MLA preaching poverty issue in Castlegar, Trail, Salmo & Nelson

Jagrup Brar visits Trail Tuesday to detail his month living on
welfare and add rural perspective

A B.C. politician who explored poverty by living on welfare for one month is coming to Trail on a tour of the region to understand the challenges faced in rural parts of the province.

New Democrat MLA Jagrup Brar, small business critic, will stop in Castlegar first on his two-day trip prior to hitting Trail on Tuesday and finishing up his visit in Salmo and Nelson with Kootenay West MLA Katrine Conroy.

“I think it’s great that he’s coming. It’s exciting that he’s bringing a perspective with him that I don’t think many people in our shoes have experienced,” said Conroy. “What he did for a month in surviving on social assistance down in Surrey and the Downtown Eastside is pretty amazing.”

Brar accepted a challenge from the Raise the Rates Committee to live on a $610 allowance – given to a single individual expected to work – for the month of January.

In order to experience all of the faces of poverty, Brar started his journey at a shelter in Surrey before moving into a roaming house – a nine-bedroom home with a shared washroom and kitchen – in the same city before moving to the Downtown Eastside for the remainder of the month. There he stayed in a single room occupancy – a small room with a hot plate and no fridge – and again shared facilities.

He met with stakeholders and activists, single mothers, teen moms, farm worker refugees, people with disabilities, mental health and addiction issues and seniors during this time to listen to their stories. He found most people became down on their luck when the economy plummeted or they were hit with a life-changing tragedy, faced abuse or addiction problems.

“This has been a kind of life-changing experience for me,” he said. “If I sit in my office in Victoria and read 200 well-written reports by experts about poverty, I probably will not get the sense of reality that I got by living it myself.”

Though the ministry allocates $375 from the received allowance for housing, Brar soon learned that accommodation would be at least $450. Adding a $42 bus ticket and $25 monthly phone fee – needed as he was expected to look for work – Brar was left with just over $100.

He opted to use the rest of this money for food only, relying on what basic toiletries he brought from home.

Though he ran out of money on Jan. 25, he managed to get by on free meals from charities, some that he obtained through volunteer hours at the Carnegie Community Centre, a “living room” for the Downtown Eastside.

“What I learned personally from this experience is that I will not judge people based on what they look like,” he said. “In 31 days, I was able to maintain three meals a day and I had no fears, no guilt and no depression that I may stay in this situation for a long time because I knew that I would be out of this soon. Even after that, I lost 24 pounds in one month.”

He found the key issues to be a lack of affordable housing, low welfare rates and backwards policies.

One reoccurring complaint was the lack of incentive to find employment when the government deducts dollar for dollar what an individual makes.

He said changes to the social assistance program unveiled in the 2012 budget that moves individuals to rural parts where they can find work is not tackling the majority of cases.

“Fifty-three per cent out of the 180,000 people on welfare have a disability,” he said. “So that program will not make a dent when it comes to the overall number of people on welfare.”

He is now committed to make positive change and push for a comprehensive poverty plan all while riding transit more and taking the time to listen to people’s stories.

“This is a serious issue, a profound issue B.C. is facing,” he sad. “I’m a father of three young children and it’s very hard for me to imagine that there are 130,000 children living in poverty in this province – the highest in the country.”

Brar will meet with local business owners at a luncheon put on by the Trail and District Chamber of Commerce Tuesday from noon until 1:30 p.m. at the chamber’s office, spend the remainder of the day touring the Skills Centre and the South Kootenay Business Centre and lastly attend an event put on by Trail’s Poor No More anti-poverty group and the United Church’s Life Long Learning Committee.

“I want to listen to local people’s concerns and how we can help,” he said of the anti-poverty event held at the Trail United Church that kicks off at 5 p.m. with introductions, a free meal and discussions to follow.