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fire-fullBy Jon Farmer
I moved back to Owen Sound in the depth of winter when the temperature was regularly dropping into the negative 20s and frozen pipes had left over a hundred houses without water. Despite the chilly reception, my home town quickly reminded me how warm it can be. On my first weekend back I joined over 400 people at a fundraising concert to benefit the victims of a recent house fire. We listened to local musicians, bid at an extensive silent auction, and by the end of the night raised over $10,000. The benefit was heart-warming but the temperatures were low. Halfway through the event, the organizers interrupted the show to ask people to move their vehicles off the street outside: another water main had burst. As I slid home on fresh ice past homes that no longer had running water, I started to think about the differences between fire and ice.

Fire is easy to recognize and it's easy to sympathize with its victims. Fires effect everyone equally and we're quick to respond – hundreds of concerned neighbours come together and donate money. Owen Sound is a particularly good community for that. Charities receive strong support. We have well-known programs for people in need. The trouble is that not all need is as easy to see as a 6-storey plume of smoke coming from an attic.

Some need looks more like ice – it's almost invisible until you see its damage. Walking past a house without water you would never know whether the taps are on or why they might have stopped. Maybe a water main burst. Maybe the pipes froze because the utilities were cut off. A house without electricity is impossible to identify from outside, just like a fridge without food, or a car without gas. Without lights a dark house looks like an empty house but people are home and their struggle is doubled by invisibility.

We had a bad winter. Frozen pipes aside, the United Way of Bruce Grey knew of over 40 households in immediate need of assistance to keep the heat on. Rising utility prices and plunging temperatures pushed families with precarious incomes closer to the edge. Some went further into debt; some had their power turned off. Poverty is harder to recognize than fire and it carries greater stigma but it creates need all the same. Utilities shut-offs are just one symptom of the deeper, more systemic problems that are hiding below the surface. Prejudice makes us less likely to dig for the mechanisms at work underneath.

Plenty of venomous Facebook exchanges suggest that we find it easier to empathize with people whom we see as worthy. We acknowledge that the fire's victims couldn't stop the flames but it's different with the marginalized. Some of us ride the "I could find a good job and keep my house, why can't they" train, eagerly pointing out that 'the people who hangout by Tim Hortons' could just stop smoking and they'd have more money. We see people who do not conform to our upper middle class consumer tastes, find a vice in their hands, and prescribe a list of moral reforms. It doesn't help and it's never been effective. Without first-hand exposure to poverty or experience with mental health issues it's difficult to recognize humanity in the struggle. Few would immediately point out that tobacco is an appetite suppressant and cheaper than nutritious food, for instance. And yet, we do recognize that it is right to help people in need.

As a community, we want to help people in need. That's why we go to benefits. That's how the United Way raised over $15,000 to help folks keep the lights on in January. But we can only respond to need if we see it and often we're willfully blind. We point to the plume of smoke, not realizing that we have to stamp out the flames to make a long-term difference.

Poverty is a product. It's assembled by different steps in individual lives but there are common themes: too many costs and too little income, with no way to change either. Peace and Justice Grey Bruce released a report earlier this year citing precarious work as a major factor in poverty in our area. Part-time and inconsistent minimum wage employment makes it difficult to plan ahead. Adding on unpredictable expenses – rising utility cost and extreme cold for instance – sets people up to fail. Savings drop slowly like the temperature and when they get low enough something breaks. We don't see the broken pipe just the flood it produces.

The good news is that we can address the chill. We can learn from the many effective poverty reduction models at work in other cities and nations. But we won't win public support to change what's happening here until we collectively look past the symptoms of poverty and recognize the systems that produce it. We need to stop pointing at the flooded streets and start to address the cracks in our infrastructure underneath. Helping our neighbours in crisis situations is essential to our communal life. But supporting our neighbours in systemic crises is equally important and requires long term change if we want to do more than simply feed the hungry and give blankets to the cold from day-to-day. If we really want to help those in crisis – as our on-going support for those in need suggests – then it's time to challenge the economic systems we expect people to work within and to re-examine the way we provide services to those in need.

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