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B.C. MLA walks the walk in war on poverty

NDP MLA Jagrup Brar is two weeks into his challenge to live on the equivalent of welfare income for a month.

rafal gerszak The Globe and Mail

At the halfway point of his month-long journey into poverty, Jagrup Brar says the hardest thing is dealing with the depressing reality of having almost no money, no food and no hope, day after day.

And things just got worse, as the New Democrat MLA who set out to highlight poverty in British Columbia has now moved into a bleak little room in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, where he has a one-burner stove, a mattress on a cold floor – and a bathroom down the hall that he shares with 11 other men.

Mr. Brar is attempting to live on the $610 that a single employable person living on welfare receives in B.C. each month. For the first two weeks, he was in a house in Surrey he shared with eight welfare recipients.

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"That was a seven-star hotel by comparison," he said on Tuesday.

He said he doesn't really know what to expect in moving into Canada's poorest neighborhood, but judging by what he's faced so far, it's going to be a tough two weeks.

"Living in poverty is hard and demoralizing because hunger breaks your body and fear breaks your spirit. That's what happens … it's tough every morning you get up. It's like you're preparing for going to a war," he said as he trudged to his new home in B.C. Rooms, a bleak walk-up near Oppenheimer Park.

His room, No. 305, is 3.3 metres by 3.3 metres. It has a sink, a small table, two battered chairs and a fridge that apparently doesn't work.

Frank Stuart, one of Mr. Brar's new neighbours, said he is lucky to be getting into one of the better single-room-occupancy buildings in the area.

"It's not bad," said Mr. Stuart, who pays $425 in rent, which he draws from the $610 he gets each month. He calculates that after deducting rent and money for bus tickets, he's left with $4.15 a day on which to live.

"It's a quiet building. The bad thing is that at night you've got to run the gauntlet of pretty aggressive drug dealers. They are on the front steps, at the door, all down the block," he said.

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At 6-foot-4, Mr. Brar, a player for the Indian national basketball team before immigrating to Canada, should be able to take care of himself.

He said his big concern isn't the people on the streets of the Downtown Eastside, but the daily grind of trying to stay healthy on a limited food budget.

"Everyday life is a struggle when you are poor. People have to make hard choices between food and other necessary items every day," he said.

The married father of two young children said he often feels weary and suspects the cause is a lack of proper nutrition.

He carried two bags with him in his move. In one was a blanket, and in the other a box of cereal, a few eggs and a jar of peanut butter.

Mr. Brar said one of the things he's learned so far is just how difficult it is for someone to work their way out of poverty.

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"The challenge when you are living on a very limited amount of money is that you don't have much time to find a job. Basically, just surviving for a day is a struggle," he said.

Mr. Brar said it's disturbing there are no earning exemptions for welfare recipients who find part-time work.

"I don't think that makes sense," he said. "There should be an incentive for people to find a part-time job, brush up their skills and that could lead to a full time job."

Mr. Brar said he will spend his days talking to people about their lives.

"I spent my first 15 days in Surrey and I met a lot of people there, including homeless mothers, low-income farm workers, refugees, vulnerable youth … listening to their stories is very hard and painful," he said, adding he expects more of the same in Vancouver.

Mr. Brar said he misses sitting in the evening talking with his wife, Rajwant, seeing his 11-year-old daughter, Noor, off to school in the morning, and watching nature films with his son, Fateh, who is four years old.

Mr. Brar's project, which he undertook in response to a challenge issued by Raise the Rates, an anti-poverty agency, comes 25 years after the late Emery Barnes, a popular New Democrat MLA, did the same thing to draw attention to poverty and low welfare rates in B.C.

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National correspondent

Mark Hume is a National Correspondent for The Globe and Mail, based in Vancouver, writing news and feature stories on a daily basis about his home province of British Columbia. His weekly column, which often challenges the orthodoxy on environmental issues, appears every Monday. More

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