years of Liberal rule.

Last week, members of an all-party legislative committee unanimously urged the government to finance a comprehensive poverty-reduction plan in its 2018 budget, saying in a report released Wednesday they heard submissions that “B.C. has the second-highest poverty rate in Canada.” Indeed, recent reports indicate that Metro Vancouver has an increasing number of people who are homeless and who rely on the food bank.

His childhood gives Simpson insight into the needs of the estimated 700,000 British Columbians who live below the poverty line. But with all the demands on this new government — an epidemic of overdose deaths, paying for last summer’s massive wildfire season, and increasing education funding — can he deliver on the NDP’s promises to reduce poverty?

“Addressing housing, addressing child care — these are long-term projects. We have got to get a good start on them, and we’re working on that,” Simpson said. “Then we can make a difference for people. We are not going to end poverty, but we can make it better, we can reduce the numbers, and we can make life better for people.” 

His government has taken some first steps — improving access to adult basic education, increasing welfare and disability rates by $100 a month, suggesting the minimum wage be increased to $15 an hour (pending recommendations from the new fair wages commission), and last month striking an advisory group of 27 experts to provide advice on how to develop a poverty reduction plan. The NDP’s mini-budget in September was silent on the party’s $10-a-day child care promise, though Simpson says the public will “hear more” about the plan in the 2018 budget.

But longtime anti-poverty activist Jean Swanson — who lives in Simpson’s riding and voted for him — said the NDP doesn’t need another committee to recommend how to reduce hardship, arguing the solutions are obvious and will take courage.

“What will the NDP really do? What will they have the guts to do in terms of ending poverty?” Swanson asked. “We know we need a massive increase in welfare, and social housing units that poor people can afford. And I haven’t seen any signs that is in the works.”

Simpson knows improving welfare and housing are tricky pieces of this puzzle.

“There’s nobody, including me as the minister, who is going to try to tell anybody that a $375 (welfare) shelter allowance pays the rent in Vancouver. It doesn’t,” he said.

“We need to figure out how to deal with the housing question for people who are struggling. And that’s going to be part of the work that we are going to do around poverty reduction. It will be complex, it won’t be easy.”

He hopes to work on affordable housing with the federal government, which has also put an emphasis on poverty reduction since the election of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in 2015.

Fifty years ago, when Pearl Simpson left her husband, she was able to find housing in the new 250-unit Ray-Mur project, which opened in 1968 at Campbell Avenue and Hastings Street.

“(Ray-Mur) solved a huge issue for my mom. She didn’t have to worry about where we were going to live. And she could turn her attention to the other challenges of raising a couple of kids on welfare,” said Simpson, who recalls his childhood home as a place where families looked out for each other but also faced obstacles.

“There was lots of gang activity and lots of stuff going on in Ray-Mur that was pretty challenging. I think of the number of people who I grew up with who didn’t make it and died — some violently, some not. It was (my mother’s) stability that really was the driving force that kept us together.”

The family was able to scrape by financially: His mother furnished the tiny apartment with junk-store items she fixed up; she served slumgullion and other inexpensive meals; and after two years on welfare, she got a minimum-wage job sorting donations at the Salvation Army.

Children who lived in Ray-Mur attended nearby Seymour Elementary, but had to walk across busy train tracks to get there. When trains were parked on the track, Simpson recalled, students would roll underneath them to get to the other side for school.

Local mothers pleaded with city hall and the railway company, but no action was taken. So, in early 1971, a group dubbed the Militant Mothers of Ray-Mur defiantly stopped the trains from running by pitching tents and sitting on the tracks until officials agreed to build an overpass for the children to get to school.

Jean Amos (left) and Carolyn Jerome (right) raise their arms in defiance as members of the Militant Mothers of Ray-Mur, who blocked railway tracks in Strathcona in the early 1970s to protest dangerous conditions for poor children. An unidentified girl stands by a tent erected on the tracks. Shane Simpson, who also lived in the Ray-Mur housing project during the protests, says his politics was inspired by the Militant Mothers. Today, he is a B.C. cabinet minister in charge of reducing poverty. Sun/Province archive photo

It was a massive victory for the underdog, and witnessing this protest sparked a love of politics in the then-teenaged Simpson. 

