Manitoba·Point of View

Living in poverty at Christmas 'life-draining,' says Winnipegger: 'I know, because I live that life'

'Life in poverty is a traumatic and life-draining experience, and no more so than at Christmas,' says Al Wiebe, who has experienced Christmas both with and without wealth.

We can end poverty, says Al Wiebe — who has experienced Christmas both with and without wealth

A homeless man collects cans in winter in this stock photo. Al Wiebe says he collects cans before Christmas so he can afford to buy a small gift for his partner. (Bystrov/Shutterstock)

A note to Char on Christmas Eve morning:

"Hey sweetie — if you wake up and I'm not here, I'm out collecting beer cans. We haven't got any pumpkin pie and whipped cream yet , and we can't have Christmas dinner without it can we?

I know we are a bit short , so I'll get the six bucks we need and our dinner will be great!

Hope you had a good sleep and see you soon.

- Al

P.S.: It's –25 this morning so have some hot coffee ready!"

This is a glimpse of life in poverty at Christmas. 

Life is difficult when there isn't enough to go around. I would feel guilty about not being able to send my kids gifts as I used to.- Al Wiebe

I  go out collecting beer cans every day (even in –30 ) to get my partner, Char, something she really likes. Inexpensive earrings and cheap perfume that smells half decent, and, oh yes — a few scratch-and-win tickets always go over well. Char tries to change our fortune with those and always wants that chance.

I have spent Christmas as a person experiencing homelessness, as a person struggling to survive everyday life and as a person with a six-figure income. Believe me, the latter is far, far better than the other two. 

Life in poverty is a traumatic and life-draining experience, and no more so than at Christmas. I know, because I live that life.

Al Wiebe is a steering committee member with Make Poverty History Manitoba. Charitable giving is caring and necessary, but we need to do more, he says. (Donna Carreiro/CBC)

Life is difficult when there isn't enough to go around. I would feel guilty about not being able to send my kids gifts as I used to. 

Char always buys cards at the thrift shops, but some years were so tight we couldn't even do that, and postage was always a problem. I would carry that grief  for days.

Char has never known anything but poverty and manages to carry Christmas spirit.

She puts up her tree early December and always has to buy new lights because she keeps it up for months. She'll look and look till she can buy some for 50 cents, and complains about a string of lights for a dollar. She also puts lit-up antlers on her two cats for more spirit.        

In poverty, one makes the best out of a not very good situation.- Al Wiebe

I would get socks and jeans that rarely fit and maybe a CD that she had found at Goodwill and a Tim's gift card. We use that for a Christmas afternoon coffee. It's not about the gifts, but it's the thought, as they say, and creative Christmas thinking.

In poverty, turkey is a luxury.

I used to be able to fill my trunk full of turkeys and drive them to a shelter for Christmas, and feel great on Christmas day. 

Not anymore.

'We need to do more'

I have called the Christmas Cheer Board up to 80 times each year trying to get in and get a hamper, knowing that there is usually a turkey included. As a diabetic, that turkey is my much-needed protein, not only for the holidays but weeks after.

On years when I could not get through (and there have been a few), I hoped that the gift bags we'd annually receive from a local bar had a canned ham, and that would do. Char is vegetarian and is always certain of getting canned vegetables and fruit, but the gift bag was always guaranteed to include a great, nutritional, traditional Christmas dinner.

Our own Christmas dinner is always something we cherish, even though Char always cringes at the sight of my turkeys. We have, and always will, splurge on pumpkin pie with ice cream or whipped cream. That was sometimes three hours worth of can hunting, but worth it.

We who can — and who have voices and the will to do it — have to work harder in collaboration to end this blight on society and make poverty history.- Al Wiebe

In poverty, one makes the very best out of a not very good situation. One has to — there is no choice. Creativity becomes a great gift. 

People say that even in poverty at Christmas, you don't have to starve. There are many places to go. Salvation Army, Siloam, Agape Table, Union Gospel Mission, Lighthouse, and on and on. The Christmas Cheer Board and Harvest do wonderful work (thank you), but is this really the answer to poverty?
 
It's very charitable and caring and is needed at this time, but we need to do more. The system that forces the thousands living in the crucible  of poverty in our city to use these organizations is broken and needs fixing.

We who can — and who have voices and the will to do it — have to work harder in collaboration to end this blight on society and make poverty history.

We can do this — and would that not be the greatest gift?

I wish you all a safe and happy holiday, and that it is full of the things you need.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Al Wiebe

Committee member, Make Poverty History, Manitoba

Al Wiebe once made six figures as an advertising executive, before losing his job and finances due to personal struggles. He then lived on the streets and on social assistance. He is now a steering committee member with Make Poverty History Manitoba, the chair of the Lived Experience Circle and a peer engagement specialist with the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness.

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