featured Poverty

Penny-pinching income assistance for people with mobility issues

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – Free bus passes for Halifax income assistance recipients have been a mixed blessing from day one.

Not to pick a fight with the wonderful notion of free transit, but the introduction of the free bus pass caused many income recipients to lose the $78 per month Community Services would fork out to people who met the strict medical eligibility criteria.

For some that meant $78 less for groceries or rent, and the loss of agency in terms of spending decisions from month to month. Suddenly losing $78 per month is a huge loss if you get so very little altogether. In some cases losing that money is like absorbing a 13% pay cut on an already totally inadequate welfare cheque.

For others it simply meant the end of mobility.

Joanne (not her real name) used to get the $78 per month, for years and years. She didn’t use it for a bus pass though. That money covered the insurance for her old clunker of a car, and a bit of gas money.

Now her travel allowance has been reduced to $11.32 per month.

Actually, initially the $78 was simply taken away entirely. The $11.32 is what she was able to salvage after she complained. 

Problem is, because of her disabilities the bus is not an option for Joanne. She is overweight, and lives with anxiety and a painful medical condition called abdominal separation.

“I live on a very steep hill,” says Joanne. “There is no way I can walk down the hill to catch a bus. On top of that, the anxiety I experience on the bus is like a claustrophobic thing. I can’t breathe and I just have to get off the bus right away. It’s like a panic attack.”

The $11.32 Joanne now receives reflects a standard rate of $0.20 per km for Joanne to go to her medical appointments and counselling sessions.  The idea is that you use that money to reimburse a neighbour or a friend who gives you a ride.

Finding somebody who can do so is easier said than done. That’s why for Joanne having her own car is so vitally important.

“My insurance is $45.84 a month. That’s what the $78 used to cover, car insurance, $20 for gas, and the rest paid for my parking,” Joanne says. She keeps her car on the road with the help of a trusted mechanic, who sometimes takes instalment payments to help spread the expense.

Now she sees no way she can keep her car.

Even trying to fight the decision is hard when Community Services staff simply don’t respond. This, by the way, is a complaint we hear over and over.

“I called my worker once a week at least, and he didn’t call me back, all month, and then I called the supervisor, she didn’t call me back either. They just sent me a letter saying that $11 is the policy.”

“If this bus pass is to get people out of their houses, it’s doing the opposite for me. For some the bus pass is a wonderful addition. But for those who can’t use the bus, it’s nuts,” says Joanne.

We asked Community Services for a response to Joanne’s predicament.

“We cannot speak to specific cases,” writes Shannon Kerr, spokesperson for the department.

“This program has issued bus passes to more than 9,000 eligible clients in the Halifax Regional Municipality, and has helped to improve access to community, quality of life and social inclusion. Through this program, DCS has replaced the monthly transportation allowance previously issued directly to clients with an annual bus pass and removed the requirement that clients demonstrate medical or employment related transportation needs.”

“However, for clients who have a reason why using Halifax Transit is not a viable option, their caseworker will assess their situation to determine if a monthly transportation allowance should remain. There are a number of IA clients who have retained their transportation allowance due to their individual circumstances,” Kerr writes.

But for Joanne that doesn’t do any good whatsoever.

“This has made me worried sick. My depression is through the roof, my headaches are worse, and I can’t sleep. It’s really messed me up,” she says.

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