Mother of 2 living in downtown Toronto on rising inflation: 'I'm struggling a lot'

Over the next six weeks, as part of the ‘Out of Pocket’ series, Global News will examine how inflation is impacting Canadians from coast to coast.

A Toronto mother says she left everything when she decided to move back to Canada from China with her two children.

The family had been living overseas where her now ex-husband was working.

Helena said she and the children packed their bags in 2016 to “start over” again in Canada, leaving behind her husband, who she alleges was abusive.

Now she and the children — a 13-year-old girl and an 11-year-old boy — live in a small, one-bedroom apartment in downtown Toronto.

Making ends meet as a single mother is difficult enough, but over the past few years, the COVID-19 pandemic and high inflation have made things even tougher for Helena.

Global News has agreed not to include her last name, due to safety and privacy concerns.

According to Helena, she doesn’t receive any financial support from her ex-husband to help raise their children.

What’s more, with her family living in Japan, Helena and the two children have no additional support in Canada.

“I prefer to move on with my life alone,” she said. “I’m happy, I have my peace, but financially I’m struggling a lot because everything is on my shoulders.”

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Helena had been working part-time at a fast-food restaurant during the hours her children were at school.

But, like many others, she lost her job once the virus upended society.

Now that things have reopened and her children are a little older and more self-sufficient, Helena is working more. The majority of her waking hours from Monday to Friday are spent at the law firm where she works.

Even still, her larger paycheck is no match for the ever-rising prices at virtually every cash register.

“I have to pay for my bills – hydro, telephone.… Because my kids are getting older, I have to have a phone for security now to always keep in touch,” she said.

Helena takes public transit wherever she needs to go, because it’s cheaper than owning and parking a car in the city.

Even though she tries to cut costs wherever possible, the bills and ever-growing expenses have the family living “paycheque to paycheque.”

Helena earns approximately $2,000 a month, though, with rent costing $1,500 each month, it doesn’t leave much to cover other bills or groceries.

“My biggest bill is the rent – because if it (was) only me, I could share an apartment, or live in a basement or room share, but I can’t. Nobody wants to rent a room share (with) me because I have kids,” she said.

Helena would like to move into a bigger place to better accommodate her children as they grow into teenagers, but said rent prices in Toronto are just “too expensive.”

Helena said the older her children get, the more the expenses seem to multiply.

According to Helena, she spends about $700 on groceries each month to feed her family.

Helena buys some snacks and other food items at the dollar store, but wants to give her children more healthy options.

“Because my kids go to school … I try to make sure my kids have lunches,” she said, adding that she likes to send them with fruit and other healthy snacks, instead of just “junk food.”

She has been accessing the food bank for a few years to supplement what she’s able to buy.

“I always try to cook something healthy,” she said. “But, of course, fruit is expensive.”

Anila Lee Yuen, the president and CEO of the Centre for Newcomers, said inflation “magnifies the vulnerability” of newcomers to Canada, or those re-entering the country after years away.

Lee Yuen said single mothers are vulnerable, because they must shoulder all of the costs to raise their children, but have many other duties as their primary caregivers, like being present to help them with schoolwork, or being available to stay home with them if they are off sick from school.

“It’s all on that one person — it’s all on mom,” Lee Yuen said, adding that single mothers have to do it all while also finding steady employment.

“What we’re seeing across the board, not only with newcomer populations or even racialized communities, but across the board (is) people that do not have living wages.… If you’re not making a minimum of $22 an hour, full-time work, you’re not going to be able to take care of yourself,” she explained.

Lee Yuen said in order to have a “semblance of a dignified life and living environment,” as all humans deserve, a real living wage is necessary.

However, Lee Yuen said even those who are employed are finding it “very difficult” because of inflation.

Inflation and food insecurity

The latest Canada Food Price Report released last month found the price of food had increased by 10.3 per cent in Canada in 2022. The report suggests a family of four spent $15,222.80 on food in last year.

The report also estimates that food prices will increase by another five to seven per cent on average in 2023, adding hundreds more dollars to the average family’s yearly expenses.

Neil Hetherington, CEO of the Daily Bread Food Bank, said many families, even those with parents working full-time, are struggling to make ends meet as the cost of living continues to rise.

In 2021, Hetherington said there was a “doubling” of the number of people who had full-time employment but were accessing food banks year over year.

“What used to be about 15 per cent of food bank clients that had full-time positions; that number is now 30 per cent of the people that we serve,” he said.

“When we were growing up, we thought, ‘OK, well, you go college, get a degree and find a job, you’ll be fine,’” he continued. “That’s not a reality at all, and roughly 50 per cent of the people who come to food banks have post-secondary education — they’ve done everything right, and yet, they can’t make ends meet.”

A recent poll conducted exclusively for Global News by Ipsos Public Affairs between Dec. 14 and 16, 2022, found that 36 per cent of Canadians said their financial situations were “bad” or “somewhat bad” heading into 2023.

According to Hetherington, in 2022, more than 100,000 people in Toronto accessed a food bank for the first time.

What’s more, Hetherington said the food bank’s 2023 forecast suggests the number of people accessing food banks in the Toronto area will increase from the 200,000 in December of 2022 to 266,000 by June.

“We’re sort of in this strange state of low unemployment, but pretty significant inflation and interest rates increasing,” he said. “You put all those factors together, and what does that mean for the average person? Well, it means that probably their take-home pay is going to be less, and their costs are going to be increased, and that means that the food bank will be serving more people.”

Hetherington said that while food bank numbers are not the only metric useful in determining how many people are food insecure, or who are struggling to make ends meet, they are a “great measure” to determine what is happening in society in real time.

“It is giving a crisp, clear picture that we are in a circumstance now that we’ve never been in before,” he said.

Other expenses accumulating

For Helena, food is not the only expense that she’s concerned about as her children continue to grow.

She said as her children get older, they are becoming more “picky” about the clothing and shoes they wear.

The family receives some hand-me-downs from friends and others in the community.

Otherwise, Helena will try to source what her children want from second-hand options like Facebook Marketplace or thrift stores.

“Even for myself, I don’t buy clothes anymore,” she said. “Because it’s so expensive because I have to think twice before I spend it.”

Only items that are absolutely necessary are purchased.

Helena works hard to provide for her children, but said doing it alone can sometimes be overwhelming.

“I have to do what I have to do as a mom to raise my kids,” she said. “I know many stories that some moms leave their kids at an orphanage, but I don’t want to be one of them.”

© 2023 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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