The solution to the “problem” of panhandlers in Fredericton, if there is any problem, is to increase income assistance rates, not to increase policing. The rates are currently set at very low levels, supposedly sufficient to cover food and shelter, but not much else. So what else is there?
First transportation. One city bus pass costs $80 a month, or $2.50 each way for single tickets. A taxi ride costs between $5-7 each way, inside the city. Virtually every service that is available “free” in Fredericton requires transportation money to get there.
The Community Kitchen does a great job providing three free meals a day for between 45-65 people. That’s great for people who live within 15-20 minute walking distance of the corner of Smythe and Woodstock Road. When I volunteer at the kitchen, I get there in my own car. Otherwise it would be a brisk half-hour walk in each direction–more than I would like to commit to, especially in bad weather. People with health issues who find walking difficult, or who live on the North side, or way over town, or up the hill, face a $14 taxi fare to get to each “free” meal. There are no city buses, to my knowledge, that would get people from central bus transit points to and from the Community Kitchen at the precise times when the doors are open to serve food.
The same issue applies to using the Health Clinic’s generous free laundry service. The cost of getting to and from the laundry is greater than the cost of a commercial service that might be closer, or washing clothes by hand in the shower and drying them in racks around the bed.
Even with a bus pass, a taxi may be the only workable way to get to medical and other social service appointments through the month.
People also need to buy clothes. Fredericton has good used-clothing stores, but getting to stores located long distances away entails transportation costs, before calculating in the cost of buying items, assuming the stores happen to have suitable clothing on offer.
A maximum of two taxi rides per week adds up to monthly costs of about $100.
Then there are the costs of other “basic” services that are not calculated into income assistance rates. Cell phone service costs about $60 a month. Apartment buildings, including subsidized residences, routinely connect the doorbell to a telephone number. Residents need a functioning telephone to acknowledge, and open the door to a visitor. Access to the Internet and to television have now become basic channels linking people into mass media and social networks. They are particularly important for people with physical and mental health issues who easily become isolated and disconnected from the social worlds around them. Basic service for Internet, cable and home telephone costs about $150 a month. This is before taking into account the costs of buying a working computer, television, and telephone, and replacing broken ones.
Then there are the incidental costs of personal items not included as food: toothpaste, toothbrush, hand soap, shampoo and conditioner, laundry detergent, toilet paper, other sanitary items, over-the-counter medications for colds, headaches, indigestion, band-aids, and the like, stationary, postage stamps, and on and on. Each is individually a small-cost item, but collectively add up to $50 a month or more. Now add in some expenses that are pure luxuries–a 6-pack of beer once in a while, an evening at the movies, a ticket to a sports game, a hair-cut…
Now add in some of the less frequent, bigger-ticket items that hit low-income people especially hard: need to replace a broken set of dentures and/or eye-glasses, orthotics, replace broken furniture items, worn-out kitchen pots and utensils, routine veterinarian treatment for a companion animal, and the like, and the extra costs around visiting an out-of-town relative or having them come to visit you once a year. All these bigger-ticket items easily add up to $1,200 a year or $100 a month that has to be carefully saved up.
These monthly expenses, all falling outside the “basic food-and-shelter” costs calculated into income assistance allowances, already come to over $500, and I have not counted anything usually derided as sinful items like addictions to alcohol, cigarettes, or stronger drugs. Nor have I counted in the cost of food, for people whose unsubsidized rent+utilities+ heating costs alone swallow up almost all their monthly income assistance allowance. Nor have I counted the costs of struggling with debt burdens.
In short, the relentless monthly struggle of trying to stretch inadequate income assistance rates over relentless living costs, helps to explain why some people beg in the street. If New Brunswick taxpayers were successful in pressuring our government to raise the minimum income assistance rate by $500 a month, then we would likely not have any panhandlers in the streets. Then, I might be persuaded that policing panhandlers would be reasonable policy.
Sylvia Hale is a retired professor of Sociology, St Thomas University.