Saskatchewan

Sask. government should go back to older support program rather than tweaking new one, recipient says

Saskatchewan's new social assistance program will be tweaked so that the social services ministry can make direct payments for rent and utilities on behalf of some clients who are at risk of homelessness.

Province announced changes to Saskatchewan Income Support program on Friday

Justine Yantz poses with her daughter, Serena. Yantz says it's been hard to make ends meet under the new Saskatchewan Income Support program. (Submitted by Justine Yantz)

A single mother in Saskatoon says she'd like to see the Saskatchewan government go back to its previous social assistance system, rather than implementing changes to its latest system.

"I felt like that [older program] was the most helpful for people," said Justine Yantz. 

She said she's struggled to make ends meet since the introduction of the Saskatchewan Income Support program, which replaced the Saskatchewan Assistance Program earlier this year.

Her 10-year-old daughter, Serena, has autism and has been diagnosed with myotonic dystrophy and intellectual disabilities.

In the past, when Serena got upset, Yantz would take her for a drive to help her calm down. But that's no longer possible. There's very little money for utility bills, let alone gasoline, Yantz said. 

"It's really rough with the change that they did.… We can't afford stuff that we used to, like to buy clothes every month, like groceries."

Change is coming

After months of criticism, the Saskatchewan government announced Friday that it would tweak the income support system. 

The social services ministry will soon be able to make direct payments for rent and utilities on behalf of some clients who are at risk of homelessness.

Changes to the Saskatchewan Income Support program were announced Friday, following protests such as the one pictured here in Regina in October. (Dayne Patterson/CBC)

Advocates and landlords had criticized the existing income support program, which gave recipients a shelter budget. They were then expected to pay rent and utilities themselves each month from that money.

Under the previous Saskatchewan Assistance Program, the province paid landlords directly for rent and also covered utilities, ensuring that housing costs didn't fall into arrears and result in evictions.

The Social Services Ministry says it will now provide direct payments of shelter benefits on behalf of "high needs SIS clients with complex challenges who are at risk of homelessness."

In late October, rallies took place in Regina and Saskatoon to demand changes to the income support program.

At the time, Len Usiskin, executive director of Quint Development Corporation — which owns around 100 affordable rental-housing units in Saskatoon — said he saw a "dramatic rise in homelessness" and that a lot of it was "directly attributable" to the social assistance program.

WATCH | Advocates say evictions have increased since new social program introduced:

Evictions rise after changes to Sask. social assistance program, advocates say

3 months ago
Duration 1:56
Advocates say changes to Saskatchewan’s social assistance program is leading to a rise in evictions because the money goes directly to recipients, many of whom can’t manage the money, instead of landlords. The government says the new program provides more independence. 1:56

The Saskatchewan Urban Municipalities Association even went so far as publicly voicing its concerns about the income support program earlier this month

It appears the backlash forced the province's hand. 

"Since the launch of the SIS program in 2019, we've been listening to feedback and reviewing the program to consider if it needed adjustments," Social Services Minister Lori Carr wrote in a media statement on Friday. 

"While the majority of clients have been successful in managing their money and paying their own bills, we recognize that some clients with high needs require additional support, and we're providing it."

Opposition NDP Leader Ryan Meili says the changes are a good start, but he wants the Saskatchewan Party government to increase the payments people receive. 

Saskatchewan NDP Leader Ryan Meili, seen here in an October file photo, says the government is leaving vulnerable people 'in a situation where they're either out on the streets or facing near starvation and unable to pay their bills.' (Alexander Quon/CBC)

"Everything — groceries, utilities, everything — is climbing. And yet this government continues to leave those who are most vulnerable in a situation where they're either out on the streets or facing near starvation and unable to pay their bills."

Under SIS, a single adult in Saskatoon and Regina receives $575 a month for shelter and utilities, and another $285 a month for food and all other expenses. 

There is no mention in the news release of whether the shelter allowance will be increased.

The province says there is additional money available above the basic amount, including through stabilization benefits, for some clients, such as those who are homeless or have recently transitioned to the program. 

The ministry said it's also investing an additional $113,000 in 2021-22 to expand money management and trusteeship services by 25 per cent, in order to help more people with complex needs.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Yasmine Ghania is a reporter for CBC Saskatchewan, currently based in Saskatoon.

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