The Destruction of the Social Safety Net
After the Cutbacks, 4 May 2002
Women who work in some of the 90 women’s centres in Montreal are witnessing rising poverty and the impacts of the attack on the public services which help these women.
After massive cutbacks to Quebec’s social services in the 90s, centres like the South Asian Women’s Community Centre (SAWC) are seeing a drastic rise in demand for their services. "The load is getting bigger because public services are not doing their job... so people get referred to us because we provide all our services for free," says Hitu Jugessur of SAWC. "And it is not just us. All women’s centres are feeling the burden."
SAWC provides extensive services to immigrant and refugee women in seven different languages. Last year the SAWC received $30,000 in funding. After a long struggle, the amount now stands at $70,000. Yet, compared to centres such as the Africa-Feminin Women’s Centre, which has worked with no funding whatsoever for the past 20 years, they are doing well.
The Roots of the Crisis
According to France Bourgeault of the Centre d’action et d’éducation des femmes a discrepancy in salary between the genders, inadequate minimum wage and social benefits, the housing crisis, lack of education about reinsertion into the job market and mental health issues are among the primary factors contributing to the high rate of poverty for women in Quebec.
The housing crisis is of special concern to many centres. "There is no affordable housing available," says Jugessur. "We are dealing with people at the bottom of the social structure. We get many demands put on us whereas before, there were housing banks around Montreal to help with finding accommodation. Those housing banks are not functioning because there are no houses available. So people call us directly."
As rents rise there are more and more evictions, people who can’t pay their rent, and homelessness. "Since the beginning of the housing crisis last fall we see many new women who do not know what to do. They have always had work and a place to live. If for one month they can’t pay their rent they get kicked out. They come to us extremely stressed out," says Suzanne Bourret of Herstreet, a day program for homeless women. "It is difficult to find and then pay for housing. For women who receive welfare, three-quarters of it has to go to rent. That leaves them with one week’s worth of money to buy a month’s worth of food. These factors lead to pan-handling, prostitution and of course being more prone to sexual and emotional abuse." Herstreet used to be open four days a week. However, in January - during the middle of the winter, traditionally their busiest time - they were forced to cut back to two days a week. Despite intense effort they have been unable to find funding.
More and more women are referred to women’s centres because hospitals and CLSCs (community clinics) are unable to cope. " We are not clinicians, nor are we nurses or psychiatrists," says Jugessur. "But we are forced to deal with serious cases. We deal with it by trying to break isolation. Immigrant women particularly face a lot of isolation."
"In the public system they will prescribe anti-depressants as if that will solve everything - without looking at the woman’s overall situation," says Jugessur. "She can be a refugee claimant, she’s been raped or been witness to war and she comes here and there’s no support system. They don’t give importance to these things. It takes two minutes to write a prescription down on a piece of paper and send a woman home."
The Quebec government promised massive tax cuts, to be implemented over three years, in the 2000 budget. The budget featured $4.5 billion in cuts for individuals and complete corporate exemptions to, among other things, health care services. "It is not a matter of lack of funds but of political will," says Jennifer Auchinleck of Project Genesis (a community drop-in centre). "There are no real debates over public services and people have it explained to them as ’We can’t afford this anymore.’ On a corporate level, the Quebec government has given extensive tax exemptions where public services, especially health care, are concerned. It is a clear policy decision. They are following an agenda of moving toward the privatisation of public services. There are groups that stand to benefit from the cuts."
Auchinleck is describing a trend that is common in other countries. Our governments have signed on to that agenda, and according to Auchinleck, it is not a direction that we in Quebec are willing to go in. "People do not want more cuts to public services."
"The key is being educated on the issues and taking action to have our voices heard," says Auchinleck. There have been victories in the recent past in housing and healthcare; the government has backed off from de-insuring dental and optometry services. As well, the fight for free medication for welfare recipients has been won. These have all been achieved through public pressure.
Women’s groups as well have fought hard to gain more recognition. They are currently waging a campaign with the Régie régional de santé, the health and social services board, to ensure $165,000 in core funding for all women’s centres in Montreal. This basic funding would not only enable them to maintain at-risk programs, while improving working conditions for employees, but also justly reward hard and increasingly necessary work.