Living on the edge

One Squamish resident’s story of surviving month-to-month on disability assistance

Editor’s note: Due to the stigma surrounding those on social assistance and because of repercussions that could befall the source with both the government and her employer, The Chief is not using the real name of the Squamish resident on social assistance.

 

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Squamish’s Pat Clarke thinks about finances almost every moment of every day, she told The Chief, while sipping a cup of water in a downtown café. 

Clarke receives just over $1,000 a month on social assistance and works part-time. She is allowed to make up to $800 a month without it being deducted. 

Her rent is $874 per month. 

Clarke has a diagnosed mental health illness – borderline personality disorder – so qualifies for Persons with Disabilities (PWD) assistance.

“PWD is the best program you can be on when it comes to social assistance,” she said. 

Those with disabilities also receive Medical Services Plan and PharmaCare coverage and optical and dental benefits, as well as other similar supports including subsidies for childcare and housing.

 “You really have to think, you really have to be smart,” Clarke said, referring to the many forms, different exemptions and checks and balances in the government system a person on assistance has to be aware of. 

The BC Public Interest Advocacy Centre has taken up the charge of fighting for easier access for people applying for social assistance. 

“Barriers to accessing income assistance have been steadily worsening over the past several years as the Ministry of Social Development and Social Innovation has increasingly moved to online application processes,” the centre’s lawyers said in an open letter to provincial candidates on May 2. 

The amount of assistance for those without disabilities is often much lower than what Clarke receives at between $610 per month for a single person to $1,101 for a family with two children. 

The single person basic welfare benefit is 40 per cent of the poverty line, according to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. 

Though luckier than most on assistance, Clarke still has to be extremely frugal. 

“Things I give up: new clothes, food… my animals will eat before me,” she said, adding her diet is often poor.

 “Sometimes I will just have a box of Stove Top Stuffing, which is $1.50.” 

Fresh fruits and vegetables go bad quickly, she said, long before the next cheque is deposited. 

When unexpected expenses pop up she has turned to a payday loan company, she knows has a high rate of interest, but she feels she has no other choice.

“Sometimes you have to rob Peter to pay Paul,” she said. 

For entertainment, Clarke indulges in a $10 lottery ticket on a good month and has Netflix to watch movies at home. 

She hesitates to acknowledge any treat she buys herself because she said many begrudge those on assistance any joy whatsoever. 

“People think because your income comes from tax payer’s dollars that they have a right to make judgments and comments,” she said. 

The whole issue of welfare is replete with myths, according to Seth Klein, director for the BC office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

“There’s myths about who the poor are, there’s myths about who those on welfare are, there’s myths about how generous welfare is, there’s myths about how generous it is to get on and stay on,” Klein said. 

“The good news is when [the public] get a reality check on all of those fronts, it doesn’t sit well with them.”

The system itself is also very paternalistic and punitive, according to Klein and Clarke. 

If Clarke has a car repair bill, in addition to providing the invoice, she has to prove it is an urgent need. 

A note from a landlord may need to be included, for example, to prove that if she can’t pay his rent she may be evicted. 

These incidents make housing less secure for those on assistance, she said. 

With the current housing crunch in Squamish, Clarke said she is “terrified” she is going to lose her rental housing. 

Three of the units in her building recently saw rent increases of $300 a month, Clarke said. 

“The only reason I didn’t get on that chopping block is because my rent starts in February and he had already given me my increase,” Clarke said, adding the landlord claims the increase is due to rising property taxes. 

“If he raises my rent $300 I honestly don’t know if I can stay in Squamish and that is terrifying to me because my family is in the U.S. and I have a huge mental health support system here,” she said, her eyes suddenly filling with tears. 

“The thought of losing my case worker just makes me want to cry.” 

There is social housing in Squamish, and more is on the way, but what is available currently doesn’t accommodate everyone in need and not all take multiple pets. Clarke has a couple of cats and four birds, which she calls her family.

Close to 190,000 people are on either income or disability assistance in B.C, according to the Ministry of Social Development and Social Innovation. 

A ministry spokesperson said no one was able to comment for this story due to the current blackout period brought on by the changing political landscape.  

While the Liberal government currently holds power, the BC NDP and the Green Party have joined forces and are expected to deny the government a vote of confidence at the earliest opportunity. 

Klein said both the Greens and the NDP have promised to raise social assistance rates if they form government. 

“So we will see,” he said. 

Social assistance

Single person expected-to-work:  $610
Single person with one child:  $945
Couple expected-to-work:  $877
Family with one child:  $1,061
Family with a child with a disability:  $1,061
Family with two children:  $1,101

-Social Development and Social Innovation

Allowable earnings without penalty

Single person expected-to-work:  $200
Families with children:  $400
Family with a child with a disability:  $500
Individuals on assistance can have up to $2,000 in liquid assets and a vehicle worth up to $10,000.

-Social Development and Social Innovation

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