Sarnia Observer: Some Squaring the Circle

POVERTY: Anti-poverty program first in Canada

by Shawn Jeffords (article link)

Editor's note:This is the first in a five-part series about the Circles Poverty Reduction Strategy and the participants whose lives it is changing. Lambton County is the first Canadian municipality to launch Circles, which has had considerable success in the U. S.

Crystal Fach struggles under the weight.

The 29-year-old mother of two boys stands in the middle of a circle of people in a south-end church basement, smiling nervously.

Fach has a teddy bear in one hand, a bottle of bleach in the other, a pot under one arm and books under the other. Children's clothes are slung over a shoulder and she's trying to balance a container of car antifreeze

Gayle Montgomery, co-ordinator of Lambton County's Circles Poverty Reduction Strategy looks at Fach, buckling under the weight of all the objects. "This is what it's like to be poor," Montgomery said. "You carry the load all by yourself."

The teddy bear represents children she's watching. The bottle of bleach is the five loads of laundry that need doing. The pot is the meal that should have been cooked an hour ago. The books are the homework she's falling behind on. The children's clothes and antifreeze are personal and transportation needs she can't afford.

Everyday problems piled one on top of the other can wreck havoc on a person living in poverty, something Fach has known all her life. Her mother lived it, now she lives it.

Fach's father was absent because of addiction issues and her mother was busy raising three kids while working three jobs. With little supervision, Fach rebelled and started a descent deeper into poverty.

"I became a professional addict from about 14 to 21," she said. "I drank daily. I did crystal meth."

Those seven years passed in a blur and every time Fach thought she'd hit bottom, there was a new low around the corner. She was arrested and sent to jail.

"That was probably a good thing," she said. "I had to clean up for awhile."

She met someone, got pregnant and stayed clean for awhile. The couple had two children, but Fach fell in with her old crowd and her old ways. The relationship fell apart and the boys ended up with their dad. She ended up alone. The drugs and drinking increased, and Fach turned to stripping to make money to support her habit.

"I just remember sitting in my living room, by myself," she said. "I had no friends, no kids. I just kept thinking, 'I don't have to do this anymore.'"

Fach cut ties with those who enabled her addiction and checked into detox. She vowed to turn things around and get her boys back. She moved to Sarnia with her mother for a fresh start, but it wasn't easy.

"I was an angry lunatic," she said. "I didn't have any coping skills."

Fach was afraid to make friends, fearing they would be mixed up in the city's drug culture. She wanted to complete her high school education but lacked the confidence.

She became involved with programs through Ontario Works, then found Circles, with its goal of getting the poor the support systems they need to break out of the cycle.

"I like that people in Circles aren't just talking about helping, they're doing it," she said.

Lambton County is the first municipality in Canada to adopt the Circles poverty reduction strategy. The program brings people living in poverty together with allies in the middle class.

As Fach stands in the centre of the circle, Montgomery asks for volunteers to help. One at a time they rise and greet Fach. The first person knows a mechanic who can help her fix that car. The second has clothing that might fit the boys. Another can help with the homework.

People rise from their seats until all of the weight is lifted from her arms. Beyond the physical barriers, having a circle of people to depend on has helped Fach find renewed confidence.

"I've done drugs, been homeless . . ." she said. "I've made some really bad choices. But everyone deserves a second chance. Everyone deserves hope."