A chatty audience filled the room, quite unlike my previous experience with Café Scientifique; the audience was also more than ten times the size. The event started with some casual banter and refreshments, setting the atmosphere for a more serious topic. “Perspectives on Poverty & Health: How can the Health Sector Respond?” was hosted by the Global Health Program at U of T’s Department of Family and Community Medicine. The event took place at Church Street Community Centre, an appropriate location to hold the 200 attendees. This multidisciplinary topic makes one assumption: health is a basic human right and poverty is a threat to this human right. The purpose of the discussion was to take another step forward and gather diverse opinions from various stakeholders for dialogue and exchange on the intricate connection between poverty and health.

Attendees were therefore asked to contribute their experiences to augment the presentations of the panelists, who have, over the years, had experiences related to the delivery of health care, worked with marginalized and vulnerable populations, lived and experienced poverty first hand, and researched the social determinants of health. One thing common to everyone in that room was their deep commitment to eradicating poverty and social inequalities.

The speakers came from various different backgrounds: Stacy Bower and Sandra Mooney who have both experienced poverty first hand, Mike Creek from the organization Voice from the Street, Axelle Janczur of Access Alliance Multicultural Health and Community Services in addition to two professors — Farah Ahmad from the School of Health Policy and Management at York University and Gary Bloch from the Department of Family and Community Medicine at the University of Toronto. The different perspectives provided powerful anecdotes, ideas and energized action, as Cheryl Jackson, from CAMH moderated the panel discussion.

The panel answered fundamental questions including defining the connections between poverty and health from a range of perspectives; the role healthcare service providers play in addressing poverty and its detrimental impact on health and most importantly elucidating the pathways for concrete actions and/or collaboration for addressing poverty and its effects on health.

Gary Bloch concisely and agreeably summarized his argument into five key ways to address poverty for healthcare providers, and I quote: “One: Screen everyone for poverty, more than once, and systematically. Two: Intervene in terms of health plans. Three: Develop capacity of healthcare teams to fight poverty. Four: Perform frontline research and evaluation; prioritize health research. Five: Advocate advocate advocate!”

Several ideas, statistics and brutal realities stood out during the two hour period with one of the most powerful being: “poverty is a disease” as stated by Mike Creek because a person living below the poverty line shows signs of living with a disease. The amount of money spent on healthcare is increasing every year because we choose not to deal with poverty, a major cost to healthcare in Toronto and worldwide. It has been scientifically proven that there are social and psychological disadvantages to poverty and evidently enough, income is not the only mediator of poverty- there are several factors that come into play including gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation. These should not be twenty-first century problems, yet they continue to affect people in the GTA everyday.

Stacy Bowen, a  50 year old woman with two young daughters of her own shook the room as soon as she opened her mouth, “Hello I’m Stacy Bowen and I am poverty.” Born into poverty, she strives to provide a different milieu for her daughters, trying to prevent them from being the third generation of poverty in her family. “Poor means can’t afford; poor means stigma-I’m not good enough. Poverty is not just a word, it’s a state of being.” For people living with poverty her advice was, “There are always ways out — never give up” as she definitely has not given up herself; being seven years cocaine free, she is easily one of the strongest women I have had the pleasure of meeting.

Poverty affects everyone, with another prominent issue addressed being newcomers and immigrant populations facing the consequences of an effort-reward imbalance. Working continual night shifts to gain experience leads to poor health especially when combined with buying the cheapest and thus the unhealthiest groceries available. The race-based discrimination is a pervasive factor that also undermines newcomers searching for jobs: “Only three per cent of people were working in the same field as their educational background” and this experience is completely preventable.

This opened my eyes to something that is ubiquitous but something I continued to look through. We talk about it poverty as a burden to healthcare yet we don’t think about the burden it poses to those who live through it everyday.