Saskatchewan’s new income support program is forcing people to live on the streets due to fewer housing options, dwindling benefits and more bureaucratic red tape, according to one Regina social worker.
“I’ve been speaking with clients who are sleeping in cars and sheds,” said Shannon Harvey-Benoit, a registered social worker with AIDS Programs South Saskatchewan in Regina, told Morning Edition host Stefani Langenegger.
“Some are staying in camping trailers or abandoned houses because there is nowhere for them to go. There’s no affordable housing, and even if they are on this program, they can’t find rent within the constraints of what assistance is paying them.”
The Saskatchewan Income Support (SIS) program replaced the Saskatchewan Assistance Program on Aug. 31.
Under the new SIS program, clients are allocated a shelter budget and must pay rent and utilities themselves each month from the money they are given.
Under SIS, a single adult receives $575 a month for shelter and utiltiies, and another $285 a month for food and all other expenses. The cheapest housing available on Carmichael Outreach’s housing list was $650 for rent and utilites.
Previously, the province paid landlords directly for rent and also covered utilities, ensuring that housing costs didn’t fall into arrears and result in evictions.
Anti-poverty advocates, social workers and SIS clients are blaming the program for an increase in homelessness in the province, prompting rallies with people demanding changes in Regina and Saskatoon Wednesday.
“They are putting the full rental amount in the hands of the client, which is to give them more autonomy over their money. I understand that. But not all of our clients are able to manage their money appropriately,” Harvey-Benoit said.
In Regina, about 100 people are living in tents in Pepsi Park at Camp Marjorie, which was established this fall to deal with the increasing amount of homeless people in the city. A person living in the camp suffered a fatal overdose on Tuesday morning, according to one of the camp’s leaders.
Saskatchewan Minister of Social Services Lori Carr said she recently met with organizations supporting Camp Marjorie, which was named after a homeless Regina woman who died earlier this month
“We all agree we do not wish to see people camping outside as the weather gets colder. We are working with the City of Regina and community-based organizations to determine potential solutions that will keep people warm and safe,” Carr said in an emailed statement.
Jeff Redekop, executive director of income assistance with the Ministry of Social Services, said staff routinely visit the Camp Marjorie site and have moved four people into stable housing, and helped 28 people fill out applications for social housing.
“Since Oct. 12, we have provided service to 127 individuals, including applications to the Saskatchewan Income Support (SIS) and Saskatchewan Assured Income for Disability (SAID) programs,” Redekp said in an emailed statement.
Under SIS, landlords aren’t guaranteed rent payments and are using loopholes, like requiring several references, before renting to SIS clients, Harvey-Benoit said.
For people couch surfing or living a transient life, getting a list of references is a significant barrier to renting a home, Harvey-Benoit said.
It’s a mess.– Shannon Harvey-Benoit
Harvey-Benoit, who as a registered social worker is meant to be spending her days dealing with the opioid crisis, now finds her time consumed with helping people navigate the SIS program.
“It’s a mess. I don’t think that income assistance is really set up in a way to help people gain that stability in their lives.”
9:29Registered social worker sees firsthand the problems clients having accessing income support in Saskatchewan
Equally frustrating for clients and workers is that new SIS clients are no longer given a social worker when they enrol in the program, she said.
Instead, they must call into a centralized call centre which handles appointments and client concerns.
Harvey-Benoit said there is one number for the entire province and no direct lines for individual workers, and a missed appointment could result in a client getting their benefits put on hold.
“I’ve called with clients before and been told we were number 63 in the queue,” Harvey-Benoit said.
“If their call volumes are too high …there’s a recording that comes on. It says, ‘Sorry, we’re experiencing too high of call volumes. Please call back later’ and the line hangs up.”
SIS clients often don’t have easy access to computers, email or even phones, Harvey-Benoit said, making an already difficult process nearly impossible.
“If I have clients who come in in the afternoon and we call in, we just know right off the bat there’s no way that we’re getting in to speak to anyone because the lines are just so busy,” she said.
Harvey-Benoit said the province needs to return to the previous method of paying rent directly to landlords and helping cover utilities to curb the current homeless crisis.