Karla’s Story: A tragic illustration of the city’s class divide

I begin by clumsily expressing my condolences for the sudden passing of Karla’s husband Derrick.

Karla is a childhood friend that I grew up with in public housing. She is gracious and we fall into stride with each other as though the years and postal codes between us mean nothing. She shares the details of her deceased love’s health issues. He was diagnosed with a thyroid condition several years ago. Shortly afterwards, he suffered two heart attacks. But through it all the two high school sweethearts remained dedicated to each other and their seven children. And then one Saturday morning, after greeting the day and each other with a kiss, he was gone.

By this time Karla had a bit of experience with abrupt and bitter endings. Five years prior, her brother was murdered in front of a bar after attempting to break up a fight between two female patrons. Although there were a number of witnesses, the case went cold because people refused to come forward. A few years later Karla attended the funerals of our two childhood friends, Andrea and O’Neal, both succumbed to medical conditions prior to their fortieth birthdays. And then, like salt sprinkled in an exposed wound, Derrick, her lifelong love, was suddenly taken.

It is past midnight, I have mounting deadlines, and Langston, the diabetic cat that I am fostering, needs his insulin shot first thing in the morning. But once again I find myself awkwardly caught between Toronto’s growing class divide.

I do not know a single person from the suburban neighbourhood my mother moved us to after leaving the public housing community where I grew up who has suffered such tragedy. This assertion isn’t sentimentality talking, statistics corroborate my assertion that we’ve got a class crisis on our hands. Stats Canada reports that First Nations people, single parents, seniors, and people with disabilities are most impacted by poverty. And let’s not forget children. Although we direct relief efforts to child poverty charities overseas, as we should, a UNICEF survey shows that our own child poverty rates are abysmal. We rank approximately 3.5 points behind other “developed” countries. Many Canadians are struggling with sky-rocketing housing costs and it is estimated that over 30,000 people rest their heads against cold concrete each night. These alarming stats animate just a fraction of the real impact of the city’s poverty problem. Contrary to popular belief, poverty is not simply about the lack of cash required to get “stuff” and live in fancy neighbourhoods. It is a condition that undermines self-worth, compromises people’s health, contributes to violence within communities, and creates tremendous burden on the economy.

Although rich in culture, innovation, and opportunity, cities are not urban enclaves of honey and privilege. Cities are constantly reckoning class tensions. Whether initiating the redevelopment of neighbourhoods, negotiating the location of social services or considering transit options which extend through low-income communities, many of our municipal and even national debates have the underpinnings of class. Take for example, Justin Trudeau’s misguided video in which he declares his commitment to the “middle-class” asserting that they, or rather we, built Canada. As an often exhausted professional and mother of one whose work week rarely caps at 40 or even 50 hours, I too am aware of an increasingly overstretched and vulnerable “middle-class”. However, my early childhood experiences don’t allow me to negate people living in single-industry cities facing long-term unemployment, small to mid-sized business owners going up against Goliath-sized chains, children suffering the backlash of lack, and individuals with increased risks to their physical and mental health.

And I certainly can’t ignore the stories of childhood friends like Karla.

After we discuss the deaths of her husband, brother, and our childhood friends, she shares yet another tragedy with me. Her home in the Malvern public housing community recently caught on fire just weeks after the first anniversary of her husband’s passing. The house is currently being repaired and all seven of her already distraught children are being temporarily sardined in a bleak two-bedroom apartment. When I visit to drop off some clothing (everything was lost in the fire) my heart is filled with so much sorrow it threatens to break. That’s what poverty does — it breaks and sometimes kills people. A study analyzing the impact of class disparities conducted by The Hamilton Spectator showed that there is a 21-year gap in life expectancy between that city’s most affluent and poorest neighbourhoods. I understand the challenge of remaining competitive in an increasingly volatile global economy but poor people cannot pay for our prosperity and the development of cities with their lives. If we don’t begin to have more open discussions about class I fear that more of my childhood friends will die prematurely. I fear that I will drown in the pain of making it out to the other side while others, no less valuable or talented than me, suffer. I also fear that our silent complicity will kill the city’s radical promise of opportunity, forward-thinking and compassion.

 

 Photo by Danny Lyon

 

9 comments

  1. Although I feel for Karla to an extent, she obviously is a very nice person but whatever possessed the woman to believe having seven children was perfectly acceptable when living in such impoverished conditions?

  2. I can’t help but notice that Karla has made a life-choice… having 7 children… that is going to ensure her a life of poverty. The deaths in her life are tragic, yes. So is losing her residence to a fire: but seven kids requires a devotion of time and resources that she’s just not going to have.

    But the subtext to the article seems to be that everyone else should pay for the choice she’s made, because otherwise her life isn’t fair, and there are going to be consequences for choices she has made. I mean how big an apartment does the author think we should be subsidizing for this family of 8? (9 before the father died?)

    I have a sympathy for the kids, but Karla has made some strange choices with her life. And given that the author is dealing with helping a cat at the same time that Karla’s trying to deal with a large family, I think a lot of the disparity between Jay and Karla and the length of time they are going to live comes down to choices they made.

    R.

  3. What does Karla having 7 kids have to do with the larger point here–very well-supported by statistics and hard facts, by the way– that we’ve got a class crisis on our hands? Also, very strange reaction from you two, would you be more sympathetic if she only had one child? And before you say anything about the government subsidizing poor people, I suppose you are OK with corporate welfare?

