Rising food bank usage, mouldy apartments run by slumlords, hefty heating costs. Halifax Media Co-op headlines have been awash with poverty issues in the past few months. These life complications affect low-income earners and the poor whether they live in urban HRM or rural Guysborough County.
Poverty is far from an exclusively urban problem. Just under half of Nova Scotians live in rural areas, yet they contain two thirds of all people receiving on income assistance. The poverty rate, at 17 per cent, is slightly higher in rural Nova Scotia than in urban centres.
Small towns such as Yarmouth and Amherst have a low-income rate almost twice as high as HRM. Waiting lists for affordable housing in the Annapolis Valley are equal to those in HRM, and its food bank use is a close provincial second.
Life gets even harder when food banks, grocery stores and health clinics are tens of miles away and rural Nova Scotians have few travel options — especially as seniors.
The rural population is shrinking and getting older. Guysborough County saw its population decrease by 23 per cent between 1986 and 2002. Queens County shrunk by 10 per cent. In the same period, urban HRM's population grew by 19 per cent. Seniors make up over one fifth of Nova Scotia's rural population, but only 15 per cent of the urban population.
Lucille Harper, executive director of the Antigonish Women's Resource Centre, has seen first hand how this out-migration has eroded the community spirit that traditionally was a strong force in rural Nova Scotia.
“The dismantling of the infrastructure of the rural communities has really exacerbated the poverty in which people live, and complicated it. We are closing down our small rural areas,” says Harper. “Not only does it take out trades people who can help a neighbour, you also take out a lot of the volunteer component, formal and informal, of neighbour to neighbour.”
Lack of public transportation is key in understanding what makes poverty a different experience in rural Nova Scotia. Not having reliable transportation will affect health, one’s ability to find a job and go to school. It makes feeding one’s family more challenging. And it may even cause feelings of isolation.
Working in the sparsely populated Antigonish and Guysborough counties, Harper knows all too well how a lack of affordable and reliable transportation can compromise the health of rural people living in poverty. Missed medical appointments is one way, not filling prescriptions is another.
“A taxi ride from a rural part of Antigonish to town easily is a $60 round trip. Well, people are doing things like not getting prescriptions filled because they don't have the $60 to go into town and back,” says Harper. “Or they are not taking the proper dosage because they are trying to stretch it out."
Rural Poverty In Nova Scotia, a recently published position paper by the Annapolis Valley Poverty Coalition describes the lack of reliable and affordable transportation as a central issue in rural poverty.
Coalition member Wendy Knowlton mentions Kings Transit, a public transit service that extends from Digby to Hants County, as one of the most successful public transit initiative in all of rural Nova Scotia. Nonetheless, its offerings still fall short.
“Kings Transit has been a real help, it really has”, says Knowlton, “but there is still a lot of work left to be done.”
The problem, as Knowlton sees it, is that the buses travel only on the main highway, the No. 1. But many people living in poverty are located away from Annapolis Valley proper, on North Mountain or South Mountain. Many of the food banks are also away from the No. 1 Highway, says Knowlton.
The lack of affordable and reliable transportation is particularly urgent in rural Nova Scotia. Meanwhile, the lack of affordable housing has hit both urban and rural areas hard. Again, though, rural Nova Scotia comes with its particular challenges.
More people own their homes than rent in rural areas, but the houses tend to be older and in urgent need of repair. Heating with wood is time-consuming and strenuous, particularly as owners get older and it becomes more difficult to do the heavy lifting that is required. As a result, seniors often will live, cook and sleep in one single room, or simply bear the cold for long periods of time.
“In this town the rents are way too high,” says Tri-County Women’s Centre staffer Kathleen d’Entremont-Moony of Yarmouth. “The apartments are cold, the tenants are sitting at home freezing because they can't afford to turn the heat on.”
“These apartments are mouldy,” adds her colleague Michelle Archibald-Hattie, “and then the tenants don't dare to say anything because they get kicked out.” Archibald-Hattie says that small landlord circles make it so that complaining tenants are effectively blacklisted.
Homelessness may not be as much in your face as it is in the city, but it still exists. People live in trailers in the woods without electricity or running water; they squat in hunting camps; they sleep in their cars at all times of the year; and they couch surf.
Homeless kids are some of the worst off. Nothing like Phoenix House, a shelter for homeless children and young adults in Halifax, exists anywhere in rural Nova Scotia. What little shelter is being provided is volunteer-run and frequently paid for through community fundraising.
SHYFT Youth Services opened its doors to homeless youth in Yarmouth in January 2011. It ran a full-time supportive shelter. By all accounts it filled an urgent need, and it was successful.
But in July 2012 SHYFT was forced to switch to a daytime-only drop-in centre when the provincial Department of Community Services did not come through with funding. The community was firmly behind the centre but to no avail.
“We could open tomorrow and by the end of the week we would be full again,” says Nicky Hill, SHYFT project manager.
Hill and her colleagues aren't giving up. Neither are rural Nova Scotians.
The poverty activists approached by the Halifax Media Co-op all recognized the need to build broad coalitions that include municipal councils, anti-poverty organizations and people living in poverty. All are in the process of defining multi-year action plans, with well-defined targets for each year. All emphasize transportation, affordable housing and daycare, accessible health services and job creation.
Some plans are further advanced than others. The Antigonish Women's Resource Centre hopes to break ground for a building with 10 affordable housing units this spring. It also intends to create a small property management business, maybe a Laundromat as well, to help with job skills development and income generation. It also received funding to methodically assess transportation needs in the county. Yarmouth and Annapolis have similar ambitions but are still in the planning phase.
What the groups need is the ear of all levels of government: the federal and provincial bodies in particular.
So far governmental policies have more often than not hastened the rural decline rather than counteracted it. Witness the recent Employment Insurance reforms, says Wendy Knowlton.
“When you take the rural schools out and you remove the post office,” says Lucille Harper, referring to recent hits by the provincial and federal governments, “the next thing you see is that the grocery store is gone, next the gas station, and pretty soon the really basic amenities are so much farther away, and there is no more reason for younger people to come back and repopulate the communities.”
Knowlton also makes the point that not all measures need to be broad and sweeping. Seemingly little things could make a big difference. For Community Services to recognize that having a phone at home is a basic need in rural Nova Scotia would be huge, says Knowlton. Harper makes the same point about Internet access.
“The message is that policies need to be very carefully thought out with a rural lens,” says Harper. “If we allow rural Nova Scotia to decline to a point where we are losing our small communities, and we only treat rural Nova Scotia as a cost rather than as a benefit, who is gaining from that?”