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A Trans Refugee Shares How Tough It Is With Only $160 A Month For Food

A community fundraiser is helping her afford safe housing for a year.
Alexa Ward is a 25-year-old Barbadian refugee who hopes to someday be a flight attendant. She shared with HuffPost Canada how the pandemic has exacerbated her access to affordable food.
Courtesy of Alexa Ward
Alexa Ward is a 25-year-old Barbadian refugee who hopes to someday be a flight attendant. She shared with HuffPost Canada how the pandemic has exacerbated her access to affordable food.

This is part of an ongoing HuffPost Canada series on food insecurity and how it’s affecting Canadians during the COVID-19 pandemic. In this edition, we talk to a homeless trans woman who shares how she supplements government support to afford food and other basic needs while unemployed.

Fleeing transphobic treatment in her home country of Barbados, Alexa Ward came to Canada last October with high hopes. She was looking forward to safety, community, and starting a new life as a flight attendant. But her first fall and winter were “very hard” seasons, she told HuffPost Canada, as she knew nobody and experienced misgendering when trying to access services for newcomers like her.

“I would go to organizations and they would call me sir,” she recalled.

After her first few months of adjustment and job-hunting to no avail, Ward was faced with a new problem: Surviving the COVID-19 pandemic as a refugee without a job or safe housing.

Trans refugees have few resources of their own

LGBTQ2S+ refugees who face persecution abroad may come to Canada with assistance from organizations like Rainbow Railroad in Toronto or Vancouver’s Rainbow Refugee.

As part of the Government-Assisted Refugees Program, Ward receives some federal help. They set her up with Ontario Works (OW) to receive welfare as she looks for work, but what she gets is often not enough to afford living in Toronto.

Here’s how the month breaks down for her:

Monthly OW payment: $347

Rent (former): $200

Ward was formerly living with a roommate as part of a refugee settlement program. However, she alleges her roommate quickly turned abusive and he’d often lock her out of the apartment unit they shared. She is temporarily coach-surfing with a kind couple who heard about her situation, but is expected to leave once September rolls around.

Food budget every month: $100-160, Ward estimates she spent $40 on food last week. In comparison, the average Canadian spends $214 a month on groceries, Statistics Canada reports.

Most of the time, she grocery shops at No Frills or Walmart. However, this budget usually runs short. A monthly food-bank order filled with kitchen staples like vegetables and boxed macaroni keeps her from going hungry during lean weeks. When she wants to treat herself, she orders pizza or gets a burger on UberEats.

“It’s not a good feeling,” Ward said, when asked about the tight budget she’s working around. “But I have to make good use of it... I make a lot of sacrifices.”

Many newcomers may face similar struggles with hunger, as they’re more likely to face food insecurity than Canadians who are born here.

Transportation: Anything left over.

How she copes with low funds: Over a two-day period, Ward skipped three meals in order to save money. Hunger is unfortunately something Ward is no stranger to; part of the reason she left Barbados was how her family treated her and withholding meals was one way they showed their anger towards her gender identity. As studies show, trans youth report higher rates of familial abuse and maltreatment; Ward’s survival mechanisms are common among the severely food insecure, who make up two per cent of the Canadian population.

Meals she can afford: On Tuesday, Ward had one of her go-to dishes, a simple dinner of chicken and potatoes.

Her first meal of the day on Wednesday was another favourite: “Bakes,” a three-ingredient Barbadian fried dough dish made out of flour, sugar, and water. Since it costs so little to make, it’s a regular dish that she turns to.

Several hours later, she treated herself to a chicken roti from Mr. Jerk. The long-time chain restaurant has an outpost close to the Church-Wellesley village that she adores.

“This is the closest I can get to the Caribbean,” she said. “They have rotis, black-eyed peas and rice, things we Caribbean people can eat!”

Chicken rotis and chicken curry are some of Ward's favourite take-out orders.
Courtesy of Polak James
Chicken rotis and chicken curry are some of Ward's favourite take-out orders.

There aren’t many places Ward can access Barbadian food, she said. The closest taste from back home comes from Jamaican restaurants.

Housing challenges are worsened during pandemic

Housing affordability is a huge problem for many recent refugees. A 2007 report by the Canadian Housing Renewal Association found that out of all recent newcomers, refugees have the hardest time finding a place to live. In recent years, federal statistics have shown an increase in shelter usage by refugees. The Globe and Mail reported in January that Toronto agencies helping refugees find homes have only been able to offer crowded or deteriorating living spaces, or in the worst cases, nothing at all.

While rental prices dropped in several Canadian cities due to the pandemic, a historically low unemployment rate makes paying rent impossible for refugees like Ward who have no savings.

Social service workers, who usually having housing connections, were unable to sort out accommodations for Ward because of the health crisis. They brought up shelters as a potential play for Ward to stay, but she rejected those offers as she had heard reports of transphobia from friends. As researcher Alex Abramovich has found in research on LGBTQ2S+ youth in Toronto, many from the community are “overrepresented” among homeless populations, but “underrepresented” in shelters due to oppressive treatment or policies.

To support Ward during this challenging time, her friends have started a community fundraiser with a goal of $20,000 to guarantee she can live somewhere for a year.

So far, they’ve raised more than $7,000, a feat that Ward is touched by given how many of the donations are coming from strangers.

“I am very surprised people actually care,” she said. “I’m feeling overwhelmed. I don’t know who they are, I just want to say thanks.”

She’s hoping to make the most out of every dollar donated, which is why she’s skimping out on meals in order to help save for safe housing.

“I don’t want to spend the money and then have to end up in a shelter,” she explained.

Community has filled in the gaps where government services have failed Ward. Black Coalition for AIDS Prevention is aiding her housing search, and the LGBTQ2S+ youth agency Friends of Ruby (formerly called Egale Youth Services) is providing emotional support.

Throughout all this, Ward’s friends are her main source of strength; they not only talk about “Canada’s Drag Race” together ― she’s rooting for Jimbo to take the crown ― they’ve been the ones to show up when the chips were down; when people she used to know from Barbados would send virtual threats; and ultimately, they’re the ones who help extend her social circles and access to resources.

“My circle is very strong,” she said. “People are not really hiring yet, but I am trying and I have friends who are helping me. And their friends have friends.”

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