‘If we had an equitable fare structure, including free transit for children and youth and a sliding scale for adults, we would have accessibility built in for the lifespan of all community members,’ says Viveca Ellis, coordinator of the #AllOnBoard campaign for free transit for youths. ‘We would not have people in the position of having to steal a bus ride because they can’t afford it.’ Mike Bell / PNG
TransLink should immediately stop ticketing youths for fare evasion so they no longer accumulate the kind of debt that can affect their credit history for years, according to the #AllOnBoard campaign for free transit for youths.
What’s happening, said Viveca Ellis, coordinator for the campaign, is that young people end up with what’s known as “TransLink debt” that they can’t repay. That debt can follow them around for years and prevent them from getting a driver’s licence.
“We’re asking TransLink to immediately end the harm of ticketing,” she said.
“It’s the bad credit that really sets people up for lifelong poverty.”
Transit, she said, should be as funded in the same way as education and health care.
“If we had an equitable fare structure, including free transit for children and youth and a sliding scale for adults, we would have accessibility built in for the lifespan of all community members. We would not have people in the position of having to steal a bus ride because they can’t afford it.”
Ellis said the #AllOnBoard campaign has discovered thousands of low income youths with TransLink debt. Once the debt goes to a collection agency, a person may be prohibited from getting a driver’s licence and/or renewing their vehicle insurance.
Last year, TransLink said it wrote an estimated 16,000 fare evasion tickets at $173 each. Of that number, less than four per cent, or about 640, were written to minors. If a fare evasion ticket is unpaid after one year, it can increase by $100.
A TransLink official said earlier that the the cost of providing free access to riders up to age 18 “would be in the tens of millions a year.” But the official said TransLink couldn’t provide a more detailed answer until it studies the issue in more depth.
In a survey in November and December last year, #AllOnBoard asked 24 youths if they had fare evasion fines. Some said they had paid off their fines; others replied by saying “I have like 4,” “Over $500” and “800.”
Not being able to get a driver’s licence was identified as the main impact of their fare evasion debt.
“I couldn’t get my licence,” one youth said in the survey. “I owed so much from years ago and even being on the platform without my ticket validated when I had a book of tickets to use but the officer wouldn’t let me validate it when I was in a rush.”
Ellis said what the campaign has also found is that there are at least 11 different programs operated by charities and non-profits in Vancouver that pay off TransLink debt for at-risk youths. That means groups supported by city taxpayers end up paying the debt so the youths can access services.
That makes no sense to Vancouver Coun. Jean Swanson.
“It’s just a ridiculous, vicious circle,” Swanson said.
At Tuesday’s council meeting, Swanson’s motion for the city to endorse the #AllOnBoard campaign was moved to Wednesday. Eighteen people have signed up to speak about the motion.
#AllOnBoard has already has the support of Port Moody and New Westminster.
Last year, Seattle city council voted to spend $7 million ($9.1 million Canadian) to provide free bus passes to 16,000 high school students.
Calgary Transit addresses poverty in its sliding-scale fares based on income. A low-income monthly pass ranges from $5.30 for a single person household earning $12,699 or less to $53 a month for a household of seven people earning $56,997 to $67,055.
Coun. Jean Swanson wants the City of Vancouver to support free transit for children and youths up to 18 years of age.
Council members will consider her motion Tuesday to draft a letter to regional officials in support of more equitable transit fares including a sliding scale for low-income residents.
Swanson said Monday that her No. 1 reason for supporting a campaign started by #AllOnBoard last year is to increase safety for youths and adults.
She said people can sometimes get stuck if they don’t have bus fare and have to walk home or take “rides with people they don’t know. That’s not safe.”
She also supports free transit to increase accessibility to the city’s amenities. She estimated it would cost a family of five in east Vancouver $20 bus fare to ride to beaches on the west side of the city.
“That’s ridiculous,” she said.
“It means a huge proportion of people in our city just can’t enjoy parts of the city that other people that have more money can enjoy.”
Swanson also believes that lower bus fares and improved transit service means fewer trips by car which will help reduce global warming.
