In 2005, Katrina Laboucan developed a hurricane complex.
While the real Hurricane Katrina was gathering momentum over the Bahamas, a certain kind of psychotic storm was brewing in Laboucan.
"It was awful, I was hearing voices, I wasn't even in reality," she says. "I thought I was Hurricane Katrina, literally. I thought all of this was going on for me."
Laboucan hopped in her truck and headed towards the United States, spending money left and right, buying things for the people of New Orleans, convinced she had to help them. She was also delusional, convinced she was pregnant, and started buying baby clothes and demanding people take her to the hospital. Confused and lost, she abandoned her truck, still thinking she was Katrina the hurricane.
"I didn't know what was going on," she says, over coffee in a Kensington restaurant.
Her partner drove to the States and brought her back to Canada, where she spent a month in the psych ward, and although she's now stabilized and on medication, Laboucan estimates she spent $10,000 while on her hurricane spree. She also lost her job running a campground and went on disability the following year.
Her story illustrates how mental illness can exacerbate poverty, but psychosis was just part of her plight. Then came the lump in her underarm. Laboucan was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a double mastectomy in 2010. Laboucan and her partner ended up in a Downtown Eastside shelter, behind Vancouver's Woodward's building.
"It was kind of scary. There were lots of people doing drugs in the shelter," she says. "We shared a room with four other people."
Laboucan then moved to an SRO, a single-room occupancy building, with shared bathrooms.
"It was a single room, and it was really tiny. Everyone in the building was crack-heads," she says. "I'd go to the bathroom, and there would be blood on the floor and girls shooting up."
Laboucan also struggled with the stigma attached to poverty.
"I didn't believe I was in that position. I was embarrassed. I was ashamed. I didn't know what to do," she says.
Laboucan started selling Hope in the Shadows calendars, a sales project where vendors get to keep half of the profits. Laboucan was on a street corner downtown, selling calendars, when she met Trish Garner, who was busy with a project called "B.C.'s Hardest Working," a series of online portraits profiling 100 of the province's working poor.
"She was actually chatting with someone. She looked really enagaged, like a bright spark, really, she was a lively person," Garner recalls.
The two talked, and Laboucan agreed to be profiled for the project. Spearheaded by the B.C. Poverty Reduction Coalition, B.C.'s Hardest Working was a response to a recently released list of Canada's top 100 wealthiest people.
"We wanted to counter some of the stereotypes of some of the people living in poverty and highlight the fact that most poor people in B.C. are working," Garner said.
"When the government in B.C. says, 'We've got a jobs plan,' that's not enough."
According to Garner, the project tells the story of low-income people grappling with a high cost of living.
"This is a story about poverty, but it's also about average people in B.C. We see salaries at the top going up, but for everyone else they are flat-lining. We are relying more and more on debt, and we're really struggling to get by with a broken social safety net."
As part of the project, the B.C. Poverty Reduction Coalition, a group of 375 organizations across the province, is calling for a poverty reduction plan for B.C. that would involve raising minimum wage, welfare and disability rates, while providing more social housing, universal child care, lower tuition fees, scrapping activity fees in public schools, and addressing groups - like First Nations, refugees, new immigrants and people with disabilities - who often fall below the poverty line.
"It sounds expensive, but what we have to consider is how much we are already paying for the consequences of poverty," Garner says. "If we add up health-care costs, the criminal justice cost and the costs of lost productivity, it's $8 to $9 billion annually. A poverty reduction plan with all the features I mentioned is only $3 to $4 billion."
Last September, Laboucan and her partner settled in an apartment in Burnaby's Heights neighbourhood.
"It's great. I am so much happier. I feel like I have my freedom back," Laboucan says. "Now I'm out of the Downtown Eastside. It's better to be in the Burnaby area. I'm not around the drug addicts. It was really depressing seeing people so down and out."
But she's still on disability, living on $906 a month, and the rates haven't gone up since 2007. She shops in thrift stores and relies on the food bank to get by, and she's embarrassed when her teenage son comes to visit and there's nothing to feed him. She's 49 years old, and all she wants to do is find a job, but her ill health is holding her back, and poverty is still weighing heavily on her shoulders.
"I am stressed every day. It affects my health. My esophagus hurts because of it. I suffer pain, I don't sleep properly, I don't eat properly," she says.
Better disability rates would leave Laboucan with more to live on each month. She would be able to buy more vitamins, fresh fruit and vegetables, and she wouldn't have to eat out of cans from the food bank all the time.
"I'm hoping eventually to get back on my feet and get back in the working field," she says. "My main goal is just to get healthy. It's taken so long to get healthy."
As for a poverty reduction plan, the provincial government's response is that it's focusing on creating jobs and targeted supports for families that are vulnerable to poverty.
"The B.C. Jobs Plan aims to strengthen the economy, create and protect jobs for families in every region of B.C, and make sure B.C. residents are able to get the skills training and education needed to fill job openings," reads a statement from the Ministry of Children and Family Development. "We are providing targeted supports to low-income families to ensure they have the supports and services they need. For example, we've raised the minimum wage to $10.25 per hour, meaning thousands of dollars more each year in the pockets of full-time employees making minimum wage. We've created close to 21,000 new affordable housing units, and we help more than 29,000 B.C. families through provincial subsidized housing and rent supplements that help keep the cost of private market rentals affordable."
For more on B.C.'s Hardest Working, visit www.bcshardestworking.ca.
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