Province says staggering welfare cheques has "some merit," but awaits study before making a decision

The minister in charge of poverty reduction in B.C. says not having a single day when social assistance cheques are distributed is intriguing, but the government won't make a decision until 2019.

Paramedics and police chiefs support the concept, but there's no evidence it would reduce total overdoses

The provincial president of the Ambulance Paramedics and Emergency Dispatchers of B.C. says varying the days when social assistance cheques are issue would reduce the strain on paramedics responding to drug overdoses. (Gian-Paolo Mendoza/CBC)

The minister in charge of poverty reduction in B.C. says not having a single day when social assistance cheques are distributed is intriguing, but the government won't make a decision this year. 

"It's an idea that I think has some merit," said Shane Simpson, adding the payday effect is well known.

"You're giving a significant number of people in that community some money, and they've probably been struggling the week before. There is a peak in activity, clearly, around that day and we have to determine whether it's significantly beneficial to make a change."

Victoria Police Department Chief Del Manak wrote a letter to the province last month asking them to consider a pilot project on staggering the days cheques are issued to help ease the pressure on emergency responders who face a spike in drug overdoses on cheque days.

"Our response rates and … times for the other calls now takes a backseat and it's not allowing us to deliver efficient service in and around when these cheques are issued," he said.

His proposal was endorsed by the Vancouver Police Department. Cameron Eby, provincial president of the Ambulance Paramedics and Emergency Dispatchers of B.C., has also said it would "probably be a better thing for paramedics." 

But Simpson cautioned that there were potential negative side-effects that need to be considered. 

"There's issues around rent paid, there would be potential human rights issues about imposing that on people, it would be identifying people who face substance issues," he said.

"[And] there wouldn't be a reduction necessarily in overdose, they would spread out differently over the month."

3-year long study

Simpson said the government is awaiting the results of a study by the B.C. Centre on Substance Use, which began in 2015, that looks at "whether changing when and how often social assistance is disbursed will benefit individual health and safety; decrease drug-related harm within the community; and decrease demand on health, social and police service providers." 

Around 180 people have been involved in the study, which is being conducted in partnership with a branch of VanCity credit union which is coordinating the distribution of funds.

"I think there's a general consensus that the existing system doesn't prevent harm in drug-related situations as much as it possibly could, but there's a lot of variation in people's opinions on what a changed system should look like," said Lindsey Richardson, the lead investigator in the study. 

Richardson's team is hoping to finish their data collection at the end of this year with a full report to follow in the months after — one that the government will be reading  closely.

"We're hoping that will give some insights in how we move forward in a way that supports our first responders, frontline workers, and those struggling with the challenges of addictions," said Simpson.