    “Between 1982 and 2012, it spent $13.7 billion on grants and loans to business. The vast majority of these loans were not repaid. A mere 0.1 per cent of the interest owed on these loans was ever collected.”
    http://www.thestar.com/opinion/editorialopinion/2012/09/13/corporate_welfare_flourishes_in_lean_times.html
    http://www.fraserinstitute.org/publicationdisplay.aspx?id=18802&terms=corporate+welfare

  4. Incredible to me that in reading this story of a woman, who has 1. had her brother murdered, 2. had her husband recently die from disease, 3. had her house burn down, and 4. seen two childhood friends lost through fatal medical conditions, people are commenting that her life would be different if she had made the choice to not have 7 kids??? It is late and I’m tired so excuse me if I’m a bit fuzzy, but please explain to me exactly which of the 4 awful tragedies outlined above are the result of the number of children she has? I have 4 children, am I somehow less responsible to you than someone who has 1 or 2, or someone like Jay who to paraphrase your comment chooses to have a cat instead of a large family?

  5. The issue of the widening chasm between the rich and the poor in Toronto (and Canada) is always presented as such an intractably complex problem. Scholars furrow their brows and expound at length about this rift while ensconced in the velvety confines of their academia; activists and community leaders rail against the injustices but we only pay attention to them when a crisis–a spectacle to gawk at–unfolds; corporate tycoons shift in their feet uncomfortably, avoiding eye contact and mumble something about “individual responsibility…initiative…opportunities…” while raking in heaps off the unwitting largesse of the public; politicians do politician shit: a few mean well but they have to go up against the juggernaut of “vested business interests”.

    In the face of so much cynicism and despair, it gets hard to connect personally with the actual issue of income inequality. A story like Jay’s hits hard because it encapsulates the problem from an economic level to a deeply personal one. It demonstrates plainly that there are poor people in Canada, the communities that poverty seeps into most frequently and painfully, and that this monster is only going to grow bigger.

    Amidst all the statistical data and analyses, we have the heartrending story of her friend Karla. And what Jay is doing to help her friend through her difficult time.

    This is what the struggle essentially boils down to. We can pontificate about this and that till our ears grow corns, but the basic, simple truth is that we have to be willing to share. We have to confront this issue personally and do our part to help. In the event that I find myself on the other side of the poverty line, I would hope that this same help is extended to me.

    The question is this: how much skin do I have in this game?

    So thank you, Jay. Please keep doing your thing and raise more questions and remind us. Let us know how we can help Karla and others in her circumstances. Forget the asinine comments about the number of children. Richard and Christopher are like the people who pinched their noses towards the victims of the Haitian earthquake by saying, “Oh that’s so sad, but they had it coming, no?” Men who lack a basic sense of decency. They always have this fucked up tendency to impose their privilege, their false objectivity and pseudo-intellectualism.

    Motherfuckers, if you can’t imagine airing your heinous thoughts in person, then don’t say it online either. Judgmental pricks.

  6. Comparing the comments of Chris and Richard for Karla’s story with those of this story, http://on.thestar.com/1i6SL35 is a condemnation of your wicked thoughts. When your day comes just take it, it’s what you would have wanted.

  7. Yes, Gelek! Thank you. And thank you, Jay, for sharing your and Karla’s story.

  8. Malvern is not just a “public housing community”. When I first moved to Canada in 1988 it is where we bought our first house. The area was “in transition” as the original buyers could now take out their equity without having to kick it back to the governments which had originally subsidized it. Our cul-de-sac was surrounded by new for sale developments – all of the subsidy programs having ended, developers got interested again. There was supposed to have been an extension to the Scarborough ALRT but the neighbourhood was sufficiently organized to put a stop to that.

  9. Wow – a lot of replies.

    H.Seife – If what you are saying is that there could be better distribution of wealth… okay, I agree. And there are elements of Karla’s story that I’m very sympathetic to: death of a spouse, loss of apartment in a fire: those are terrible things for anyone to face. But I am also struck that Karla has made a choice to have a family which she does not have the resources to support. And the line that struck me was “sardined into a 2 bedroom apartment.” I am left with the observation that the life Karla is living is consequential to choices she made. So… I’ll ask again what kind of apartment should she and her eight children be entitled to? Does she get a nice 5 room place at subsidized rates? Can I have 8 kids and expect a similar deal? And I’m not okay with corporate welfare.

    Craigdcw – As I said, I’m sympathetic to anyone facing such horiffic bad luck: it’s not material how wealthy they are. But the problem I have is that Karla has made a choice with her life that has completely tied up her time–and the story ends with the suggestion that we should do more to help her and her exceptionally large family. I don’t feel it’s at all responsible or respectable on Karla’s part to use the existence of her children as leverage against the rest of us to provide for her standard of living. The incentives in the system are very poorly set up if the answer to “how to get a nice house” is “have lots of kids.”

    People should be free to have as many children as they want, they should not be free to in exchange have lives without the consequences of those choices coming to bear: responsible childraising takes time and it takes money, and if you have 8 kids, you’re not going to have a lot of either: and barring exceptional starting circumstances, you’re going to be poor. It’s not fair to ask everyone else to shoulder the burden of your choices. If you choose to have a cat instead… it seems only fair that you then have more disposable time and money.

    Gelek- Well I agree with you until you decided to start calling me names and putting words in my mouth. I thought Canada should have effectively offered province-hood to Haiti after the earthquake. I’d have been very happy to see federal transfers going to Haiti, and our successful institutions (Education, Police, Courts, Elections) being used to support them. Poverty is a problem, however this particular anecdote outlines a big problem for me: at what point do you think Karla should be responsible for the choices she has made with her life, and how those restrict the options available to her? She chose to have 8 kids. She never. Do you think that has nothing to do with her current circumstances?

    Gad – I don’t understand your point. People die. Houses catch fire. It happens whether your are wealthy or poor; unexpected tragedy is a reality of life. But my point is Karla has made choices in her life that will keep her poor. Do you face consequences for choices you make? I know I do. Should Karla?

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