“It was the Militant Mothers of Ray-Mur that kind of found me my politics,” he said. “Single moms on welfare, they were the bottom of the barrel. This group of women here, they said, ‘Enough already.’ They realized when they came together, they could have power.”

Simpson went to Britannia Secondary but he wasn’t a good student. He finished high school by correspondence and did some menial labour jobs.

Then, at age 18, he worked with more single mothers who wanted to build a community centre that offered child care, programs for youth and seniors, and a communal living room for the poor neighbourhood. He helped lobby all levels of government for money that would eventually build the Ray-Cam community centre, which today remains a fixture for families in East Vancouver.

“(The women) thought they’d generate the dollars more quickly to build the centre using this young-kid-in-the-housing-projects-pulling-himself-up-by-the-bootstraps stuff, and we played that for all it was worth,” he recalled.

Simpson’s left-leaning politics led to jobs with former NDP MP Margaret Mitchell, with CUPE B.C., and ultimately as an MLA in 2005. During his 12 years in opposition in the legislature, he frequently raised the issue of reducing poverty.

Marvin Hunt, the Liberals’ social development critic, maintains the best way to reduce poverty in B.C. is to support education, create jobs and build a good economy, all things he argued his former government had been doing.

“The reality is: Where is the (NDP’s) economic plan that is going to create and sustain the jobs that people need to truly lift themselves out of poverty,” said Hunt.  

Increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour, he believes, will just inflate the cost of labour and ultimately reduce jobs in B.C.

Hunt doubts that creating a poverty reduction plan will do anything more than produce another report to collect dust on government shelves. He also wonders how successful other provinces with these plans have been at reducing poverty.

Trish Garner of the B.C. Poverty Reduction Coalition, who was appointed to the government’s advisory forum, said B.C. can learn from the experiences of other provinces. Ontario, for example, had a too-narrow focus on child poverty that missed helping out many other poor people, she said.

She is cautiously optimistic about the new government, but noted there is much work to do. “We are waiting with bated breath for the promised increase to minimum wage to $15 an hour and the launch of the $10-a-day child care plan, and, of course, housing,” Garner said.

Today, Ray-Mur still houses poor people, although it is now run by a non-profit society under the name Stamps Place. But challenges with poverty are more extreme now than in Pearl Simpson’s day: welfare rates and the minimum wage have not kept up with inflation, the cost of living has skyrocketed, and 40 per cent of poor adults in B.C. have jobs but still can’t make ends meet.

While door-knocking during election campaigns, Simpson has met people from his childhood who are still living in tough circumstances — evidence that over the past five decades, many families have been unable to break the cycle of poverty.

“I see people I knew growing up, who I know are suffering issues around addictions or mental health challenges. And lots of people who didn’t get the education, and their kids didn’t seem to get the education. And once you get caught in that, it’s really hard,” he said.

“We need to support people with income supports and housing supports — all of that is important. But we also need to turn our attention to the cycle of poverty and about how we break that. And that’s about creating opportunities for people to move forward.”

There is mounting pressure in B.C. for the government to take action on poverty from organizations such as First Call, which releases its annual child poverty report card this Tuesday. Last year’s report showed that one in five B.C. children live in poverty, a rate that is unchanged from 20 years ago.

lculbert@postmedia.com


By the numbers

Poverty in B.C.

700,000 people in B.C. live below the poverty line.

25% are children.

40% of the adults have jobs, but still can’t make ends meet.

Food Bank

27,000 people get help from the Food Bank weekly in Vancouver, Burnaby, New Westminster and the North Shore. That is up from 26,500 in January.

20% are children.

19% are seniors.

Homelessness
3,605 people in Metro Vancouver did not have homes in September, up 30% since 2014.

23% are aged 55 or older, up from 18% in 2014.

33% are Indigenous, though they account for only 2.5% of the region’s population.

82% have a health challenge, with addictions and mental health commonly cited problems.

Sources: Statistics Canada, Greater Vancouver Food Bank, Metro Vancouver Homeless Count 2017, B.C. NDP