'I spent the weekend crying': Sask. residents deal with Social Services changes

Karen Swan is currently living with a brain tumour, anxiously waiting for surgery. She also doesn't know if she'll be able to afford bills in the next few months.

'I can't tell you how many times I have been called welfare bum': Saskatoon woman

Karen Swan is personally affected by the latest government cuts. (Rosalie Woloski/CBC)

No one can see the disabilities Karen Swan lives with every day.

The Saskatoon resident is currently living with a brain tumour, anxiously waiting for surgery. She also suffers from PTSD and agoraphobia.

"The scary thing is that I've been waiting for surgery," Swan said. "It was about four months ago that I signed the consent for the surgery. And I'm still on a waiting list, not knowing when I'm going to have the surgery. There still is no date."

On Friday, Swan received more bad news in the form of a letter from the government. 

Changes to some Saskatchewan social assistance supplement programs will result in about 2,700 people seeing a reduction in benefits. According to the provincial government, that's about 3.9 per cent of all income assistance and income supplement cases.

I don't know what I'm going to do. Am I going to have enough money?- Karen Swan

Swan is one of those people.

"It's pretty scary. I spent the weekend crying," she said.

One of the changes by Social Services includes plans to remove the exemption of the Saskatchewan Rental Housing Supplement when calculating benefits for those who are receiving extra or excess shelter benefits under the Saskatchewan Assistance Program (SAP) and the Saskatchewan Assured Income Disability (SAID) program. The change could start as soon as Oct. 1.

Swan currently receives financial assistance from SAID. She the changes will result in a loss of "a couple hundred dollars" per month.

"I don't know what I'm going to do. Am I going to have enough money? I live in a Sask. Housing unit already, and it's a market value unit. And it's already more than what I am allowed for rent."

'Abhorrent of the government': Regina man

Social Services Minister Donna Harpauer. (CBC)

Mark Harding is in a similar situation in Regina, although he said he's only been on the SAID program for the past "couple of months". 

He also receives the same benefits as Swan, but said his letter told him he will "no longer receive the extra shelter benefits." Harding said they are coming to an end on Oct. 1.

On Tuesday, Social Services Minister Donna Harpauer said the current system allows some people to get extra money with both a rental housing supplement plus "excess" allowance under the disability program.

We're not double-dipping. We're just getting a little extra money to help pay for the absurd rents that we have to pay.- Mark Harding

"We are now saying that we need to take all of them into account when calculating the amount that you would get," Harpauer said. "It would still be above the normal to acknowledge your special circumstances, but in some cases right now we have some receiving more for shelter than their rent is, because they've stacked or double-dipped"

The 54-year-old groaned when he read that quote.

"That's absurd. I don't buy that at all," he said. "We're not double-dipping. We're just getting a little extra money to help pay for the absurd rents that we have to pay."

According to the provincial government, SAID benefits have increased four times since its creation in 2009 — $927.6 million in total, $210.4 million in 2015-16. Social Services said that number will dip to $210.1 million in 2016-17.

Still, Harding said he can't understand anyone "buying into" such a change in social assistance programs.

"Saskatchewan isn't a province like that. We take care of people that are vulnerable."

Calling the changes "very cruel", Swan said people with disabilities shouldn't be punished to find budget efficiencies

"I think that the disabled people didn't create the deficit, but they're being the ones that are expected to fix it," she said.

Affordable housing an issue in Saskatchewan

People impacted by changes to Saskatchewan social assistance programs say the prices for rent in Regina and Saskatoon makes matters worse. (CBC)

"In the letter, they go on about how rents went up when there was a severe shortage of rental properties. And then, in recent months, the rental market has improved and now there are more options available across the province."

While Harding recognized that Regina's vacancy rate has improved in recent years, that's not what he finds bothersome.

"The rents are still high. They haven't really changed at all," he said.

There has to be other savings they can find to fix their deficit, and not come after us. I mean, that's just as low as it gets as far as I'm concerned.- Mark Harding

"For people like myself on the SAID program and the others, if we have to move, we're not going to find anything compatible that's cheaper. It's just not there. These places aren't there."

Swan agreed regarding her situation in Saskatoon.

"I could move. Now, when I move, the problem is I will be allowed around $600 for rent. In Saskatoon? It's not happening," she said.

"I don't want to be infested by bed bugs. We went through that when we moved into Sask. Housing here and that was not fun."

Unlike Swan, Harding said what he is currently receiving from the government covers his bills. But he doesn't know what he's going to be receiving on Oct. 1. If it's not enough, Harding said he'll have to try to break his current lease.

"I just think it is abhorrent of the government here to be attacking people on, that are disabled," he said. "I mean, there has to be other savings they can find to fix their deficit, and not come after us. I mean, that's just as low as it gets as far as I'm concerned."

'I'm going to be sunk'

Claiming to be a "master budgeter already", Swan doesn't know where she'll find extra money. 

"Being creative is what I do," Swan said with a laugh. "Sometimes it's robbing Peter to pay Paul. And it's not necessarily that I don't know how to budget, it's that there's just not enough money, period, to budget."

Harpauer promised every client will have an opportunity to review their benefits with their case worker. Swan didn't find that comforting.

"It's going to mean that I'm actually paying more out of my food and necessities budget for rent. I'm going to be sunk," Swan said.

"I'm scared I'm going to end up on the street with my birds."

The social assistance and disability stigma

Both Swan and Harding said there is a stigma with both suffering from a disability and collecting social assistance.

"I can't tell you how many times I have been called welfare bum," Swan said.

"I have seen people who are trying their darndest and they feel hopeless because they can't seem to get ahead, and can't seem to get out of the system. They feel demonized and put down because they're getting this assistance."

I'm scared that there would be backlash because I've spoken out.- Karen Swan

Harding read a lot of the comments regarding this story on social media, and it bothered him.

"There's so many people out there that when they hear disabled, they think wheelchair and that sort of thing," Harding said. "Not all disabilities are visible. You don't see them."

Swan said even talking publicly about this issue is difficult.

"I deal with major headaches every day and it's difficult for me to do this," she said. "And I'm scared that there would be backlash because I've spoken out."

About the Author

Peter Mills

Peter Mills is an Associate Producer with the Morning Edition on CBC Radio One in Saskatchewan. Follow him on Twitter @TweeterMillsCBC. Do you have a story idea? Email peter.mills@cbc.ca.