By Madyson Powell, Income Assistance Legal Advocate
Contrary to common sense, some of our community’s most vulnerable folks – those without a fixed address or stable, traditional housing – historically receive the least in terms of social assistance. Those who cannot prove they have shelter costs to maintain such as monthly rent, mortgage payments, or utility bills are routinely denied access to the Ministry's shelter allowance benefit, leaving them with only their support allowance to cover their basic needs.
Although the amounts that Ministry benefit recipients receive to help cover shelter-related costs each month are wholly inadequate in the face of BC’s worsening unaffordability crisis, we are beginning to see some new policy changes moving incrementally towards a more inclusive and realistic approach to shelter assistance. Effective May 1st, all those receiving hardship, income, or provincial disability assistance are entitled to a minimum shelter allowance of $75 a month for individuals, $150 for a 2-person family unit, $200 for a 3-person family unit, increasing progressively up to $300 for a 7-person family unit. Though this new minimum shelter allowance is still not nearly enough to secure reliable shelter or housing, folks may use this amount to help cover the cost of other daily living expenses without encountering any red tape (in other words, without having to submit any documentation to the Ministry.) If an assistance recipient has shelter costs above the new $75 minimum allowance, they will continue to receive shelter funds equal to their shelter costs up to a $375 maximum, as long as they can provide documentation to establish their costs. The Ministry has also updated their policy in relation to how shelter costs are determined. Now, for clients without a fixed address, alternative forms of non-traditional housing and their associated costs are to be fully considered on a case-by-case basis. This includes accommodation in the form of living on a boat, in a tent/campsite, as well as in a standard or recreational vehicle. Some examples of the kinds of allowable costs for these types of alternative forms of housing include fees for renting a campsite or for docking at a harbour, fees for connecting utilities like water or septic services, and buying wood or fuel when used for cooking and heating. The inclusion of allowing fuel costs for cooking and heating for those living in vehicles is especially significant. Prior to these publicized policy changes, it was maintained by the Ministry that the purchase of gas, diesel, or propane for a vehicle be used for commuting purposes only, and therefore it was expected that these costs would have been met through the optional transportation supplement (an additional $52 added to a recipient's monthly allowance for transportation costs). Unfortunately, within the context of BC’s unaffordability crisis, we are seeing significant increases in the numbers of folks forced to live in vehicles, tents and campsites amongst other non-traditional forms of housing, making this change a vital one for more folks than ever. While we’re pleased to see positive changes like these, we hold that the $375 maximum shelter allowance rate is completely removed from the realities of what is actually needed to maintain housing in our community. TAPS will continue to push the provincial government to significantly raise the shelter rate benefit to better reflect local rental markets and, furthermore, harmonize all Ministry benefits by removing the support and shelter categories, allowing all recipients to access the maximum amount of funding they’re entitled to.