It’s 11 a.m. on Wednesday, and Jagrup Brar has been home for two hours.
After spending 31 days virtually homeless, living on the province’s monthly welfare rate, the MLA for Surrey-Fleetwood is settling into his more familiar surroundings.
Donning sandals, slacks and a zip-necked pullover sweater, Brar reclines into a large leather sectional sofa in his 3,000-sq.-ft. foot Sullivan home.
It’s a far cry from the living conditions he’s been able to afford on $610 for the last month – the amount given to single employable people on social assistance who are looking for work. The month-long experiment was part of the Welfare Challenge put forward by a Vancouver-based group called Raise the Rates.
Brar accepted the challenge and lived for the month of January on $610, funded by Raise the Rates.
He’s lost 11 kilograms (24 pounds). But more significant than that, Brar says he has been permanently changed by his experiences on the street.
The most stark finding Brar discovered were the living conditions in Vancouver’s Single Room Occupancy buildings (SROs), where he resided for 15 days.
“Even if you have every skill possible you need to live your life, if you are put in that place, it is hard,” Brar says. “How can you take a shower if there are 100 people waiting for that shower?”
In addition, there are no facilities to clean clothes.
He notes obtaining work would be virtually impossible under those circumstances.
As a result, people living in SROs often resort to binning or begging to augment their low incomes on welfare.
However, current policy states that any money earned from other sources must be declared, and then is clawed back by the province.
Brar notes that anything less than a full-time job isn’t worth pursuing because of that policy.
And while Vancouver’s SROs were the most decrepit environment Brar came across, one of the most eye-opening discoveries for him was the high number of rooming houses in Surrey.
At the outset of his experiment, he fully expected to find those with low incomes renting mostly secondary suites in Surrey. But that form of accommodation paled in comparison to the number of rooming houses Brar encountered – with low estimates of about 200 of them in the city, many in disrepair and resembling abandoned buildings.
Rooms as small as three-feet by seven-feet were renting for $300 a month.
Brar says there is no doubt the lack of affordable housing is the number-one issue touching people living in poverty.
Initially Brar will be pushing for some policy changes that will help, but not come at a huge cost to taxpayers, including changes to the exemption of earning income while on welfare, improvements to child care and addressing poor working conditions for farm workers.
When Brar speaks of the myriad painful stories he’s heard over the last month, it doesn’t come as some political recitation. It comes from someone who seems to have really lived the experience.
He knows another battle lies ahead.
“This 31-day journey into poverty was somewhat difficult at times,” Brar says. “But the next part of my journey, which is making a positive change in the lives of those living in poverty, is going to be the hardest, I know that.
“But we can’t afford not to do anything.”
Brar blogged about his experiences at http://mlaonwelfare.com/
Other Leader stories about Brar’s month-long journey
- Welfare recipients wish Brar luck
- `What life is like on 610
- A Surrey MLA’s earnest bid to understand the plight of the poor (Editorial)
- MLA is running low on money
- Leader readers sound off
- Being Jagrup Brar
- COLUMN: Jagrup Brar is keeping it real