Sunday, October 08, 2006

B.C.'s Rental Assistance program
Oct. 6, 2006

Like most of the agencies working with lost souls, I meet a lot of people who are really struggling. They’re still standing, but God knows how sometimes.
They need a lot of things when we first meet them at PEERS. Simple things at first: A decent roof over their heads. A place to fit in. Somewhere to start to recover. Eventually, they’ll need to get at the deeper issues that lie buried beneath the drugs, but they can’t even begin that journey without a solid place to live.
Our agency has the great fortune to have 14 portable housing subsidies that we administer on behalf of BC Housing. The subsidies give us the ability to provide real help to people - up to $116.50 per month - in being able to afford even the smallest of rooms away from the users, dealers, mice and infestations. Better still, the subsidies aren’t considered earnings under B.C. law for those on income assistance, which means people get a genuine boost in monthly income.
So it was with great disappointment that I read this week of how the B.C. government had structured its brand-new Rental Assistance Program. It will provide help of up to $238 a month to a Vancouver family of three to find a better place to live, and $170 elsewhere in the province. But only the “working poor” are eligible. People on income assistance are out of luck.
First and foremost, allow me to be most appreciative for a rental-assistance program for the working poor. Anything that puts more money into the hands of B.C. families to find decent places to live is OK by me. The plan to open another 450 units of supportive housing is inadequate, but a good start.
But whose truly bizarre idea was it to declare that the new subsidy program would be off-limits to B.C.’s absolute poor? Who can possibly think it’s a good idea to deny housing support to the people living in the worst class of housing in our communities?
Let me tell you about a girl I know. She’s in her early 30s, and pregnant. She lived on the streets for a while, but lately has been bouncing from here to there: A transition house; a recovery house; whatever bed comes available. Recently, she came very close to ending up on the streets again, at seven months pregnant, where she most definitely would have ended up using drugs again. Instead, getting a housing subsidy let her find a good apartment to rent. She’s doing OK.
A young woman like her - soon to give birth to the child that will bounce just as aimlessly and tragically through its life if nothing changes - doesn’t qualify for B.C.’s new subsidy program. All of the 103,000 families scratching by on income assistance will be denied.
How can that possibly seem like a good idea? With news of the Victoria Foundation’s Vital Signs report this week still fresh in our minds, and the Kendall-Morley report still reverberating, how can we even consider excluding a desperate class of people from a helping hand that they really need?
I admit to still being a little steamed giving up a recent afternoon to attend a forum on the province’s housing strategy, only to hear that the housing strategy would be released weeks before comments from six such forums around the province had even been tabulated.
One thing I would have told them then, had they asked, and certainly now: Think again. If the goal is to get at the issues interfering with our communities’ health and well-being, then it’s just plain misguided to be denying the most desperate ones every chance to do better. And if this is about money, just think for a moment about all the messed-up people that a generation of messed-up people can create, and surely it doesn’t take a CGA to figure out where that story goes.
But here we are, in an age when the problems have never been more evident, announcing programs that shut the door on the desperately poor. It’s so very sad to see that we’re still at a point where we can’t even grasp the fundamental need to do something about the terrible problems afoot in B.C.’s burgeoning underclass.
Pregnant women are no exception, as my young friend proves. If it weren’t for a housing subsidy, she’d have $325 a month for rent right now. Check the classifieds some time for what that would buy you.
If we meant it about doing better by kids, we’d be working at getting rid of every barrier to a family’s success. A healthy, happy baby brought up by decent parents is worth its weight in gold on every possible future front. Whether working poor or welfare poor, what matters is helping those who need it.

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