Welfare office reductions prompts complaint to BC Ombudsperson

The B.C. government is making it harder for vulnerable people to access income-assistance according to nine community organizations who've filed a complaint with the BC Ombudsperson.

B.C. government is shifting to online services and call centres

Nine community organizations have filed a complaint with the BC Ombudsperson that reduced hours at government offices are making it difficult for many to access welfare services. (CBC)

The B.C. government is making it harder for vulnerable people to access income-assistance according to nine community organizations who've filed a complaint with the BC Ombudsperson.

The organizations, which include the Kettle Society and Atira Women's Resource Society in Vancouver, argue the province has shut down or reduced the hours of many welfare services offices across the province, making it more difficult for people to speak to staff in person.

"At it's core, it's really about vulnerable people effectively being shut out by welfare services" - Lobat Sadrehashemi, lawyer

"At it's core, it's really about vulnerable people effectively being shut out by welfare services," said Lobat Sadrehashemi, a lawyer with the B.C Public Interest Advocacy Centre which is representing the agencies. 

"Not because of any change in the law or because they've been explicitly excluded, but simply because of the way the welfare ministry has decided to design its services."

Shift in services

Over the last few years the Ministry of Social Development and Social Innovation has shifted the way it provides its services to relying more on call centres and encouraging people seeking welfare services to apply by phone or online.

But many low income people don't have reliable access to either, Sadrehashemi said.

"The organizations we represent have repeatedly raised these concerns with the Ministry," said Sadrehashemi. "It's fallen on deaf ears."

Since 2005, the Ministry has closed 14 offices and reduced operating hours at others — 11 offices located in northern  B.C. and the southern interior are now only open three hours a day.

B.C government says changes reflect feedback 

In a statement emailed to the CBC, Minister of Social Development and Social Innovation Michelle Stilwell acknowledges it may be challenging for many low income individuals and families to access modern technology, but feedback from ministry clients indicates a growing interest in services available over the phone and online.

The ministry argues it provides more flexibility on how, when and where people access services.

"In person or face to face services will always be available to clients who require it, as well as outreach services for the most vulnerable," said Stilwell. "If people have an urgent need — no matter how they contact us — help is immediately offered"

But Sadrehashemi says it's not enough to create greater access online while reducing access to staff face-to-face. She hopes the ombudsperson will recommend systemic change.

"Ultimately this is not an individual issue, it's the way the entire system is designed is shutting out people."

To hear the full interview with Lobat Sadrehashemi, listen to the audio labelled Welfare Access


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