Did you know that a single person living on social assistance gets $537 a month, and the average rent in Fredericton for a one-bedroom apartment is $700 a month?
Did you know that, with a few exceptions, if you are a single person on assistance you can’t share an apartment to split the rent?
Did you know that the assistance rate hasn’t gone up in almost 10 years?
Poverty and homelessness gained a lot of attention last winter, especially when it became obvious that people were sleeping outside in the frigid cold.
One good thing about this attention is that it finally brought poverty and homelessness to the forefront of our minds. Poverty tends to be hidden, especially in Fredericton. In my work as MLA, it has come to my attention again and again as constituents come to me for help. Most of them can’t afford rent and food. Many of them are struggling to get by on social assistance – just imagine living on $537 a month.
Another good thing came from this: the community rallied and opened an Out of the Cold Shelter. Many people connected with the most marginal members of our community as the winter shelter attracted hundreds of new volunteers.
With attention focused on poverty, the time is ripe to seriously address the question of how to end homelessness and eradicate poverty. I’m not talking pie in the sky dream solutions. I’m talking about real policies and laws that can actually tackle this once and for all. It’s been done elsewhere, it’s not impossible.
Two teams of social work students have been working on this with me since the beginning of the year. The Constituency Office team gathered facts and created a campaign to make people aware of some of the hard realities facing the poorest members of our community [link to video]. Another team worked out of the Legislative offices of the Green caucus on amendments to the Social Assistance Act that would change some of the most harmful policies tied to social assistance, resulting in what I call government enforced poverty.
One of the most needed changes is the elimination of the policy which prevents people from sharing an apartment and splitting their costs. I have seen it destroy people’s lives. I have seen it lead desperate families to break apart in order to qualify for assistance. I have seen it lead to homelessness within a month as people get kicked off assistance because they’ve been caught sharing an apartment. It needs to end now.
Another important change is that assistance rates must be raised. It’s been almost 10 years since they last went up. In those 10 years, food and rent costs have soared, and $537 a month buys a lot less than it did in 2010.
Finally, we need to change our culture with regards to poverty. In our country, where there is enough for all, having enough should not be regarded as a privilege but as a right. Shelter, security, food, and health are human rights. It is because we recognize this that we provide universal healthcare and education. But too many of us do not have secure shelter or food. Rather than seeing assistance as a “last resort” as it is described by Social Development, we must see it as ensuring the right to a basic income.