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Living with disabilities, struggling to make ends meet, Halifax poet-comedian says system is failing him

Josh Dunn was finally getting paid for his poetry and he didn’t have to rely on his grandmother’s home-cooked meals to help him make ends meet. Dunn had reason to be optimistic back in August 2015.
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Josh Dunn was finally getting paid for his poetry and he didn’t have to rely on his grandmother’s home-cooked meals to help him make ends meet.

Dunn had reason to be optimistic back in August 2015. His application for a $6,000 Arts Nova Scotia grant had been approved, a solid followup to the success of his one-man play in 2013.

His life was moving forward.

But the grant turned out to be something of a curse. On the one hand, it provided three months of meaningful work, but on the other, he was promptly kicked off social assistance.

Dunn would have been entitled to a percentage of his allowance if the government considered the grant part-time work.

He said he lost his appeal to the Community Services Department to be compensated fairly and to remain on income assistance. He ended up having to reapply and was approved, albeit a month later than expected.

After paying $1,500 to an architect for drawings to accompany his poetry, he earned only $1,500 more than if he hadn’t worked and continued to receive his $900-a-month allowance. 

“It kind of scared me. I guess I expected a little more support,” recalled Dunn. “Through my work, I’m raising awareness. I think it’s very important, in general, to show that not only are people living with serious disabilities just like everyone else, quote unquote, but we can be extraordinary.”

To date, the province has provided few details on a four-year, $80-million poverty reduction plan it introduced during the spring election campaign.

Beyond pledging to increase income-assistance rates across the board, the government intends to offer a small break to people on assistance who are also working part time. Under the proposed plan, they would be allowed to earn $250 a month, $100 more than the current amount, before the government deducts 70 per cent of their earnings. The plan, which also includes a $20-million study, contains no timelines and does not work toward any specific targets.

Dunn, who copes with a number of serious disabilities, including cerebral palsy, a neurogenic bladder and chronic insomnia, is unable to work a regular nine-to-five job. He says the system is set up in a way that makes it difficult for him and others to get ahead financially if they find work.

After his bills are paid, Dunn’s left with about $20 a week for spending money. That figure would be essentially zero if not for the six home-cooked meals his mother and grandmother provide him each week.

Needing crutches and a scooter to get around, his mobility is severely restricted. His bladder condition can leave him bedridden with pain for hours, and he can go weeks with no more than a couple of hours of sleep a night.

The government does pay for some extras, including the cost of medical-related transportation and a partial subsidy for his landline phone, but he must submit a doctor’s note each year to the department saying he has cerebral palsy, a condition he has had since birth.

He is in favour of some kind of a guaranteed income plan, such as the pilot project recently introduced by the Ontario government. Eligible single low-income earners receive a minimum annual payment of $17,000, and up to an extra $6,000 for people with disabilities. The three-year project is restricted to the Hamilton, Lindsay and Thunder Bay regions.

“People should be able to have as much freedom as possible. Give people enough money so they can live decently, with as much dignity as possible.

“I have my challenges, but it would be nice to have a little more freedom, feel a little more normal and more included in society.

“When you’re healthy and able-bodied, it’s easier getting a job, dating, managing your daily chores and simply being in control of your own body. People often say, ‘At least you have your health,’ when things are going bad. That’s no small thing, but it’s often taken as a small thing.”

Christine Saulnier, the provincial director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, says the province’s plan isn’t comprehensive enough, and it doesnt includes enough money to significantly improve the lives of people living on social assistance.

The centre released an alternative provincial budget in May that calls on the province to invest $74.5 million to address poverty reduction in 2017 alone. Among other investments, it includes $20 million to increase income-assistance rates, as well as $16 million to allow part-time workers to keep more of the money they earn.

Saulnier said study after study shows income-assistance recipients do not have enough money to meet even their basic needs. She pointed to a 2017 provincial study authored by Mount Saint Vincent University’s Food Action Research Centre that shows income-assistance recipients fall well short of having enough to meet nutritional standards.

The report states that for Dunn, a single disabled man, to meet his basic requirements he would need a monthly allowance of $1,472.18, which includes a $321.92 food stipend.  

“That’s basic. We need to substantially increase income-assistance rates, recognizing that people cannot live with the money they’re currently getting on assistance," said Saulnier. "People can’t even lift up their heads and even look for work if they are capable of working. It’s not possible in the current system.

“That money, they’re spending it, every cent of it. It’s going to be out there supporting businesses in our economy because people need to spend it. They need to spend it on food. They shouldn’t be going to food banks.

“Income is the No. 1 determinant of health care. We need to look at income. We need to lift people out of poverty. If we don’t we’re still paying for that, paying for an income-assistance plan that is not what it needs to be. We’re paying via increased health care, increased crime in our communities.”

Despite several attempts by Local Xpress to reach her, Community Services Minister Kelly Regan has been unavailable for comment since taking over the portfolio June 15.

Regardless of what the province’s poverty-reduction plan looks like, Dunn plans to stay busy.

He is a comedian. Yuk Yuk’s still calls on him to do a few paid gigs and he enjoys sharing his talent at different open-mic nights around town. He also continues to apply for grants, hoping to secure one for his memoir. It remains a work-in-progress.

“If I’m not trying, then I can only blame myself," said Dunn.

“Maybe I’m not going full tilt at all times because I haven’t slept in two weeks, so I’m not at my best, but by and large, I am trying and I want to be in the game simply because I believe I have a lot to offer.”



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