Engage Ottawa: The Face of Poverty


*By CWP Intern Emily Shoff

What most of us see when we think of poverty. Homelessness is a violation of our human right to housing and deprives one of their dignity. With shelters at full capacity in the Ottawa area, shelter recipients are staying longer and even permanently.

Poverty is a complex issue.  There is not one particular ‘type’ of person or population who experiences the struggles of low-income.  During my internship at Canada Without Poverty, a central point I have come to understand is that while homelessness is one part of the entire picture, it remains the mainstream idea of who is poor.  As part of Engage Ottawa, I wanted to confront the stereotypes of poverty with a photo project and offer provocative images that spark conversation.  (Scroll down to see the photos)

The Face of Poverty attempts to capture the various identities of poverty.  Homelessness is the most visible form of poverty but it is not the only face of poverty.  Poverty in Canada involves the deprivation of resources, finances and the capacity to participate fully in society.  The term ‘poverty’ is diverse and encapsulates the struggles of the working poor, the indebted university student, the new immigrant.

I wanted to raise awareness, dispel the myths of poverty, get members of the community to participate in the conversation and make them think.  Educating civil society is part of Canada Without Poverty’s mission.

Why the bag?  It further illustrates the point that these individuals are everyday citizens; there is no single face of poverty.

The original plan was to capture 10 photos illustrating different aspects of life for those struggling with poverty (single mothers, new immigrants, Aboriginal peoples, women), however people were resistant.

I realized that just because I am comfortable talking about poverty, dissecting its meaning and critically thinking about why it exists, doesn’t mean that someone who is not engrossed in the work is just as curious:  I even tried pulling “it’s for a school project”!  And so the list of 10 fell to 6.

We often think employment will cure poverty, but low wage jobs keep people stuck in a cycle of financial need. Sometimes individuals work two jobs just to make ends meet. In the words of Ed Broadbent, “the majority of those living in poverty are working poor – not welfare recipients”. Consider this: Latte = $4.25 Hourly minimum wage in Ontario = $10.25.

Poverty is stigmatized.  There is a lack of understanding about what poverty is and furthermore who lives in it.  I visited several independent coffee shops to snap a photo to represent the working poor.  People were resistant because they felt hypocritical.  Yet they’re most likely making minimum wage and stretching their paycheques to make ends meet.  Some may even have a diploma or degree indicating that they can work in a field other than customer service.  In Ontario, minimum wage is $10.25/hour, which generates an annual income of $18,655.  The poverty line rests at $19 719 creating an income gap of $1064.

We’re blinded by the symptoms of poverty.  Take my own status for example – a full-time post-secondary student.  It’s daunting to know that after graduation the average unemployment rate for youth (15-24) stands at 14% (double the national unemployment rate) which was 7.4% as of February 2012.  Don’t forget the massive amount of debt post-graduation, or the reality that having a full-time job can still mean pressing every penny made because of low wages and inadequate benefits.  A certificate does not mean a safe zone from poverty.

As you analyze these photos, challenge yourself to move beyond your current understanding of who lives in poverty, and start to consider the low-wage problem that causes many individuals and families to struggle daily.



Healthy food is a basic need and a human right. Nutrition is frequently sacrificed as individuals and families choose between paying the rent or buying food. Food banks such as Ottawa’s Centretown Emergency Food Centre are consistently being run dry serving 720 individuals every month. The solution to hunger: end poverty.

For people living in poverty, a car is a luxury. While the bus is a cheaper alternative for many, transit is not always affordable if you have limited income. In Ottawa, a monthly adult bus pass costs $94. A single person on welfare receives $654.50 a month to cover this expense as well rent, food and other living expenses.


Will your children be able to afford university? Tuition fees are through the roof in Canada with the average University student paying $5138 for a year of school. Ontario student assistance (OSAP)covers a fraction of the costs but the amount of long-term debt is detrimental as the average student owes $27 000 in debt after graduation.

A hidden type of homelessness, individuals unable to afford rent “couch surf” by seeking shelter from friends or family members. This situation is often thought of as temporary but with over 10,000 people on the waitlist for social housing, a person could wait four years for assistance. At times they are forced to turn to the streets or unsafe living environments.