Toronto Star

Dec. 23, 2002. 01:00 AM

Growing up without fathers

City has 130,870 single parents and most are mothers
Families centred in several poor areas of Toronto

Toronto Star

For single parent Gloria Cacciatore, every attempt to improve life for her 10-year-old daughter Grace seems to mean "two steps forward and four steps back."

After waiting four years for subsidized day care, a space opened up in an after-school program, but it's a long bus ride from Grace's school. Cacciatore would have to leave one of her two part-time jobs at a community service agency to take her there — and risk getting fired.

So she pays a teenager to stay with Grace after school, even though she can't afford it.

"I'm behind in paying her; I can't imagine what people who work part-time or not at all do," she sighs. "Affordable housing? Forget it. One of my paycheques goes to pay the rent."

Unlike most single parents in the area, Cacciatore won't let her daughter travel alone on transit.

"I see little kids doing it all the time, but I just don't think it's safe," she says. "You see a lot of kids alone after school. I just tell them to be careful."

Many of these kids are growing up without fathers.

New data from the 2001 census show that single parents — the vast majority of them women — account for up to half the families in parts of the Jane St.-Finch Ave. W. area. They also make up more than 40 per cent in the Jane. St.—Lawrence Ave. W. and Kipling Ave.-Albion Rd. areas of north Etobicoke, as well as in Regent Park and at Bathurst St. and Queens Quay W. All are apartment communities — most of them with high-rises — with areas of public housing.

The densely populated community of St. Jamestown in downtown Toronto houses 1,075 single parents in its 18 high-rise towers, the highest of any census tract in the country. Many are raising three or more children in this concrete neighbourhood that only now is getting its first community centre and library.

In contrast, there are census tracts in Oakville and Burlington that have no single parents at all, and parts of Vaughan with only three or four — all in areas with no rental apartments.

The city of Toronto has 130,870 single parents — 111,105 of them mothers — and 14,080 have three or more children. Their numbers have risen by 47 per cent in the last decade — double the rate in the rest of the country — and their rate of poverty by 2.6 per cent, while it fell in the rest of Canada.

They were the group hardest hit by Ontario's 21.5 per cent cut to welfare payments in 1995. Most of these single parents went to work after the cuts, but their incomes weren't high enough to offset the loss in social assistance benefits, according to a United Way study this year.

Throughout the 1990s, their median income fell by 17.7 per cent, or $5,000, to $24,600.

Toronto now has 62 per cent of Greater Toronto's single-parent families, 69 per cent of its low-income families and two-thirds of its poor children, according to the United Way.

But other areas are starting to show the strains. Mississauga now has close to 25,000 single parents and Brampton almost 14,000. Markham, Richmond Hill and Vaughan also have growing numbers.

"Single parents are by and large poor mothers," says Councillor Olivia Chow, Toronto's children and youth advocate. "What is disturbing is that even if they're working, they cannot climb out of poverty.

"We know they're poor, we know there's no affordable housing. They're ghettoized in high-rise apartments."

Many are new immigrants who found the pressure of trying to adapt to life in Canada has destroyed their marriages.

"It's easier for a woman to adapt to a new country — she's not the head of the household," says Chow (Ward 20, Trinity-Spadina). "For a man, if he can't get a decent job, it's much harder. Men don't talk about their problems and it causes a lot of stress in the family."

Women have an easier time finding low-paying jobs cleaning hotel rooms or working at fast-food restaurants, and they then become the head of the household, she says.

"The self-esteem of the men drops tremendously. They are stuck at home and they're not used to doing the household work. They're all jammed up in a small space and it leads to family breakup."

Left alone, many of these single mothers flood into St. Jamestown for its lower rents and central location, near Parliament and Wellesley Sts.

The area has a 65 per cent turnover in population every five years as new immigrants arrive, settle and move on to better housing, says Margaret Coshan, a community organizer.

"It's an Ellis Island kind of place," she says.

Only the single mothers can't escape.

"We're trying to set up employment centres for young moms, but the lack of child care is appalling in this area," Coshan says. "We could open three or four day cares tomorrow and they would be full.

"Even if they do go back to work, there's no one to take care of their kids. The after-four program services about 100 kids, but we could double that," she says. "We have a lot of latchkey kids."

Families are often doubled and tripled up in those apartments to save money, Coshan says, making it even harder to cope.

"We don't trust the census data," she says. "There are so many people living here illegally, we can't take pictures in a lot of our programs because a lot of people don't want to be identified."

"The danger in St. Jamestown is the drug trade and the prostitutes that flood the area and the complete lack of any kind of safe play place," says Sheila Ward, the area's school trustee.

"These kids spend a lot of time cooped up in apartments because there is no safe place to go. You can't send them out to play, which would let everyone have a break from everyone else.

Many single mothers are working long hours at minimum pay, and if their children get sick, their jobs are in danger.

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