Sask. workers caution CERB and provincial policy could increase homelessness

Saskatchewan people who work with homelessness worry about how the province's social assistance cutoffs and clawbacks will affect vulnerable people.

Dave Hobden says some clients were pressured to apply for CERB

Part of a cheque for the $2,000 Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), a taxable award from the Canadian government made every 4 weeks for up to 16 weeks to eligible workers who have lost their income due to COVID-19. (Chris Helgren/Reuters)

Dave Hobden fears Canada's emergency response benefit (CERB) — and Saskatchewan's response to vulnerable, low-income people who get it — could lead to more homelessness in the province. 

Hobden said clients who are on social services support were encouraged to access CERB. 

However, many of them didn't know that in Saskatchewan, the government claws back social assistance money dollar-for-dollar, depending on how much money the person received from CERB.

Provinces like B.C., the Northwest Territories and Yukon completely exempt CERB from social assistance programs and allow people to keep both.

"Even more alarming to us is the fact that these are very, very high risk clients that have been victimized for years, many of them are still being victimized by this money, by people applying on their behalf or with them," said Hobden, manager of YWCA Homeward Bound Housing Supports in Prince Albert. "They get a small portion of it and then the rest is just given away and literally stolen from them." 

Hobden said clients' money has gone to family members or drug dealers. Some clients who used to earn money as sex workers people are reporting further victimization as pimps encourage applications or apply on their behalf, Hobden said. 

He said many people aren't told of the consequences of applying. 

"They don't know that they're going to be cut off. They don't know that they're going to have no rent money, they're not going to have groceries — and it could be months before they're eligible again to get back to the ministry." 

He's identified 14 clients who were cut off social assistance benefits since getting CERB. Hobden said his organization will either have to suspend people from its program for not paying rent, which it doesn't want to do, or pick up the costs of rent. 

"The provincial policy that we're currently working under is actually going to create homelessness," said Shane Pelletier, a co-ordinator with the Provincial Métis Housing Corporation, a group that administers federal money to tackle homelessness in Saskatchewan. 

Pelletier said a new policy should be developed, like a repayment plan, so people aren't just cut off. 

"We're kicking people off of income support. We're kind of taking their lifeline away from them in the immediate but in the context of COVID, that just adds this new layer of concern." 

Pelletier said that "housing is healthcare." He said it reduces the toll on hospitals if people can be isolated in a safe home, instead of having to deal with an outbreak at a crowded shelter.

Dave Hodben said that for the majority of the population, CERB is excellent, but he’s worried it might lead to more homelessness for vulnerable people. (Bridget Yard/CBC)

Hobden wants to see change at both levels of government. He said there needs to be better checks and balances for the CERB application process and "harsher penalties" directed toward people who took advantage of others. He also doesn't think there should be a "blanket" approach to cutting people off or clawing money back provincially. 

"The overall community costs are going to be far greater than just the six or eight thousand dollars that each one of them received."

The federal government said in a statement that Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough "has advocated strongly for provinces and territories to allow CERB to complement provincial income support in order to best support Canadians, especially vulnerable Canadians during these difficult times, and our position on this matter remains the same."

CERB "is intended to be a wage replacement program" like employment insurance, so the province considers CERB non-exempt income, which "will be deducted from income assistance benefits dollar-for-dollar, like EI and Canada Pension Plan," said Doris Morrow, executive director of income assistance with the Saskatchewan Ministry of Social Services, in an emailed statement.

"If the CERB income exceeds a client's needs, the client will not receive provincial income assistance benefits for that period of time they are considered self-sufficient due to this income." 

The Ministry of Social Services would not say how many people have been taken off income assistance programs. 

"There are a number of challenges with compiling the data from the various systems that are used to administer income assistance programs, and the impact of lessening reporting requirements as part of our pandemic response," it said.