Swanson said she’s had nothing but “positive feedback” about her motion.
She doesn’t have any estimate on costs, she said, because this is a first step in figuring out how to create a more equitable transit system.
“It is to ask the regional bodies in control of this to come up with a plan and source of funding,” she said.
“Some of the technical details still have to be worked out.”
Jill Drews, senior issues management advisor for TransLink, said the organization is working with government officials to explore what it might mean to bring in free fares for younger riders.
TransLink doesn’t know how many riders under 18 it has because it doesn’t track ridership by age, she said.
“What we have seen in other jurisdictions that have opened up fare free transit for youths, they’ve had a big increase in ridership,” Drews said.
Drews said the cost of introducing free fares for youths “would be in the tens of millions a year” but had no specific details on the amount.
“We’re doing some modelling and looking at how we can quantify that better,” she said.
Viveca Ellis, who is coordinating the #AllOnBoard campaign, said transit should have much more public funding so access is as equitable as health care and education.
“Given our provincial commitment to reducing poverty, we need the mayors’ council and Metro Vancouver to discover the impact of mobility and lack of affordability on all citizens,” said Ellis, leadership development coordinator for the B.C. Poverty Reduction Coalition.
“We’re expecting the provincial government to step up and provide the financial support to make it happen to implement these necessary measures.”
In Metro Vancouver, a maximum of four children under five can ride on TransLink for free when accompanied by a passenger with proof of payment; children aged five to 18 pay $1.90 concession or $1.85 with a Compass Card in one zone.
Last year, Seattle city council voted to spend $7 million ($9.1 million Cdn.) to provide free bus service to 16,000 high school students. Seattle is now the largest city in the U.S. to provide free, year-round transit for high school students.
In Toronto, students 12 and under ride for free.
Calgary Transit addresses poverty in its sliding-scale fares based on income. A low-income monthly pass ranges from $5.30 for a single person household earning $12,699 or less to $53 a month for a household of seven people earning $56,997 to $67,055.
As she bounces nine-month-old Delilah on her knee, Amber Hawse pauses reflectively before answering a question about what she thinks she and her baby will be doing in five years.
Hawse, 20, hopes by then to have graduated from college and to have a job as a special-needs support worker. Delilah will be in kindergarten. And they will live together in their own place with enough money for food, basic expenses and peace of mind.
Her goals may seem modest, but the reality is that 20 per cent of children in B.C. live in poverty and their families struggle to provide the necessities of life, especially in Metro Vancouver with its sky-high cost of living.
Hawse knows this well, as a foster child who lurched from home to home, some of them abusive. At age 16, she was living on her own in an apartment run by a social service agency, learning to budget her meagre government payments while attending high school.
The well-spoken, thoughtful young woman hopes Delilah will not be trapped in a similar cycle. She wants to provide her daughter with financial and emotional stability — which starts with them remaining together.
“I grew up with no dad and no mom, so I don’t want to let her grow up with (being) in care and getting her abused. I want her to know she is always loved,” Hawse said, fighting back tears.
Poverty and other challenges facing youth, particularly in Metro Vancouver’s inner cities, were the focus of a recent brainstorming session during which dozens of service agencies and community members came together to discuss the root causes and possible solutions to these often multi-generational crises.
“People can easily become immune to seeing homeless people on the streets, but the poverty that children face is often hidden from us,” said Jennifer Johnstone, president of Central City Foundation, which organized the Hope Dialogue Series session. “And that makes (the depth of) child poverty a surprise to people sometimes.”
The Downtown Eastside has become the focal point, with many drawn there by its plethora of low-rent buildings and free food services. But poverty exists in many other pockets of Metro Vancouver, and affects the children of struggling parents as well as children without parents.
172,550 poor kids in B.C.
The statistics, say Central City, are stark:
• One in five of all B.C. children — 172,550 kids — lives in poverty, and that jumps to one in three for off-reserve Indigenous children.
• Nearly half of recent child immigrants are impoverished.
• Half of children in poverty are raised by single parents, mostly by mothers.
