Saskatchewan

Income support change meant to give recipients control over money may create more problems: advocates

The Ministry of Social Services says it wants to give people on a new Saskatchewan Income Support more self-sufficiency and agency over their money. But some say for those with addictions, it could be the wrong move.

'They'll spend it on addictions or they'll just spend it because they don't understand' warns YWCA CEO

Saskatchewan's Ministry of Social Services says changes to its social assistance programs are intended to give recipients more agency, but some advocates worry they may inadvertently make it more difficult for some people to pay their bills. (Corepics VOF/Shutterstock)

The Saskatchewan government says it wants to help people on social assistance become more self-sufficient and have greater control over their money — but non-profit organizations and landlords warn changes to assistance programs could backfire, resulting in evictions or homelessness when people struggle to pay their bills.

The province's new social assistance program will see a shelter benefit given to recipients — rather than having money automatically applied toward their housing costs.

That's a concern for Shawn Schlechter, who owns Shawn's Property Management in Regina. He says he already deals with issues where people spend rent money to support their addictions. 

"We have a lot of really honest tenants in our company, and they would actually come up to us ... and say, 'Sorry, I got paid, [but] I couldn't make the extra payment that I owe you. I went out and I spent my money on booze or drugs,'" he said. 

"And we respect them for being honest with us. So we give them a little bit more help. But you're going to see that more and more and more."

Shawn Schlechter owns a property management company in Regina. (Samanda Brace/CBC)

In July, the Ministry of Social Services began a move to what it describes as a more streamlined assistance process with a new program called Saskatchewan Income Support (SIS).

Meanwhile, two other programs — the Saskatchewan Assistance Program (SAP) and the Transitional Employment Allowance (TEA) — stopped accepting new applications as of July 15. People currently on those programs can keep using them until they're would down in 2021, or can choose to move over to SIS.

As part of the changes, the ministry is moving toward giving people agency over their money for basic needs. Under SAP, recipients had the option of having rent paid directly to a landlord. Under SIS, that option is gone for most recipients, who will get shelter benefits paid directly to them.

The province says the new system "will help transition clients to greater independence."

But Donna Brooks, CEO of the YWCA in Prince Albert, is worried about what will happen when the existing programs are phased out in 2021, and what that will mean for clients applying for the new Saskatchewan Income Support. 

Donna Brooks is CEO of the YWCA in Prince Albert. (Bridget Yard/CBC)

Her non-profit organization operates two shelters, as well as a housing first program. Right now, they work with roughly 90 clients who are still getting support from the old program.

Some clients have proven time and time again that they're unable to manage their own money, no matter how much support they get, she said. 

"They'll spend it on addictions or they'll just spend it because they don't understand, [and] they're not able to pay their bills," she said.

The former system was working, she said, and over time, the YWCA has been able to help people move toward self-sufficiency.

"I just don't understand why they would suddenly change that. It is frustrating."

Working toward self-sufficiency: ministry

Jeff Redekop is the executive director for income assistance service delivery with the Ministry of Social Services. He said the changes were driven by clients, and thinking about what's best for clients.

"We needed to be working with them in a different way to help them become successful," he said. "It's all about, of course, helping people meet their basic needs while they work to become self-sufficient, to the best of their ability." 

The new process is less focused on paperwork and compliance, and more focused on supporting clients, he said. Part of that is about directing people to the right kind of income support.

People grappling with addictions may be eligible for the Saskatchewan Assured Income for Disability, for example — a program which is unchanged under the new Saskatchewan Income Support system. It's available for those with "permanent or enduring" disabilities, which potentially includes additions, said Redekop.

There are people currently dealing with addiction issues who receive support through the disability program, he said, but he couldn't provide an exact number.

As to Brooks's concerns about what happens to the YWCA's clients in 2021, he said he expects some will already be self-sufficient by that point.  

"We will certainly develop a plan to ensure that people are well supported when that time comes," he said. "We'll have a lot more experience with the new program when that time comes as well." 

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