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Relief money refuelling opioid crisis

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On the streets

RCMP Const. James Grandy, who serves as the Penticton detachment’s spokesman and mental health intervention co-ordinator, speaks to a distraught person outside Burdock House in May.

Fraudulently obtained COVID-19 relief payments have been creating chaos on the margins of society, says those who live and work there.

While waiting for the Soupateria to open Thursday, a man – whom The Herald agreed not to name because he’s describing illegal activity – confirmed people like him who normally don’t have a penny to their name are suddenly living large.

“Lots of dope in this town,” said the man, who also described an increase in drinking and violence associated with the $2,000-a-month Canada Emergency Response Benefit.

But aside from “a little legal weed,” said the man, who collects income assistance and describes himself as a street artist, he and his partner spent most of their CERB money on bikes, trailers and camping equipment they can use to wait out the pandemic in the bush away from society.

“We pretty much got ourselves set up for the summer,” he said.

Penticton RCMP spokesman Const. James Grandy said he’s heard anecdotal reports of criminality related to CERB payments, but was unable to provide any specifics.

The CERB program, which is meant to help workers who’ve been harmed financially by COVID-19, can be claimed for a maximum of four months. Applications are handled online with a simple attestation being all a person requires to sign up.

But while well-intentioned, the money has inadvertently refuelled the pre-existing opioid drug crisis, says the operator of the Burdock House and Fairhaven social housing projects in Penticton.

“In some buildings, we’ve seen double-overdoses in a day with the same person,” said Bob Hughes, executive director of ASK Wellness.

“And what we’re hearing is it’s not necessarily a different drug – these people have been using fentanyl in different potencies for years – the issue is they just have vast amounts of money.”

New data released by the BC Coroners Service this week showed there were 117 drug-related deaths in April 2020, up 39% from April 2019, although the report didn’t speculate on the reasons for the increase.

Social housing – including the 600 publicly funded beds operated by ASK Wellness in Penticton, Kamloops and Merritt – is by its nature intended for people on income assistance who are trying to get back on their feet and don’t, or can’t, work.

Staff at the facilities are there to assist residents with things like government paperwork, but Hughes said his workers have been instructed not to touch CERB applications due to the potential for fraud.

“We were clear right off the bat,” said Hughes.

He also made clear, though, that he’s not judging those who are bending the rules to cash in on Ottawa’s largesse.

“It’s a strange way to put it, but there’s a bit of irony to this: Many of these people have lived in destitute poverty – we only two years ago saw income assistance rates go from $610 a month to $700 a month – so this is like winning the lottery,” said Hughes.

“We’ve seen some people buying new furniture for their homes, we’ve seen people open bank accounts and try to get out of years of poverty, and that’s something we can hope that they can sustain and it’s a step out of the boiling pot of poverty and trauma.

“But what we also see is people with such severe addictions that have no ability to emotionally regulate or behaviourally regulate (receiving) what for them is a vast sum of money.”

Hughes is so concerned he’s written to three provincial ministers and the federal minister of national revenue to highlight the issue.

“We just want to see the province and federal government actually communicate with one another around the implementation and delivery of these funds,” he explained.

“The way that the CERB was set up, it didn’t ask a fundamental question: Are you currently receiving income assistance benefits from a province or territory?”

MP Dan Albas, who has been critical of the lack of the checks and balances on CERB money, believes it’s unlikely the federal government will be able to recoup all fraudulent payments when it starts auditing the program next year.

“As we all know, you can’t take blood from a stone,” Albas, a Conservative who represents Central Okanagan-Similkameen-Nicola, said in a phone interview Thursday.

Albas also noted some provinces, not including B.C., have begun addressing the problem by clawing back income assistance payments. At the same time, though, the Canada Revenue Agency, which administers CERB money, has been instructed to simply shovel out the cash and figure out what to do with fraudsters later.

“That’s the multi-million-dollar question: People that are already in extreme cases, will they have the income to pay this back?” said Albas.

The answer is yes, according to the CRA.

“As with other benefits administered by the CRA, we will undertake verification activities. The CRA has records of who received the CERB and for what period. These will be used, along with tax slips received from employers and other relevant information available to the CRA, to validate eligibility next tax filing season,” the agency said in a statement Thursday.

“Any payments found to have been made to an individual deemed ineligible will need to be returned. In cases where claimants are found to be ineligible, they will be contacted to make arrangements to repay any applicable amounts. These amounts do not carry any penalties or interest but must be paid back.”

Hughes suspects the only way for Ottawa to claw back ill-gotten CERB money from marginalized people will be via their quarterly GST rebate cheques or pensions, which would only add to their misery – and that’s if the CRA can even find them.

In the meantime, there’s little those in the social services sector can do but wait for the wave of aid money to recede.

“I know doctors’ wives that have apparently applied for (CERB) and received the money, so fraud is inherent with this thing,” said Hughes, “but the impact to this (marginalized) population is compromising their safety and well-being, and it’s making our job that much more difficult.”