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When austerity goes bad

It's just too hard to make ends meet, people on income assistance say

by Robert Devet

No money for food, rent, medication, shoes, and no help or empathy from Community Services, was the complaint of many at last weeks Town Hall on Income Assistance. Bonnie Barrett, Chair of ACORN NS, and Evan Coole of Dalhousie Legal Aid, were among the panelists. Photo Robert Devet
No money for food, rent, medication, shoes, and no help or empathy from Community Services, was the complaint of many at last weeks Town Hall on Income Assistance. Bonnie Barrett, Chair of ACORN NS, and Evan Coole of Dalhousie Legal Aid, were among the panelists. Photo Robert Devet

(KJIPUKTUK), HALIFAX - Last Wednesday's North End town hall on welfare reform offered an opportunity for people living in poverty and community activists to compare notes.

From year to year, life on social assistance is getting harder, people on assistance said. And the Nova Scotia Department of Community Services is not sharing its plans for welfare reform.

Community Services is conducting a Benefits Review and has set targets to reduce the number of people on income assistance.

“We don't know what Community Services is up to because nobody tells us, and nobody is asking what we think,” Evan Coole , a community legal worker at Dalhousie Legal Aid told the forty or so people who braved the aftereffects of a winter storm to attend the town hall meeting.

“What we do know is that people are increasingly coming to Dal Legal Aid because they have been completely cut off from Income Assistance without a good reason, or because their Special Needs requests have been denied,” Coole said.

Taken together with office closures in rural Nova Scotia, increasing caseloads, and rumours that the department aims for a call centre approach, and there is plenty to worry about, said Coole.

People at the town hall meeting were angry at Community Services for making it so difficult for them to make ends meet.

Financial supports are completely inadequate, they said, and Community Services has no empathy for the people it supposedly serves.

Aaron, a panel member associated with the Community Advocates Network, spoke about departmental push-backs.

“These so-called 'special needs' are not so special at all, anybody who works would take them for granted," said Aaron, who lives with chronic pain and expects to lose his special needs bus pass subsidy in the near future.

“I am told that I don't see my physician often enough to justify the money,” he said. “But I use my bus pass to go to my church, to get groceries, to try to give back to the community.”

Speaker after speaker lined up to have their say.

“I will not move out of my place, I want a subsidy and I want it now,” said Judy, a cancer survivor facing rent increases that will force her to look for a cheaper place elsewhere. “I deserve my home until the day I die.”

One woman told of being denied an artificial eye replacement, with three days to appeal the decision.

A man who worked at Sobeys, talked about being unable to buy the medication he needs.

“This is how hard it is getting. They tell me I must have pills, but I haven't had my pills for months. So I have to try to make up the money on my part time job. I need footwear, but I can't afford it,” he said.

Others spoke of the long line-ups at food banks, the additional hardships faced by people who are single, how hard it is to meet special dietary needs when you rely on food banks, and the often arbitrary decisions by case workers.

Halifax Media Co-op reporter Kendall Worth spoke of his fight to restore his special diet allowance, a fight he took all the way to the Supreme Court.

A petition for a weekly Super Store discount day for people on low incomes was circulated among the people in the room. Everybody signed.

“It took me a long time to get up here tonight. I fell down, my body shut down, I don't know how I will make it home tonight,” one man told the crowd. “It is really frustrating that we can't be heard. We haven't been heard for the last 35 years.”

Stella Lord, of the Community Society to End Poverty, talked about decades of neglect by politicians of every stripe.

“There were a couple of increases (to income assistance) since 2007, but none of the these increases made up for the previous nine years of basically nothing,” said Lord.

“And even though they threw a bit of money to Income Assistance, it wasn't tagged to the cost of living,” she said.

“We have been in this austerity mode in Nova Scotia, we hear we have to reduce the deficit, yet they can spend the money on the Bluenose II, and on Nova Scotia Business Inc.”

“Politicians claim that we can't raise Income Assistance because it will cause a higher deficit, even though Education and Health are exempt of that freeze. Why not exempt Social Assistance,” she asked.

“Stephen McNeil was the guy who was promoting poverty reduction in 2006 and 2007, as the Leader of the Opposition. Now he can barely say the P word, and I don't mean going to the bathroom,” said Lord.

The town hall was organized by several groups that lobby on behalf of people living in poverty, including the Community Advocates Network, ACORN Nova Scotia, Dalhousie Legal Aid, and the Community Society to End Poverty.

Another town hall will be held in Spryfield in the near future.


See also:

http://halifax.mediacoop.ca/story/joan-jessome-community-services-job-cuts-rural-nov/33010More Community Services job cuts in rural Nova Scotia

Community Services closes Sheet Harbour Office

Community Services embarks on mystery welfare reform project

Follow Robert Devet on Twitter  @DevetRobert



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