Living with less than basic needs

Hugh Baker gets a box of food from the Nanoose Bay Community Cupboard. His disability allowance doesn’t provide him with enough money for food.  - Lissa Alexander photo
Hugh Baker gets a box of food from the Nanoose Bay Community Cupboard. His disability allowance doesn’t provide him with enough money for food.
— image credit: Lissa Alexander photo


The real trouble began five years ago when Hugh Baker was unable to work.

Now he’s unable to find a job, his shelter costs eat up most of his income assistance, and sometimes he has to eat food that makes him sick, because it’s all he can get.

“I don’t know what to do. I don’t see that I can exist too many more years like this,” said the 58-year-old Nanoose Bay resident.

Baker worked as a logger, a fisherman, and later, when his body couldn’t handle the grunt work anymore, he worked in the newspaper industry. He worked his way up to circulation manager at a newspaper in Nanaimo, but found his pain medication was starting to interfere with his work.

Baker has a damaged foot, which has been fractured and dislocated in the past, severe arthritis in a number of places, a failed shoulder operation  continues to bother him and he has diabetes, among other health issues. He now receives disability support from the provincial government, but it’s not enough, he said.

“It’s not enough to live on,” he said. “I just want to pay for my own existence, but trying to find work is brutal.”

Although Baker gets $375 a month designated for shelter, his rent is $630 a month. After paying his rent with the rest of the support he receives from the government (Persons With Disabilities monthly support and shelter allowance), he is left with $311. And after paying his bills, he has less than $200 for food, car insurance and gas. Living in an area with limited public transportation, he feels his car is a necessity for work.

Local renters paying large portions of their income toward shelter are not alone. Statistics Canada reported in its 2011 National Household Survey: Homeownership and shelter costs in Canada that 40 per cent of households renting their dwellings paid 30 per cent or more of their total income toward shelter costs. Anything over 30 per cent of total income is deemed unaffordable by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation.

And as far as finding a place to rent, CMHC found Parksville to have the lowest vacancy rate in the province, at less than two per cent in its 2013 spring report.

Baker knows all to well about the troubles finding accommodation. He has moved 18 times since 2002 and he’ll be having to look for a new place yet again this June.

“I have no idea how to pull that off,” he said. “I can say I can pay $600 a month but that doesn’t leave me with anything.”

Parksville Qualicum MLA Michelle Stilwell said income assistance, including shelter rates, are reviewed on a constant basis by the provincial government. She said assistance is balanced between what is necessary to help people and what is fiscally acceptable to taxpayers.

Baker uses the Nanoose Community Cupboard food bank once a month, and operator of that service, Virginia Brucker, said despite Baker’s situation he’s generally positive and the first one to volunteer when she needs help.

She said food security for some of her clients, like Baker, is life threatening. She calls the amount of social assistance some of these people get “legislated starvation.”

“By not increasing daily living allowances it probably increases hospitalization costs because people get sick, especially diabetics.”

Because Baker is diabetic, certain foods — like too much pasta — make him ill, he said, and it’s humiliating.

Brucker opened the food bank in Nanoose Bay six years ago and over the years she has seen a growing need in the community for this service.

“I think the severity of what we see is growing even if our client base isn’t growing as quickly, the need we fill is more severe.”

She attributes this need to the rising cost of food among other ballooning costs, like hydro and gas.

Depression is another big concern for clients at the Nanoose Bay food bank, Brucker said. Some have told her there is very little keeping them alive.

“It’s hard to live with chronic poverty, there’s nothing to look forward to,” she said.

The majority of people who use the Salvation Army Food Bank in French Creek are single individuals collecting a disability allowance, said Lisa Clason, Community Services Coordinator with the local Salvation Army.

“Individuals on disability just don’t make enough to make ends meet,” she said.

Clason said the Food Bank currently serves around 375 to 400 households in this area per month. That amount is down slightly from last year, although that could be attributed to a policy that came into effect in August where clients were expected to provide income and proof of residence, Clason said.

A big portion of the food bank clients in both locations are the “working poor.” Brucker said about 40 per cent of her clients have jobs, where Clason estimated about one-third of her clients work.

Executive director at the Family Resource Association, Deborah Joyce,  said of her clients that experience poverty, the majority  have jobs.

“What’s striking and that’s what people really need to understand is we are really talking about the working poor, we are not talking about people who are poor because they don’t have a job.”

Joyce and her staff at the Family Resource Association offer a variety of programs including social services, mental health, child development and crises support.  Joyce said that jobs which don’t have medical benefits are a big issue for local families and Ali Stone agrees.

Stone, a single parent of two, works full time at a local coffee shop. She said working in the food and beverage industry, she’ll likely never get a job that pays benefits.

She said there are some great programs to help her with her children’s health, like the Healthy Kids Program, which helps low income families with the cost of basic dental care twice a year. But she struggles to pay for prescriptions.

Stilwell said she would point Stone toward the PharmaCare program, something she calls one of Canada’s most comprehensive prescription drug programs.

She said every British Columbian is eligible for assistance with prescription costs, not just those on income assistance, and deductible levels are set up to reflect patients’ ability to pay.

“In fact, the lowest income earners pay no deductible at all,” she said in an email.

As far as lifting people out of low-income situations, Stilwell said the best way is to ensure they have a job and the skills they need to succeed. That’s why the Liberal government, she said, is focused on strengthening the economy and creating an atmosphere for investment.

But the government is also providing targeted supports to help low-income families, she said, $3.6 billion over the last decade to provide affordable housing around the province, including almost $400 million this fiscal year.

To help people find and keep jobs there are 85 WorkBC Employment Services Centres across the province, Stilwell pointed out, including the Career Centre on the East Island Highway in Parksville. More than 120,000 people have received services through WorkBC Employment Services Centres in the past two years. Almost half who have received and completed case managed services have found employment, up significantly from approximately 32 per cent under the old legacy program. The average wage for a person who has found a job directly through the Employment Program of BC is approximately $15.50 an hour, she said.

But according to the District 69 Living Wage For Families Coalition, the minimum amount a parent needs to make in this area to make ends meet is $17.30.

A Living wage is something entirely different from the minimum wage. Calculated by the Living Wage for Families Coalition, a living wage is “an evidence-based standard that calculates the costs of living in a given community based on a basket of goods and services,” according to the website.

It is based on a two-parent family with two children – the most common family unit in BC – and each parent working full-time and doesn’t account for debt, savings or recreation.

“The majority of those in poverty are working poor so it seems to make sense you address the issue—how much does a family need to survive?” said the local Coalition Chair Bill Preston. “They are not going to thrive on a living wage they will be just above, hovering around, the poverty line.”


The second instalment in this series continues Feb. 27 and delves further into Child Poverty in this district.























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