• Youth aging out of foster care are 200 times more likely to become homeless before the age of 25.
And research shows that disadvantaged children can be delayed mentally and physically due to a lack of nutrition, are more likely to struggle in school and end up unemployed, and are more prone to suffer from addictions and mental illness.
The trend is improving, though, as a quarter of all B.C. youth were impoverished a decade ago, compared to 20 per cent now, according to First Call’s annual Child Poverty Report Card. B.C.’s child poverty rate has been higher than the Canadian average for at least two decades, although that gap is narrowing.
Some of B.C.’s recent improvements can be credited to the new Child Tax Benefit introduced by Ottawa in 2016, and also promising are recent commitments by provincial and federal governments to adopt poverty-reduction plans, increase affordable housing, boost the minimum wage and introduce affordable daycare.
But there is more work to do to try to overcome the systemic marginalization that has led to this poverty — such as colonialism and residential schools that have brought a disproportionate number of Indigenous people into the Downtown Eastside, Johnstone said.
The October brainstorming session, which included groups such as the Urban Native Youth Association and the Aboriginal Mother Centre, was just the beginning of a very important conversation, she added.
“When we come together and see possibilities, that is the hope for change,” Johnstone said. “The children are the stewards of our future.”
Schools are more than education
Schools increasingly provide more than education to impoverished youth, especially in inner cities. But during long school breaks, at-risk children can be left without enough food, fun activities or emotional support to keep them safe during the day while their parents are working.
To bridge this gap, a unique organization called KidSafe runs full-day camps during Christmas holidays, March break and the summer at six east Vancouver schools, so 450 vulnerable children have a safe place to go each day for three healthy meals, fun activities and continued access to important services.
“The (camps) provide continuity for things like nutrition, healthy adult relationships, just somebody having eyes on a child,” said KidSafe executive director Quincey Kirschner, who attended the Hope Dialogue session.
“The demand is ever-increasing, and it is so awful to not have enough resources to be able to provide service to all the kids and families who need it.”
Poverty is one of the reasons some children are referred by teachers and others to KidSafe, but there are other factors as well, such as emotional vulnerability, she added.
For six years, Krista Ericson has relied on the three seasonal camps to help with her four children, who are in Grades 1 through 6 at Grandview/¿uuqinak’uuh Elementary in east Vancouver. The camps provide much-needed respite for the single mother, who fostered and then adopted the four Indigenous siblings who have a range of diagnoses that include fetal alcohol syndrome and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
“The support during the (school) breaks is life-saving to me,” said Ericson, who added it is difficult to keep the active, high-needs children at home all day. “To think of trying to find out-of-school care for four children, I couldn’t afford it. I couldn’t afford full-time camps in the summer.”
She does not work outside the home, mainly because her days are consumed with hospital appointments and other commitments for the children.
Ericson lives in subsidized housing, shops for food that is on sale and in bulk, and is grateful for a myriad of programs — ranging from Backpack Buddies, which provides food to families for the weekends, to charity hampers and donated gifts at Christmas — that help her make ends meet.
When her children see other people with cellphones or trendy clothing, Ericson has her oft-repeated line: “I tell my kids, ‘That’s their family, and we do it differently in our family.’” She also uses the opportunity to teach her children that, although they live a modest life, they are better off than other students who don’t have enough food to eat or a safe place to sleep at night.
One of her top priorities is to include a lot of Indigenous culture in their home lives.
Indigenous culture creates ‘doorway into wellness’
After the brainstorming session in October, Central City compiled a summary of what they heard from the 100 people in attendance, and found that programs with cultural components, such as connections with elders and Indigenous languages, have been successful because they create “a doorway into wellness and community building.”
Other initiatives that are making a positive difference, the attendees said, were those that connect youth with relatives and meaningful people in their lives, as well as programs in which non-profits and service agencies work together to provide more comprehensive support to children.
The Central City summary also determined what isn’t working: Governments too often fund programs that treat problems once they start, rather than preventing them; a lack of affordable housing can lead to poverty and families losing their children; and there isn’t enough transition planning for youth aging out of care, who experience disproportionately high levels of mental illness, substance use and unemployment.
