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Introduction: Growing problem of hidden poverty in Victoria

Introduction to five-part series
Jessi Sothcott and her 14-year-old daughter, Rosalie, have endured a tough time since Jessi was injured at work.

At 14, Rosalie Sothcott would rather be playing rugby or listening to music than going to the B.C. legislature or her MLA’s office to speak out against childhood poverty.

“It was strange at first, but I saw it was important,” Rosalie said. “The past few years have been pretty tough.”

In 2012, a workplace injury left Rosalie’s mother, Jessi Sothcott, with just a $1,000 per month Person With Disability benefit to live on. The 40-year-old single mother thought she could earn an extra $800 without being penalized.

She was shocked to find out child support payments were included in her benefit, so the $197 she received would be clawed back by the provincial government from her monthly income.

“It’s absolutely crazy to me. That money should be going to my daughter, for food, clothes, a bus pass, allowance. They are literally taking money from children,” Jessi said. “We can barely survive.”

It’s not the kind of poverty you see on the streets. But according to a number of studies and reports released this year, a clash of misfortune-meets-bureaucracy is driving an alarming number of people in Greater Victoria to live below the poverty line, putting them at risk of homelessness.

Read the Hidden Poverty series

“We need to understand as a society that we have structural flaws, like a lack of affordable housing, that are major drivers of poverty,” said Andrew Wynn-Williams, executive director of the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness.

“It’s our obligation to understand and help government [and] the community address them.

“There’s this tendency [to think], maybe an unconscious level of blame mixed with sympathy, that homelessness and poverty have some personal explanation. So, it’s not our problem … but it’s more complicated than that.”

Reports this year have shown the highest numbers ever of child poverty in B.C. Most of the children affected live in families led by low-income single mothers.

Other studies have found that hundreds of Victoria families are living below the poverty line and are at risk of homelessness.

One report found that on one night in February, 70 families sought emergency shelter in Victoria. Of the 78 people turned away from shelters that night, 12 were children.

Local organizations that advocate for the poor are reporting increases in demand that they can’t explain.

One of them, Together Against Poverty Society, has seen its income-assistance advocacy program clientele nearly double in the past two years and has two- to three-week waitlists for service. In 2012, the program had 1,238 clients. Last month, it was serving 2,240 clients.

“We absolutely cannot meet our need,” said executive director Stephen Portman.

Other groups have seen an increase in seniors seeking services and a lack of living-wage jobs for young people.