Keep Alberta Strong is a coalitions of groups (including Public Interest Alberta) dedicated to keeping Alberta strong and vibrant by protecting the public services the already=vulnerable rely on to live full lives of dignity. The coalition was formed after the provincial government released their first budget in November 2019. The following is a letter sent on April 10, 2020 to Dr. Deena Hinshaw with recommendations about how to protect the most vulnerable Albertans during this crisis.
To: Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Chief Medical Officer, Government of Alberta
Re: Alberta’s Homeless and Poor and the COVID-19 Pandemic
Leaving vulnerable Albertans behind may represent an increased public health risk. Currently, Albertans on income support cannot keep up and are at risk. Issues of isolation, changed payment dates, increased need for credit and payment of delivery fees, and over-crowding has many vulnerable Albertans heading out into public spaces more often. Since those with lowered financial means must go out to serve essential needs, it may be increasing exposure in this higher-risk group and the communities they live in.
Many are afraid to speak out.
The date change for payment of AISH to the first of the month has been costing people more through Non-Sufficient Fund (NSF) charges despite their efforts to do what the government has suggested and rearrange their finances. NSF fees are significant on tight budgets and average $45 per instance.
With the necessary restrictions for public health, vulnerable populations, including those on AISH, leaves people isolated, restricted and unable to afford food. Recently, we learned how one person had maxed out their credit/debit card with delivery charges; another Albertan said they needed a credit card to try to make ends meet but didn’t qualify.
Over 137,000 Albertans are supported by AISH (or Alberta Works). If any of these individuals’ contract COVID-19, they may have no choice but to leave the self isolation of their home and put themselves and others at risk. Here are some reactions of AISH recipients:
“Not everybody can get a credit card – it’s difficult to get one at all if you’re low-income. A friend of mine has one, but they have low limits, and they’re maxed out.”
“Many places do not take cash. It feels like we are at the back of the line. People are being left behind.”
“The limit on a visa debit card is only $100. It is not very much. We (elderly parents and I) can no longer order groceries and we are too medically compromised to leave the house. Calling the foodbank? Those hampers are gone. You have to keep calling and calling to try to get through.”
Others are losing the part-time positions that allow them to make ends meet. They’re learning as they applied for Employment Insurance (EI) or the Canadian Emergency Relief Benefit (CERB), that funds would be clawed back on a ‘dollar-for-dollar’ basis from AISH. The rules as to how often a person can access emergency support from AISH (and other income support agencies) are also unclear.
“When I called, my AISH worker and told them [about my situation], they were of little help other than telling me to ’wait and see.’ How helpful is that?”
Housing the homeless during the pandemic: You have directed us to undertake social distancing. We feel it is counter productive to simultaneously corral those who are experiencing homelessness into crowded spaces. To refuse safe and available spaces for people who require the service, during a pandemic is poor policy and contrary to instruction. We agree with you that social distancing is our only hope of avoiding disaster over the coming weeks and that these measures are only effective if everyone socially isolates. We are advocating that our marginalized citizens be permitted to isolate in vacant hotel rooms rather than convention centres or churches where social distancing can be challenging.
We offer you this feedback and suggest solutions:
- Move the AISH payment dates back
- Provide additional payments to those on income supports to meet increased need at this time, and provide support for obtaining credit quickly.
- Allow homeless Albertans the option of hotel rooms rather than congregated sites and expanded shelters that still challenge safety and distancing needs.
We at Keep Alberta Strong, are hopeful the Government of Alberta will heed our suggestions.
Keep Alberta Strong