Aunt Leah’s Place, a New Westminster charity, has been helping children who age out of care for three decades, but 10 years ago it added a new element: soliciting financial support from foundations, corporations, governments and others to obtain specialized housing.
“That was done based on trends we saw around more and more young people who are aging out becoming homeless,” said president and CEO Sarah Stewart. “What we didn’t plan for is the opioid crisis — that’s been a double whammy for these young people. … They are dealing with daily grief connected to people they know who have died.”
Aunt Leah’s provided services to 345 youth last year — 41 foster children under age 19, 208 who had aged out, and 96 of their babies and children.
“The reality for youth aging out of foster care today is a lot of hardship,” said Stewart, who also attended the Hope Dialogue session.
There has been positive change in the last few years, such as free tuition and financial support for foster children to attend post-secondary schools. The provincial government has also expanded a program that will fund more life-skills training for these youth.
But, Stewart said, more subsidized housing is needed, along with better co-ordination between government agencies — such as education, health and child welfare — to look out for this population.
‘Just do what parents do’
The key to supporting youth coming out of care is simple, she argues — just do what parents do.
“Aunt Leah’s tries to replicate what families are doing for their kids,” Stewart said. “Parents are providing tuition, transportation, food, housing well into their 20s, so that is what we are doing. And that is what government should be doing.”
Hawse, though, was cast adrift. After being asked to leave her last foster home, the then-16-year-old moved into an apartment run by Aunt Leah’s, where teenage foster children live on their own but have access to support and training programs.
“For the first couple of nights that I was by myself, I cried because I wasn’t used to being in a house alone,” she said. “It’s very lonely.”
She received government funding of $70 a week for groceries, and learned to buy food on sale and collect grocery store points to get items for free. She also worked part-time while completing high school — a remarkable accomplishment, as less than half of foster children in B.C. graduate from Grade 12.
When she turned 19, Hawse was newly pregnant but had to leave her Aunt Leah’s apartment funded specifically for foster kids. She moved into emergency housing for several months before Aunt Leah’s could offer her a room in a building for new mothers.
She is getting by, for now, able to buy food, diapers and other necessities with the employment insurance and federal child tax she is collecting while off work with her baby. She hopes to return to her job at a local daycare, and to attend college next year to become a community and classroom support worker.
“I’ve been through a lot,” Hawse says. “But there is light at the end of the tunnel.”
Some solutions for the future
Central City’s Johnstone says there are reasons to be optimistic. For example, her organization, which is a major sponsor of Aunt Leah’s, is also backing a unique new youth initiative in Surrey that will have a school program and government social workers located in the same place as a sort of one-stop shop for vulnerable kids.
And there are other organizations, such as Vancouver Native Health, launching innovative programs in the Downtown Eastside designed to keep families together, she said.
The summary from the brainstorming session came up with some solutions to work toward, although nearly everyone interviewed for this story admits there is no obvious quick fix to the deep-rooted problem of child poverty.
The goals for the agencies include expanding programs to support the family as a whole, not just the child alone; enlisting graduates of youth programs to return as mentors; and creating more hubs where multiple services can be offered in one place to at-risk families.
At Family Services of Greater Vancouver, many clients in the family preservation program are parents trying to keep their kids after the children’s ministry documented some type of child protection concern. Staff help them with a myriad of things, ranging from housing, daycare and community resources, to help with trauma, domestic violence or addictions.
“For many of our families, poverty is an issue and that becomes a barrier for everything. They don’t have money for housing, food or your basic needs,” said Susan Walker, a family preservation manager, adding that stress affects everything from going to school to having a healthy family relationship. “Poverty stops people from moving forward.”
The agency, which also attended the Hope Dialogue session, has joined with others to advocate for major changes. Karen Dickenson Smith, director of specialized family supports, said these include embedding support workers into more “creative” types of housing, larger subsidized homes to allow extended families to live together, better compensation for foster parents, and higher wages in the social services sector to reduce turnover and ensure continuity of care for youth.
