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Province reverses course after slashing income assistance for N.S. man forced to move into trailer

An Amherst, N.S., man moved into a trailer on a friend's property while he searched for a new place to live. Then the province cut his income assistance payment to $380 per month, saying he is only eligible for "essentials."

Dwayne Hawkes couldn't find anywhere else to live after losing his apartment over a disputed lease

A man stands in a field beside a camper trailer

In the last three months, Dwayne Hawkes lost his apartment, lost his job, and moved into a travel trailer on a friend's property outside of Amherst, N.S.

He hoped things would get better from there, but more bad news was on the way.

Hawkes received a letter this week from the provincial Department of Community Services stating his monthly income assistance payments would be whittled down from more than $900 to $380 starting Sept. 1 because he lives in a travel trailer.

People living in places like tents, homeless shelters, transition houses and rehabilitation programs are only eligible for what the Department of Community Services calls the "essentials" rate of $380 per month.

"It scares you because you don't know where you're gonna end up," Hawkes said Friday. "You have nothing for food, you got nothing for your bills…. I'm just barely making it on what I got now, and then to get this news is very disappointing."

After CBC published this story Friday, Hawkes was told by the department it was reversing its decision in his case and his monthly income assistance payments will remain unchanged.

Started with a fixed-term lease

Hawkes was forced to move out of his Amherst apartment in June when his landlord cut his power after a dispute over his fixed-term lease.

He said he searched for a new place for weeks but couldn't find anything in his price range. After relocating to his friend's property out of town, he lost his job because he had no car and couldn't get to work.

Hawkes started to receive income assistance at this point to help pay the $900 monthly rent he paid his friend to live in the travel trailer. But the province said that didn't count as renting a home.

According to a Nova Scotia government website, the "standard household rate" for people who rent, board or own is between $608 and $686 monthly for a single person with no dependents. An enhanced rate can be added for people with disabilities and seniors, among others, that brings the total up to $950.

But a person who doesn't rent, board or own a home is only eligible for the "essentials" rate.

Hawkes's letter said his rate was reduced "because you are living in a travel trailer which under policy is only eligible for essentials."

Government says policy is being changed

A spokesperson for the Department of Community Services said the policy applies to people living in temporary accommodations. Those include hospitals, residential rehabilitation, emergency shelters, transition houses, hotels or tents.

"When an applicant or recipient secures new accommodations, a review of supports is completed, and additional funding can be provided to help with accommodations," spokesperson Christina Deveau said in an email.

Deveau also said income assistance clients can talk to their caseworker about other means of support like bus passes, help with moving expenses, and pharmacare.

When asked about Hawkes's situation, Deveau said the policy is being updated so it will no longer apply to travel trailers, but will still apply to other temporary situations.

"In recognition of current housing affordability issues, Income Assistance is updating the policy and regulation around trailer accommodations," Deveau said.

She said while the policy is under review, people will be assessed on a case-by-case basis.

'Appalling,' says human rights lawyer

Vince Calderhead, a human rights lawyer with Pink Larkin in Halifax, said to take away the standard payment from someone in a desperate situation is "kicking them while they're down."

"As Nova Scotians … walk by their local parks and see tents everywhere, and those people receive a total of $380 a month, that's completely appalling," Calderhead said. "How are they supposed to even get to first base on that?"

Calderhead said since income assistance rates haven't been raised in two years, and many of the people most at risk don't receive the full rate, it's very difficult to get out of poverty.

"For people who are already down and trying desperately to improve their situation, the way the Department of Community Services currently assists them, almost ensures that they'll stay there."

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nicola Seguin

Reporter

Nicola Seguin is a TV, radio, and online journalist with CBC Nova Scotia, based in Halifax. She often covers issues surrounding housing and homelessness. If you have a story idea, email her at nicola.seguin@cbc.ca or find her on twitter @nicseg95.

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