High cost of living in Vancouver prompts cancellation of Welfare Food Challenge

$5.75 is the amount participants would be allowed to spend on food each week — a nearly impossible challenge, say event organizers, adding that the low number is a grim reality for many, not a one-off event.

Rents are way up, but income assistance hasn't kept pace

Welfare Food Challenge organizers say Vancouver's housing costs are too high for people living on income assistance to survive. (Dillon Hodgin/CBC)

For the last six years in the late days of autumn, the Raise the Rates organization has held the Welfare Food Challenge in Metro Vancouver — but not this year.

The challenge used to see participants try to shop for a week of groceries on welfare rates. In 2017, after covering rent and other basics, participants were allowed $19 for a week's worth of food — in keeping with provincial welfare rates.

It was supposed to give people a better understanding of how tough it is to live on income assistance.

However, Raise the Rates cancelled the challenge entirely this year due to the high cost of living in Vancouver.

$5.75 a week

"Every year it's hard. Every year the point is to illustrate how hard it is," said Kell Gerlings, one of the event organizers.

But this year, said Gerlings, it would be all but impossible. They calculated that challenge participants would only be allowed roughly $5.75 a week for food — about a quarter of last year's allowance.

Typically, someone living on income assistance in B.C. receives $710 a month. Raise the Rates use that number to calculate challenge participants' weekly allowance.

They factor in the monthly minimum cost of personal hygiene (roughly $10), bus fare (roughly $28), a phone to look for a job (roughly $25) and rent. The average rent of a single room occupancy (SRO) hotel unit in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside is now $687 a month, said Gerlings. Last year, it was $548.

Those high rents — just for a room in a hotel with a shared bathroom and no kitchen — is why the challenge was cancelled, she said. When you subtract $687 from $710, that leaves $23 for the whole month; divided by four, that's $5.75 a week.

"The rent has gone up significantly, and the rates have not gone up significantly to match that," said Gerlings.

'The hardest hit'

She said there aren't enough regulations preventing landlords from raising the rent of vacant SRO units. And, though the B.C. New Democrats raised welfare rates by $100 after they took office in 2017, it's not enough, said Gerlings.

"Keep in mind that this is the first welfare raise in over a decade. That $100 was ten years in the making," she said.

"The affordability crisis is on everybody's minds, but people on welfare are truly the hardest hit," said Gerlings. "There was no way that that $100 was going to stay in people's pockets."

To remedy the problem, Gerlings said there need to be aggressive rent controls to stop landlords from raising rents in between tenancies. There also needs to be a significant increase in income assistance, she said.

With files from On the Coast