Breaking the homeless cycle
Itinerants' face strong financial disincentives to getting off the street

Most people would view homeless life with a mixture of shock and horror. Not Robert Joyal. Joyal has no fixed address, but can be found most evenings at one of Montreal's homeless shelters.

"I like it, being free. " Joyal said, about his rough lifestyle. "I can go where I want when I want. I've been across Canada ten times, to Europe seven times, and all around the U.S."

Recently, homeless people like Joyal have gotten a big raise. Since March of this year, welfare recipients do not need a fixed address to be eligible for benefits. Since Joyal doesn't pay rent at the shelters he stays in, and he eats mostly in soup kitchens, the $766 a month he collects in welfare payments goes straight into his pocket.

According to Daniel Joly, a coordinator at the Maison du Père, shelter, Joyal's disposable income is a significant piece of change. "It's more than I have left at the end of the month," said Joyal.

According to Julie Dilio, a statistician with the City of Montreal department charged with administering welfare claims of downtown residents, the change stems from a March 2002, government of Quebec administrative tribunal ruling. The ruling enabled welfare recipients to prove their Quebec residency without providing a fixed address.

The ruling's effect is that welfare recipients, no longer have to use a big part of their checks to pay the rent. They can live in shelters, and use the welfare money as they see fit. As a result, the homeless now have a strong financial disincentive to get off of the street.

The homeless person's dilemma can be summed up perfectly by Claude Delisle, another Maison du Père client. "The average welfare check is $535," Delisle said. "If you figure $350 for an apartment, $50 for a bus pass, and $30 for a phone, that leaves you $100 for food and everything else. It's not a lot. In some ways you're better off living in a shelter."

But life is not all peaches and cream. "It can get pretty bad down there, (at the shelter's West entrance, where the homeless queue for hours for the often-rare beds)," said Delisle. "To be honest with you, all I want to do is get back on my feet again."

One thing welfare recipients can't do with their money is to save it. If they accumulate $1,500 in their bank accounts, their welfare payments get cut off. The measure makes some sense (welfare is supposed to be a last measure), but the net effect is that recipients must spend their checks, or else.

That's no problem for Joyal. "I either spend it on dope, or alcohol or I just give it away," Joyal said. "I really don't know where it all goes."

These days Joyal makes his home at one of the city's three most prominent downtown homeless shelters, Maison du Père, The Old Brewery Mission, or the Welcome Hall Mission. His favorite is the Maison du Père, which provides a compulsory shower, a multi-course meal and game room with a 26" television.

But since the mission only permits clients to stay there 15 nights a month, the rest of the month Joyal has to stay at one of the other shelters, or if he is really stuck, it's a night on the park bench.

The challenges that Joyal and Delisle face in getting off the street are not confined to money. In fact, their situations, --Joyal has a disability that prevents him from working, and Delisle drinks too much --, are in many respects typical of the challenges that homeless people face said Joly.

"The problems of the homeless are not just financial," Joly said. "The vast majority of them suffer from either mental illness, a gambling problem, or a drug or alcohol dependency."

Cigarettes are a real problem. Although smokers are almost non-existent in Outremont tea salons, university faculty clubs and high-level business meetings, according to Joly, in Montreal's homeless shelters, smokers rule.

"About 80 to 90 per cent of our clients smoke," Joly said. "It's their only pleasure in life." Getting those cigarettes is a big challenge. Recent cigarette tax hikes, which have brought up to $8.00 a pack, have had a regressive effect on Montreal's homeless, and have forced many of them into desperate measures.

For example, Joyal carries around a bag of cigarette butts, which he re-rolls. And occasionally he is forced to take the bus into Kanawake, to buy tax-free contraband cigarettes, risking substantial sanctions to do so.

Another big challenge facing welfare recipients is that if they earn more than $200 in one month, they lose their benefits on a dollar-for-dollar basis.

Awhile back Delisle did some extra work on the side and did not declare it. It was a big mistake, and now he is paying the price. Delisle's Employment Insurance payments are running out, and pretty soon he will be forced to collect welfare. Of the meager $537 a month that he expects to collect, about $100, will go towards paying back the government.

Unfortunately, according to shelter administrators, despite the strong economy, homelessness in Montreal is increasing. This is mostly due to low apartment vacancy rates, the closing of many rooming houses, and government cutbacks, which have forced mental illness patients out of hospitals and into the streets.

However according to Father Robert Warren, who works at the Old Brewery Mission, financial cures are not main solution to the homeless problem.

"The only way many of them are going to get off the street is if they really want to," Warren said. "And that means dealing with the problem that got them there, whether it be the bottle, the gambling or whatever."

 

Sidebar: Financial challenges facing the homeless

o Disposable income is substantially higher for those who stay in shelters providing a disincentive to get an apartment
o The exemptions for penalty free work are low (about $200 per month). This makes it harder for welfare recipients to enter the workforce gradually.
o Continued access to free medication can be problematic for those returning to work
o Regressive taxes on products such as alcohol, cigarettes, hit the homeless harder, since they are larger consumers than the population as a whole.
o The financial difficulties of homeless people tend to be symptomatic of much deeper problems such as mental illness, compulsive gambling and drug or alcohol addiction.

 

Photo caption: Despite good economic times, homeless shelters are seeing increased demand from clients such as Claude Delisle, Robert Joly and Alain Hamel, who are shown here with Robert Joyal of the Maison du Père shelter.

 

peter@peterdiekmeyer.com

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