Should a food bank screen the people it helps? 2 charity employees weigh in

Some Montreal food banks are raising concerns about people are abusing the system. We speak with two people who work at local food banks about their opposing views on screening the people who come through their doors.

West Island Assistance Fund now screens clients after discovering people abused the system

Some Montreal food banks are concerned that people may be trying to trick the system. (CBC)

The holiday season is a busy time for many Montreal charities, but one food bank is raising concerns about people abusing the system and taking away from those who really need help. 

It's a topic that's back in the spotlight after the West Island Assistance Fund (WIAF) found that some of its members were taking from the food bank when they weren't really in need.

Claudine Campeau, the executive director of WIAF, told CBC's Daybreak  that in June 2017 a client showed up to collect from the food bank, but Campeau said things weren't adding up.

She said WIAF asks all its members for one month proof of revenue and proof of residence to ensure they're serving residents of the West Island. But when this man came to the food bank his welfare checks didn't come close to covering his rent.

Claudine Campeau, the executive director of WIAF, said her organization was forced to screen people who come to the food bank because of past problems. (Aislinn May/CBC)

Campeau said she thinks he was getting money under the table from a side job.

"He also had a cellphone and he's got a car," she said, "So I asked him, 'How the heck can you manage?" He answered 'Oh I manage.'"

Campeau said she turned the man away.

"We were so upset. So we decided to ask everybody for three months proof of revenue," said Campeau. This was to ensure that they're only handing out food to people seriously in need.

After a more vigorous screening process came into effect, Campeau said she discovered one woman at the food bank was sending her children to a expensive private school in the West Island.

Another man had over $10,000 dollars saved up in his bank account. 

Despite these incidents, not everyone agrees with this type of screening process — or means tests. 

Fiona Crossling, the executive director of Share The Warmth Foundation, said she doesn't agree with any screening process. (Aislinn May/CBC)
Fiona Crossling, the executive director of Share The Warmth Foundation, has a very different view on means testing.

We asked both Campeau and Crossling to weigh in on this matter. Here's what they had to say.

What are your thoughts on means testing?

FC: We believe that the most important thing is the respect and dignity of our members. That they feel comfortable and able to freely come and participate in our programs. We definitely do not support means testing.

We think that the more important thing is that people come to a food bank when they need it. The percentage of people that may abuse is so small that it's not worth turning off and scaring away the people who really need it.

CC: We had to start that because we found out that there was at least 10 per cent [of people] so far that are going through the means of asking for food when they don't really need it.… But we just had to do it because we found out that too many people were taking advantage of the food [bank].

We ask for three months of proof of revenue and proof of expenses as well. We go by the government standards … I know for a family of two it's $30,000 a year. If they are $30,000 or less, they can use [the food bank].

Campeau added that they consider exceptions for some families, and they give them two months to collect their financial records for the food bank.

How big of a concern is people abusing the system?

FC: This is has been a question around Christmas time… You know, somebody cheated and got two turkeys this year. Well, yes that was wrong to do, but again the damage of sharing people's personal information to make sure they don't do the terrible deed of getting two turkeys is so condescending.

We do not use this same type of testing to measure greed on the other end of the spectrum where people have way to much wealth and they're not sharing enough. So why do we hound low income people?

CC: It is a [concern] because we don't think it's fair for other people that we have to refuse, that we cannot give food to, because somebody else is exaggerating and getting more than they should get.

We are getting fewer and fewer donations because times are scarce, people need their money and so we have to be very careful what we do with the money and what we do with the food.

What would be the consequences of a means test?

FC: I'm not even considering it because it's in complete contradiction to our values as an organization where we respect and honour every person that comes in our doors. So it's a non issue.

What has been the response to this screening?

CC:  Some of them go, 'Oh okay, I thought so'. Some of them get really upset and say we don't have any right to do this.

I think it's a big issue and I think it's sad we have to do it and I wish we didn't have to. 

With files from CBC Daybreak and Radio Noon


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