March 12, 2010
When I was working at the shelter I was witness to a fundamental change in client behaviour around the day of the month when income support cheques were issued. Regular faces were conspicuously absent from their usual beds. Panhandlers abandoned their favourite corners. Clients showed up sporting new clothes, expensive jewelry, and toys (DVD players, cell phones etc). Acrylic nail manicures and other useless shit that just left me shaking my head. In Calgary we simply referred to this as “cheque day”… in Edmonton I was introduced to the more colourful term of Mardi Gras.
I have always taken great pride in my ability to squeeze a loonie ‘til the duck crapped. So you can imagine my surprise when last Tuesday I succumb to Mardi Gras. It has been a daily struggle the past few months and the stress of trying to find the resources I need, has been a daily grind. A roof at night and a soup kitchen to eat at are fairly accessible, especially in large cities, but added expenses are a struggle. For some people it is feeding an addiction, or buying smokes… for me it was co-payments for my physiotherapy and the bus tickets to get there. On Tuesday, after much waiting, my first EI injury benefit was issued. I didn’t go out a blow it all on a senseless fling, but I did buy a new pair of earrings I had been admiring in one of the shop windows… they cost ($75) 3X what I have ever spent on jewelry before. I can honestly say I understand why people succumb to Mardi Gras. The weight of the uncertainty of day to day survival is suffocating and in that one moment the weight lifts, you can stop and catch a breath.
I can’t speak for those on disability or old age pension, but I know that agencies get them onto waiting lists quickly and into subsidized housing at the earliest opportunity. But I will speak to basic income supports (they have provided me with bridging loans while waiting to find out about my EI). Without housing the personal allowance is $235 per month. There isn’t really enough to create a nest egg, or even provide for monthly groceries. There is no safe place to keep extra cash when living homeless so depending on one’s personal priorities the money goes in the first 4-5 days to “Mardi Gras”. A few nights at a motel, some alone time with your sweetie, or just a few days to relax, away from the rules and routines of shelter living. A few days without having to beg smokes… or booze, or hits, or tokes. A few days in a month when new clothes, a haircut or a manicure can make you feel good… feel special… feel pretty. I love my new earring… they are pretty… but mostly I love that I now have a real understanding of the phenomenon we call Mardi Gras.