“System change takes time. We’ve seen some really encouraging developments, but we are a ways off and there is a lot of work to do,” said Dickenson Smith.
Added her colleague, Walker: “Poverty is not going to end overnight, but if you have subsidized housing and people are given the opportunity to get the work they need to do in life to get a job, that can allow children stability.”
The B.C. government has announced anti-poverty targets. Getty Images
Roughly 50,000 fewer B.C. children will be living in poverty by 2024 if the provincial government meets its new targets to cut child poverty in half and overall poverty by a quarter.
The NDP campaigned in the spring of 2017 on a promise to establish a poverty reduction plan for B.C., the only province without one. But residents will have to wait until March 2019 — two years later — for the unveiling of the plan, and to find out how the targeted reductions will be achieved and how much they will cost.
“I accept and I respect the criticism (about delays), but I would rather take a few more months and get this right. And the reality is we didn’t create this problem overnight, so we’re not going to fix it overnight,” Shane Simpson, minister of social development and poverty reduction, said.
“We have at this point the second-highest rate of poverty overall and the highest rate of poverty for children (in Canada).” About one in five B.C. children live in poverty.
If achieved, the new targets will improve B.C.’s ranking, he said.
Legislation proposed on Tuesday offers few details beyond targets to reduce B.C.’s population of people in poverty — estimated at 557,000 residents — by one quarter by 2024. That would require lifting 140,000 people above the poverty line, including half of the 100,000 children who are impoverished.
Trish Garner, of the B.C. Poverty Reduction Coalition, said it is a “good first step” to have targets and timelines after years of no action by the previous government.
“We would have liked to have seen a stronger overall poverty reduction target, and faster,” said Garner, a member of an advisory forum that provides advice to the minister. “Although, the target around child poverty is bold.”
First Call’s Adrienne Montani agreed, as her organization has advocated cutting child poverty in half since 2009.
Both women provided a wish list of what measures they thought should be financed in February’s budget and included in March’s plan in order to achieve the government’s targets.
Those include more-accessible child care, better wages, reduction of fees, improved access to jobs and more affordable housing through such things as rent controls.
Garner believes there are several things missing from the new legislation, such as any mention of the “depths” of poverty, which refers to how far someone is below the poverty line. She would have liked to see a commitment to increase the incomes of all poor people to within 75 per cent of the poverty line in the next two years, which she said could mainly be achieved by boosting welfare and disability rates.
Montani also hopes the province will consider enhancing the three-year-old early childhood tax benefit, so the payments are larger and continue longer — as is the case in other provinces. She noted the federal child benefit, which provides money monthly to needy families, has successfully reduced poverty nationally.
Asked when the other 50 per cent of B.C. children could be lifted out of poverty, if the first half is helped by 2024, Montani said she is cautiously optimistic that most of the solutions being discussed will help all kids in poor households.
“I am somewhat hopeful that maybe we can exceed that target,” she said.
Simpson said improvement to the early childhood benefit tax is one of things being investigated, although he made no specific commitment.
Funding this poverty reduction plan will require “significant” spending in the next five provincial budgets, but Simpson would not estimate the overall cost. He said it will include portions of NDP programs, totalling well over $1 billion, that have already been announced, such as the affordable child care plan; new housing and rent subsidy programs; increasing the minimum wage; raising social assistance and disability benefits; and ending tuition for adult basic education and English-language learning.
New measures will also be required, among them how to reduce costs of housing, food and transportation for needy people. Another necessity is jobs, said Simpson, who has met with business groups about trying to get people with mild disabilities into the workforce.
Of the 557,000 people living in poverty, about 200,000 receive welfare, disability or other services from Simpson’s ministry. The rest include seniors, the working poor, and young people aging out of foster care. That means other ministries must be involved in the poverty reduction plan, he said.
The new legislation requires government to report annually on its progress, and it will be monitored by an advisory panel.
“We’re confident that while those targets are bold, we have the capacity to meet those targets as well as to build the opportunity to break the cycle of poverty moving forward,” Simpson said.
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