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Revelstoke Community Poverty Reduction Strategy highlights economic change

City of Revelstoke Social Development Coordinator Jill Zacharias  - Aaron Orlando/Revelstoke Times Review
City of Revelstoke Social Development Coordinator Jill Zacharias
— image credit: Aaron Orlando/Revelstoke Times Review

Accurate and reliable economic data and statistics on Revelstoke are often hard to come by – for a number of reasons.

We’re often an afterthought when it comes to geographic connectivity to government or regional organizations. We can be in the Columbia, East Kootenay, West Kootenay, the Kootenays, the Shuswap or the Okanagan, depending on whose map you’re looking at.

Given our relatively small population, the numbers often become meaningless when averaged out against our larger neighbours.

What’s often missing is up-to-date, Revelstoke-specific numbers.

Those who value recent data on Revelstoke real estate, incomes, income-tax filings, housing costs and employment would do well to read the newly-released draft Revelstoke Community Poverty Reduction Strategy.

City of Revelstoke Social Development Coordinator Jill Zacharias worked alongside a committee to develop a plan to help alleviate poverty in Revelstoke. Summarizing the 89-page report is not possible here – other than to say it studies the status quo and trends, then suggests ways Revelstoke can undertake local initiatives to improve the situation.

By topic, here are some of the highlights of the report – especially the numbers that jump off the page – and excerpts from my interview with Zacharias last week.

Market Basket Measure

The Market Basket Measure (MBM) is a way of determining how much a household needs to earn to get by. It balances income levels (through income tax numbers) with the cost of living by factoring in things like housing and food costs, amongst others. Using the MBM, the report showed that while housing costs aren’t as high as somewhere like Vancouver, there also aren’t the same income opportunities in Revelstoke.

The MBM study of Revelstoke determined that 1,170 families, or 32.4 per cent of all tax filers in Revelstoke, fall below the low income threshold. “Housing is perhaps the most critical issue facing Revelstoke within the context of affordability,” the report states. Zacharias notes a spike in both rental and purchase prices since 2006. While the latter has settled down somewhat, rental prices haven’t. A one-bedroom apartment in Revelstoke has jumped from about $441 in 2006 to $669 in 2011 – a 52 per cent increase. Three-bedroom homes have gone up from about $592 at the start of the same period to between $1,000–$1,500 now, an 80–150 per cent increase.

Cost of food higher than Vancouver and even Whistler

Researchers studied food costs at local stores and compared them with similar studies from around B.C. Researchers visited local stores and noted prices for a long list of items, then compiled and compared the numbers. They found that food costs in Revelstoke are about 14 per cent above the provincial average. We’re about 6.3 per cent above Vancouver prices and 1.3 per cent higher than Whistler.

Many eliminated from Income Assistance rolls after Liberal government elected

The number of those on Income Assistance has trended upwards since the economic woes starting in 2008, but that’s nothing compared to the drops between 2000 and 2005 after the provincial government changed criteria to qualify. In 2000, 380 were on Income Assistance in Revelstoke. That halved to 180 by 2005 and has trended up to 190 since then. The report criticizes the provincial government for obstructionist procedures that made it difficult for people to connect with a slew of assistance programs they could qualify for. They note a lack of a central resource to access these programs. It falls upon community resources to assist those who have been forced out of provincial programs.

Employment Insurance numbers spike in 2009

The Revelstoke EI numbers followed a predictable seasonal cycle ranging from about 150 to 300 recipients annually. This lasted until 2009 when the numbers spiked. Now they range from about 300 to just shy of 500. (See page 12 for a story on more proposed changes to the EI program that could impact Revelstoke.)

Food Bank numbers spike in 2010

What happens after Employment Insurance runs out and savings are depleted? The Revelstoke Community Connections Food Bank experienced a marked increase in clients. The total number of clients between 2008 and 2010 was about 175. That started climbing in late 2010 and is now closer to 275 clients. Stated in another way, in 2006 there was a total of about 200 registered users; that number has spiked to 432.

Zacharias notes that a high percentage of food bank users are renters (67 per cent) struggling with increased housing costs. There’s also been an increase in employed people accessing the program, which Zacharias indicated could mean people are accepting lower-paying jobs or struggling with higher rents.

Social exclusion

~I really want to be part of the community, but financially it’s hard.

~I am too embarrassed to go to the food bank.

Those are two of many comments highlighting the unseen costs of poverty in our community. Zacharias said it’s important to think of the impacts to the broader community – impacts to businesses, social initiatives, community groups – of poverty. “One of the points of this whole project has been to raise awareness, that it could be you, it could be me, it could be your neighbour, it could be your mother. There shouldn’t be a separation within our society of the haves and the have-nots,” she said.

Many families, the report notes, are struggling to just get by. “They really don’t have any disposable income,” Zacharias noted, something that hurts local businesses.

Hidden homelessness on the rise

Couch-surfing and staying with friends are euphemisms for hidden homelessness. “Actually, there is homelessness in Revelstoke, and it’s a very serious problem for some people, and it’s not just the people who have chronic addictions ... it’s 38 families in three years,” Zacharias said.

The goals and recommendations

They’re too numerous to list here, but the report highlights dozens of locally-based initiatives designed to help Revelstoke take the lead on poverty.

Information sharing is key. Many are missing out on education grants, seniors grants and many programs designed to help. A multi-sector poverty coalition would take the lead and seek to improve access to resources. This could take the form of hosting workshops on specific grants, creating a survival guide for seasonal workers, or lobbying for improved government support for existing programs.

Improved access to affordable rental and emergency housing is another initiative. This includes subsidized rental housing for those under 55, more social sector representation on the Revelstoke Community Housing Society and many initiatives to encourage the City of Revelstoke to take an active role on the issue. This could be in the form of municipal land grants, encouraging secondary suites, revised density bonus policies and encouraging RMR to build staff housing.

Improved income security is another umbrella initiative encompassing several specific targets.

Food security is another focus. Support for the food bank and creating a task force to explore a food cooperative are two initiatives, in addition to more support for a host of existing supplementary programs.

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Zacharias is excited to work on the program, saying the municipal initiative is critical to help the community move forward. “I’m quite excited, as part of my mandate, about taking the lead on some of the initiatives – working with other community organizations ... to take the lead,” she said.

She adds the initiatives primarily focus on utilizing existing capacity better, but that, “some of them may have a little bit of a cost, but not much.”

“Other communities are already expressing interest on what we’re doing here,” she said of the Revelstoke initiative. But she’s careful to distinguish between tackling poverty at the community level versus allowing federal and provincial governments to abdicate their responsibility (as they’ve been doing for the past decade and more.)

“All community organizations across the province [need] to continually take the province, especially, to task over this,” she said. “We are seeing more and more people who are employed accessing the food bank. We are seeing more and more people who are employed  really having a hard time meeting their basic needs. But the people who are destitute are the people who are on income assistance and disability pension and who are not eligible to work, who have employment barriers. It’s crazy, actually, ... you try living on $906 dollars a month if you have a disability that makes you ineligible to work – and your rent is $600.”

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This story skips huge chunks of the report, which is in draft form. It’s well worth the read. Find it at revelstokesocialdevelopment.org. The public presentation of the draft report will be held on Monday, June 18 at 7 p.m. at the Revelstoke Community Centre.

 

 

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