Updated

Bus pass for income assistance clients rolls out this weekend

The two-year pilot is being offered by the Department of Community Services and Halifax Transit. All clients on income assistance who live in the Halifax Regional Municipality, along with their spouses and dependants, will be eligible for the pass.

All income assistance clients, spouses and dependants in HRM are eligible for program

The new Halifax Transit pass for income assistance recipients will start rolling out on June 23. (CBC)

A pilot program to get transit passes to people on income assistance in Halifax is beginning its rollout this weekend.

The two-year pilot is being offered by the Department of Community Services and Halifax Transit. All clients on income assistance who live in the Halifax Regional Municipality, along with their spouses and dependants, will be eligible for the pass.

"We're not going to place a restriction around how close you are. You have to be an ESIA [employment support and income assistance] client within the city," said Brandon Grant, the ESIA program's executive director.

"Obviously there are some rural areas that don't have access to bus routes. So we're going to take it on a case-by-case basis. We want clients to come and identify what that need is, and then we'll work with that."

Brandon Grant is the executive director of the employment support and income assistance program. (CBC)

The pass will have a photo ID and will look like the EPass that some large employers such as Dalhousie University make available to their workers. Grant says the pass was designed to protect the privacy of people who don't wish to be identified as income assistance recipients.

"There's no Department of Community Services label on the pass.… It'll look like any other annual pass that anybody would receive within the city," he said.

The cost to the department this year will be about $5.5 million, which includes program costs and setup costs, and is covered by the department's budget for transportation.

The cost per pass will be $21 per month, and an estimated 16,800 people will receive one, which works out to an estimated monthly cost of $352,800.

That's roughly in line with what the department currently spends to fund transit passes and bus tickets for 5,900 people in Halifax. That number fluctuates but was given as $354,000 in September 2017.

The money for the passes will be paid directly from the Department of Community Services to Halifax Transit.

Some parts of the program are concerning to anti-poverty activists like Wayne MacNaughton.

"Obviously giving people a bus pass who are not receiving a transportation allowance, that's good," he says.

"The problem is, for people who are receiving a transportation allowance currently, they're most likely going to lose that. And that's less money on their cheque. And that's money they're quite often using to do other things, other essential things like buying food or paying rent."

MacNaughton fears replacing the transportation money with a pass may give some people less flexibility and cause them to struggle further.

The department says it's rolling out changes to its income assistance program this fall to help with that.

Halifax Transit isn't sure yet whether it will see a change in revenue from the new arrangement, but it estimates revenue could increase by $1 million.

A Halifax Transit ferry makes its way across the harbour on Thursday, Jan. 4, 2018. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

That's because it's likely some of the money distributed for passes and tickets was not spent on transit, but on other needs.

"It is challenging to know the overall financial impact of the program," said Patricia Hughes, the manager of planning and scheduling at Halifax Transit.

"But in this case I think it's going to be such a good program for us for many other non-financial reasons, that it's definitely worth it to take the financial risk even though we don't know exactly what the impact will be."

Hughes says she hopes the new pass will enable more people to access recreation facilities, go to libraries and take advantage of community events.

The Department of Community Services will evaluate the pilot for two years and then decide what happens next. 

"I think ultimately, we like this approach," Grant said. "This is an approach that will mean clients' quality of life and social inclusion will improve, it means that we're able to support more people that are in low income here in the city in Halifax, so we're going to be evaluating over the next two years. But we're very hopeful and positive that this is going to be a good pilot." 

Grant said the department wants to see how the Halifax pilot works, but it's open to duplicating the program in other municipalities. 

From June 23 to July 6, income assistance recipients who get $77 or less per month for transportation will be able to get their photos taken for their new ID. The rest of the recipients will be able to get their photos taken starting in July, and photos will continue to be taken as needed throughout the year. 

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Shaina Luck

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Shaina Luck covers everything from court to city council. Her favourite stories are about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. Email: shaina.luck@cbc.ca