The Price of Poverty and Pain

By Kelly Egan, Ottawa Citizen January 19, 2011   

Bill Haggett, 53, spent much of his life as an anti-poverty advocate.

Then, like the shoemaker’s barefoot children, he became poor himself, dependent on help for his daily bread.

There are worse things than being poor, of course. Haggett is those things, too. Disabled, lonely, in extremely poor health, without a family doctor, in

And, damn, if he doesn’t possess a positive attitude.

“No,” he answers, when asked if readers should feel sorry for him. “I want them to understand it could happen to them.”

The original tip about Haggett went something like this: Disabled guy living in highrise on $6 a month. Could it possibly be true?

He swears it is. He gets almost $1,100 a month from the Ontario Disability Support Program. Rent is $695. Some of his meds, of which he takes a dozen or so, are not covered. He has some old debts, which he is repaying, and an unpaid Rogers bill for $686.38, which is in the hands of a collection agency (long story), which he is also repaying. There are costs for transit, bank fees, a cellphone, odds and ends.

Money left last month — most months — for groceries? Six bucks. If not for food banks and donations from neighbours, his fridge would be empty.

He recently got a donation from the family of a dead man.

“It only takes one accident or one illness to put you in the same boat as us,” Haggett says. “I don’t blame anyone for anything that happened to me.”

In brief, he has had four strokes, the first at 18, one of which left him in a coma for three months. He had a hole in his heart, which was not diagnosed
until late in life. There have been two bouts of cancer, three heart attacks and now multiple sclerosis. Haggett says he has often been told he’s not long
for this world.

But he keeps on trucking, with the aid of a personal care worker, a social worker, an electric wheelchair and a walker. He has good days, during which he
can walk downtown from his apartment on Loretta Avenue South. Other days, he’s inching along on his butt on the floor.

“With everything I’ve got, I find the MS very disturbing,” due to its unpredictability.

Haggett’s two biggest concerns right now, which seem to be connected, are finding a family physician and moving into an affordable-housing unit accessible to the disabled.

Toronto-born, Haggett spent much of his life in Sarnia, where he once ran for city council, spent time as president of an NDP riding association and was
well-known in the social justice movement for his paralegal work. He was part of a “March for Dignity” in 2004 in which disabled residents trekked from
Sarnia to Toronto to protest inadequate support at Queen’s Park.

He moved to Winchester a couple of years ago, ostensibly to be near family. He had a regular doctor there, but his home was too isolated. He moved into the city last June and has been unable to find his own physician since, relying instead on drop-in clinics.

(The Champlain area has roughly 14,000 patients on a list to be connected to a health-care provider, including doctors. In the 18 months since the list
began, only 30 per cent were referred, but 85 per cent of those deemed high-needs.)

Because he has no physician, Haggett says he has been unable to qualify himself as an “urgent case” on the area’s social housing registry, which has a lengthy waiting list, but bumps up applicants in dire health circumstances.

He actually quite likes his bachelor apartment, in which he eats meals on a donated card table, but wheelchair access is becoming a problem. He would desperately like to regain his Internet connection, but first needs to square things with Rogers.

He claims he was told his first bundled bill would be $193. He budgeted $200, but was surprised when a bill for $310 showed up in the mail. Then came a
month’s hospitalization. Before long, with disconnection fees, it was up beyond the $600 mark and the threatening letters started.

Being online is not a luxury for him. He uses his computer to keep in touch with his daughter outside Kingston, not to mention the array of volunteer groups he is connected with across Ontario. When you’re living alone, some days shut-in by weather, the web can be lifeline.

He will not beg — “I’d rather die than panhandle.” — and wants people to know that a yearly income of $12,000 puts him and thousands of others way below the poverty line, a line he has walked, talked, and, finally, at his absolute sickest, fallen under.

To contact Kelly Egan, please call 613-726-5896, or email

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