Nelson’s Committee on Homelessness is joining organizations from across the province to oppose what it calls the government’s “paltry” increase to benefits received by people with disabilities and “drastic” changes to the BC bus pass program and special transportation subsidy.
They are among the signatory organizations to a letter challenging the changes.
“The issue is a bit complicated,” says community co-ordinator Ann Harvey. “The province says they are increasing disability benefits by $77 a month, but for a person on a disability benefit needing bus transportation, the actual rate increase is only $11 or $25 a month — after almost 10 years. The provincial government has given with one hand and taken with another with their changes to provincial transportation program funding.”
The province’s assistance rates have stood at $610 per month for an individual without disabilities and $906 per month for a person with a disability since 2007 — to cover housing, utility, food, health, and clothing costs. Disability assistance rates in BC are among the lowest in Canada, Harvey said. BC is also the only province to have no poverty-reduction plan.
“With the increased cost of housing in Nelson and the continual low vacancy rate, more and more people of low and modest income have to find housing options outside of town,” said Harvey. “This makes affordable transportation services essential.”
The current BC bus pass program offers an annual pass at a reduced cost of $45 per year for disability assistance recipients using BC Transit. The province has introduced changes, opposed by anti-poverty organizations that will charge $52 a month for a bus pass, or $66 a month for the special transportation subsidy.
“Previously, people on disability assistance could count on their bus transportation for a year with one payment for an annual bus pass,” said Harvey. “Now every month this at-risk population will face a decision of ‘Can I afford it this month?’ Given such a stagnant low rate of assistance, many people with disabilities may choose rent or food over a bus pass. These changes will leave them more vulnerable to isolation, to complications arising from missed health and support service appointments, and potentially to compromised health.”
“Access to income assistance is already difficult,” added Becky Quirk of Nelson’s Advocacy Centre, a member of the homlessness committee. “The province has centralized access to income assistance services through a computerized application process and phone services for any queries. Wait times on the phone are long and many people lack a reliable phone, computer access or the capacity to navigate the new systems. Adding transportation challenges are another hurdle in people’s way.”
The Nelson Committee on Homelessness is urging the provincial government to bring back the $45 per year bus pass for people with disabilities; eliminate the new $52 per month bus pass fee; allow everyone receiving disability benefits to keep the $77 per month increase; bring back the special transportation subsidy, and introduce a rural transportation system for those living outside the area where the bus pass program and special transportation subsidy operate; and raise income and disability assistance significantly by Oct. 1 to reflect the cost of living, and then index to inflation.