The perils of poverty for the physically disabled

Low-income accessibility is often an afterthought.

Support coordinator Adam Craft stands inside Metro Non-Profit Housing’s support centre. - JACOB BOON
Support coordinator Adam Craft stands inside Metro Non-Profit Housing’s support centre.

PAXnorth church has nine steps leading up to its front doors, and no ramp.

That’s why some community members were upset when the venue, at 5568 Cunard Street, was chosen for the Affordable Housing Association of Nova Scotia’s annual memorial.

“It came as a total surprise,” says Claudia Jahn, program facilitator at AHANS. She didn’t realize the church wasn’t easily accessible until people began complaining and she visited the venue.

The AHANS holds an annual memorial to honour Haligonians who have passed away while living in poverty or homelessness. It’s held at a different host church each year, and it’s meant to welcome everybody. Many adults who are homeless or experiencing poverty have limited mobility and require canes, walkers, wheelchairs or motorized scooters to move around.

“When it became apparent that this would exclude community members from attending it was decided to seek an alternative location,” Jahn says.

The issue was resolved quickly—the memorial will take place at St. George’s Round Church—but it is indicative of the greater structural problems facing those experiencing poverty and limited mobility in the city.

Bonnie Barrett, who uses a walker, waited for three years to get into affordable housing on Gottingen Street. “I can’t walk very far, so it’s easier for me to live here because it’s closer to everything I the food banks,” she says.

But even buildings equipped with elevators or ramps can pose problems.

“I’m up on the fifth floor, and if anything happens, if there’s a fire or whatever in the building, I have to wait for somebody to come get me because I can’t do the stairs,” Barrett says.

There are other problems outside the home: “It’s really hard to get around,” says Barrett. “Some bus drivers won’t lower their bus so that disabled people can get on.”

Murdena MacDonald, another tenant of Metro Non-Profit, stopped using her walker because people would yell at her on the bus. “They’d say, ‘You’re in the way,’” she says. “So I use a cane now.”

“Any struggle that a housed person would face, that has a physical disability, would be amplified by homelessness or poverty,” says Adam Craft, coordinator of the Metro Non-Profit Housing Support Centre. Structural discrimination issues may be little individually, but they add up.

“It’s death by 1,000 cuts,” says Craft. “People with physical disabilities can sometimes be an afterthought.”

The struggles are many and varied. Money is one obvious problem. Kathleen Decker relies on Income Assistance and disability benefits. But, she says, it’s never enough.

“They don’t give you enough money to live on—to pay rent and your bills, and buy groceries for a special diet.”

A single renting adult on Income Assistance in Nova Scotia gets less than $800 a month, and $535 of that has to go towards rent. That leaves less than $300 for things like groceries and bills.

“There’s a lot of economic disparity there,” says Craft. “People who have physical disabilities have a hard time participating in the economy in a financially viable way.”

Housing is also an issue. Nova Scotia is an old province, and Halifax’s buildings reflect that. Most weren’t built with accessibility in mind.

“From a private landlord perspective, there isn’t much incentive to house folks with physical disabilities,” Craft says. “Ramps aren’t sexy.”

The annual Affordable Housing Association of Nova Scotia memorial will take place December 22, at St. George’s Round Church on Brunswick Street.