Economic reality of COVID-19 like ‘a bad dream every day,’ say Winnipeggers struggling to pay rent, mortgages

Casandra Woolever always pays her rent on the first of the month, but she won’t make any payments on April 1. She doesn’t know how she could. 

The single mother from Winnipeg lost her two part-time jobs because of COVID-19. 

Woolever can no longer afford her $1,500 a month two-bedroom apartment in St. Boniface — she cannot pay for rent, feed her two kids and cover utilities on the $1,100 a month coming in from the Canada Child Benefit. She also usually gets child support payments, but they may also now fall short, since COVID-19 cost a co-parent his job, too.

She’s running out of options.

“I’ve always lived on a very small tight budget, and to have it all gone in a blink of an eye — I felt like I was waking up from a bad dream every day and I didn’t know how to come out of it,” Woolever said.

This early in the COVID-19 pandemic, the human and economic toll is tough to quantify. It’s left enormous swaths of Manitobans who’ve lost work, like Woolever, scrambling for financial aid.

2 jobs fell apart

She felt the ripple effects of business closures and physical distancing measures in mid-March. The two families using her home-based daycare withdrew their children. Her Métis-inspired clothing business is on hold without funding she was hoping to secure through bank loans and grants.

Woolever was starting to feel some relief watching the daily news conferences from Ottawa, promising new measures from the federal government to support families.

“All of a sudden, everyone online is talking about rent and it completely hit me — I’m like, ‘Oh my goodness, I don’t have enough for rent.’

“I have my CCB [Canada Child Benefit] coming in and that’s pretty much enough for food for my kids and any kind of essential bills that I haven’t been able to get deferred,” Woolever said, but not much else.

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Her property manager told her to call back in mid-April, she says, when she expects to receive at least some financial aid. She didn’t get the clarity she wanted from her landlord, however. Will she will have to pay her entire rent, or only a portion? 

“I don’t know how people are supposed to come back [financially] from just April alone, never mind May or any subsequent months after that.”

She’s uncertain what her financial support from the government will look like.

Woolever cannot apply for employment insurance because her self-run businesses are too small to pay those premiums.

Help is coming

She knows she’ll get an additional $300 per child through the existing benefit.

She hopes she can tap into the Canada Employment Response Benefit, which offers as much as $2,000 monthly for those whose income has been pummelled by the COVID-19 outbreak.

That will help out significantly, but while she waits, her bills — and her family’s sacrifices — pile up.

“I’ve spent a lot of time just saying to myself, ‘I can’t change what’s happening,'” Woolever said.

“If I’m sitting there panicking about it all the time, it’s not going to make it easier on me or anyone else around me.”

Angela Taylor, founder of Inspire Community Outreach, says families hurting because of COVID-19 want the certainty of knowing when financial help will arrive. (Ian Froese/CBC)

Angela Taylor, meanwhile, asked to be laid off from her job.

When the non-profit she founded, Inspire Community Outreach, lost its income from service agencies and the families it assists, the organization had no choice to lay off almost everybody. She offered to take a layoff, to save the non-profit some money.

Inspire helps families who have children with challenging needs. Before COVID-19 struck, the organization could make house calls.

“I’d love to say that they are good enough,” she said of the financial aid offerings from Ottawa, “but I really don’t have any answers.”

“At Inspire, we’re told that there is money potentially that we could use to not have to lay people off, but we’re not even sure if we qualify and no one can answer us.”

The single mother has lost two other income sources from the effects of COVID-19: her contract as a clinician at another agency ended early, and she cannot pursue public speaking engagements or offer psychological support to schools and businesses.

Taylor immediately tried to get her mortgage deferred. She called her bank multiple times, but had trouble getting through. She finally learned on Tuesday they’d be able to make something work.

Otherwise, she’s maximizing her grocery budget while waiting for employment insurance to arrive.

‘Pandemic budget is pretty lean’

“My new pandemic budget is pretty lean,” she said. “Not knowing where the money is going to be coming from to pay my bills, it’s a challenge for all of us families, and it’s no different for me.”

Even as her non-profit runs out of cash, she and some other clinicians are volunteering their time to help the families that Inspire supports.

Taylor cannot leave them alone, especially as COVID-19 wipes out the earnings of too many people. The families want to know when help is coming, she said.

“When you’re told that all of your income has stopped but there is something coming — tell me when it’s in my bank account so I can feed my kids,” she said, relaying the concern she’s hearing from parents.

“I don’t have an answer. All I can do is just sit with them and hold space.”

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