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Calgary Fair Entry transit program not always fair to under-documented individuals, say advocates

Not every person within Calgary’s vulnerable population is able to access the City of Calgary’s Fair Entry program to obtain a discount transit pass in a timely manner.

That’s from advocates within the vulnerable population non-profit sector, who are asking for changes to the criteria that the City of Calgary uses to assess eligibility for the Fair Entry program.

“We’ve had people wait up to six months to get fair entry,” said Kelly Ernst, Vice President for Vulnerable Populations at the Centre for Newcomers.

At issue is the ability for under-documented individuals to access Registered Social Workers (RWS), who can provide documentation for the Fair Entry program that bypasses the need for documentation on income status from either the federal or provincial governments.

City of Calgary team lead for Social Support, Lisa Davis, told LiveWire Calgary that individuals phoning 311 receive their documents from a City of Calgary employed RWS, the time to receive documentation—and ultimately a low income bus pass—is nine-days.

Davis said that she has been in contact with the Centre for Newcomers, and that the nine-day turnaround period data came from a result of looking at the city’s processes from those conversations.

The timing through, said Ernst, is more complex than just nine-days between seeing a social worker and receiving paper work. He said he has been frustrated by the city’s response, because in his opinion it has only looked at the time from when the social worker has received the information to when a RSW letter is issued.

“If you phoned 311 to try to make an appointment with a social worker, 311 today told one of my employees that it’s a minimum four-month wait, and the reason being is you don’t get to a social worker directly.”

“What you have to do is first go to one department who will take your information and then schedule you in to the social worker, and then the social worker will then take you.”

Davis disagreed with Ernst’ assessment, stating that she wasn’t sure where the miscommunication was occurring.

City of Calgary said they are accepting a large number of income proofs

Ernst estimated that the number of people affected by this process numbered between the mid-hundreds to low-thousands: effectively a tiny population compared to the more than 100,000 people that currently have access to the Fair Entry program.

"That's great if you meet all the qualifications, but for the hundreds and thousands of people that don't meet the qualifications, it's not good. Because it's very, very inflexible."

He said that compounding factors include under-documented individuals not having the right identification. All of those pieces of documentation also take time to get, said Ernst.

"For example, if you're a refugee claimant that arrives in Canada and you've made your rapid screen, you can't immediately apply for Fair Entry. You have to wait for a number of processes to happen, and then you can phone 311."

Status of how a person enters the country can matter a great deal in how fast someone can get paperwork, and access the program said Ernst.

"If you are a government-assisted refugee, you come with permanent residency, you'll have a permanent resident card, and you'll get assistance right away," Ernst said.

"If you're outside of those categories as a refugee claimant—let's say you're Ukrainian, you've been bombed and you just flee the country and come to Canada, you arrive at the airport and you don't have all the official paperwork yet—you're not going to get fair entry."

Davis said that in the case of Ukrainians coming to the city, they are recognizing any of the income support documents and expedited recognition documents that the Province of Alberta has set up.

"We're seeing a large number of Ukrainians using those income proofs. So there's the AISH program, Alberta Works Income Subsidy, Alberta Works Learners, and Alberta Works Health Benefits," Davis said.

"They've set a specific form for the Ukrainians to expedite. They call it the Alberta Health Benefits, Ukrainian evacuee application form, and they estimate two to four weeks to receive that."

Another category of people that Ernst said would have difficulty getting Fair Entry are refugee claimants who are discriminated against by the federal government.

An example he used is LGBTQ people fleeing death threats from Iran.

"You're fleeing death threats, and somehow you land in Canada and you apply for asylum here because of the death threats. You're now a refugee claimant, and that's a refugee claimant category that is hugely discriminated against," Ernst said.

"Nobody's gonna look at you in from the federal government, until you get through your hearing, and the wait time to get through the hearing is a minimum of 21 months. So, you apply to get your refugee protection document—it's a piece of paper, that's basically your ID while you're in Canada while you're waiting for your hearing—that's going to take probably three or four months."

Davis said in the case of Iranian LGBTQ the process would be the same.

"We would make the offer to say we can do the RSW letter if you want to pursue that way, but we would do the education piece to say it's really best to get your Alberta Health Card application underway so that you can access some of those provincial income supports."

"It's going to be better in terms of receiving the provincial support, but also on our end, because then you're going to be able to use one of those various proofs."

Expansion of professions able to issue letters of low-income proof desired

Currently, said Ernst, the waitlist to see a social worker through the Centre for Newcomers is in the hundreds. Other organizations are calling the Centre asking for help because they're also over capacity.

The issues, he said, extend beyond just refugees and evacuees in the city.

"We're trying to set up in April, to discuss this problem among service organizations, because it's not just a problem with newcomers. There's other categories of people that just can't access this program," Ernst said.

"If you're homeless and you don't have ID, you're screwed. If you've missed a year of putting in your taxes, and you don't have your Notice of Assessment, you're going to be in big problems.

"There's all these barriers for people that the city is not thinking about."

He said that he's totally fine with an evidence-based system for Fair Entry. It's something Davis said the city employs as a result of the need to be accountable to citizens.

"There are finite resources that can be allocated to help people who are low income in the community. So we always want to make sure that the fee-reduced services and programs that are available are going to those most in need," she said."

Ernst said the additional expansion of the program is a small cost compared to the economic costs of someone experiencing homelessness, or relying on other social services.

Access to transit, he said, was the key to getting people employed and keeping them employed by being able to get them to work on time. It was also the key to ensuring that individuals are able to make regular appointments, like doctors' appointments or keeping appointments with immigration officials.

"When people see somebody on the C-train that is homeless, you can just go cha-ching, cha-ching, cha-ching," he said, imitating the sound of a cash register.

"This is costing us money. A tiny investment into something like Fair Entry is a drop in the bucket."

What Ernst wants is an expansion of the types of professions beyond social workers who can provide letters under the Fair Entry program.

Among those individuals would be a social services program coordinator at one of the province's resettlement agencies, along with doctors and lawyers who are regularly in contact with those under-documented individuals.

"It would really speed up the process. This idea of a four to six-month wait would be eliminated very quickly," Ernst said.

"The city can still control the training process. The city can still control which organizations are able to do this. They can still have people apply to do this, and they could even charge organizations to be a member of that particular group a small fee to keep it going."