Mark Olfert is an anti-poverty activist and an advocate for a guaranteed livable income. He lives in Winnipeg and helps distribute emergency food at West Broadway Community Services, a drop-in centre that’s part of 1JustCity, a charitable organization started by the United Church.
On experiencing poverty: A few years ago, a guy I thought was my friend took advantage of me. I was conned out of $30,000. Eventually, I got back on my feet; I got a job stocking shelves at Superstore. But then I had to go on medical leave. I had surgery on both knees. When I came back, I had a new boss. He was no one you would want to deal with, believe me. He made life a living hell. I tried my best and nothing was good enough. I got to the point where I felt like I was having a nervous breakdown, and my knees were also bothering me. So I had to stop working.
But I couldn’t survive on what I got from Employment and Income Assistance. The property company did some renovations on my apartment, and rent went up drastically. I had to choose between buying groceries or paying rent.
On struggling to find affordable housing: I found a rooming house I could afford. It was terrible. The shower on the floor above me leaked into my living room. The furnace broke down at Christmas, and they didn’t fix it. I was using an electric space heater to keep warm. Then the pipes froze — people from my church had to bring me water. It took weeks for the landlord to fix it.
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The apartment I have now is better. Still, I pay $875 a month on rent, and my income is $946 a month from Canada Pension Plan disability benefits, plus $237 in rental assistance from the provincial government. That doesn’t leave much for groceries, medication and cat food. I have to choose carefully. I take better care of my cats than I do myself. But I love my cats. They’re my family.
On a guaranteed livable income: Everybody should be getting it. It’s not fair the way the system is. The government doesn’t care. When there were rallies across the country for a guaranteed livable income in September 2020, I participated in an online rally with my member of Parliament, Leah Gazan. I told my story: a guaranteed livable income would make my life a lot easier. I wouldn’t have to choose between medication for myself and food for my cats. And I know a lot of people are worse off than I am.
I have very good support from West Broadway Community Services and the church I attend, Hope Mennonite Church. If I didn’t have that, I don’t know where I would be. That’s something I don’t even want to think about.
On identifying with Jesus: Last Easter, I carried the cross for an Easter performance. I feel like I’ve gone through something like what Jesus went through. You know how he was treated really badly, even by his own disciples? I feel like that, too. I was let down by so many people.
On his church: It’s a good community. You can tell they care about you. They treat you like somebody that matters. I used to go to another church, and people would just ignore me. I just kind of lived like that, being ignored. It was pretty sad. But this church really cares about me.
Josiah Neufeld is a journalist and fiction writer in Winnipeg.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. It first appeared in Broadview’s March 2022 issue with the title “It’s not fair the way the system is.”
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Sheldon LeGrow says:
One of the difficulties I see with a guaranteed livable income is that similar to a higher minimum wage.....unless prices of things like food and rent and electricity are capped, the cost of these things will still increase and those who need the livable income will not fare much better. It's a vicious cycle. Everyone has a right to live with dignity and enough. On that I agree. But what's enough for one is not enough for another. We need more subsidized housing which can be well run by provincial governments. We also need subsidies to those in need to be able to purchase food and electricity plus an allowance for such things as personal items and pet care. Nobody should have to suffer at the hands of landlords who don't care or corporations who are faceless and without feeling.