Sask. advocates, landlords concerned imminent final changes to social assistance could spur homelessness

Landlords and advocates are concerned that changes to Saskatchewan's social assistance program will make things even more difficult for low-income people in the province.

Everyone on social assistance must be on Saskatchewan Income Support program by Aug. 31

The Saskatchewan Landlords Association and anti-poverty advocates are concerned that homelessness could be on the rise after changes to provincial social assistance. (David Donnelly/CBC)

The Regina Anti-Poverty Ministry (RAPM) is concerned that changes to Saskatchewan's social assistance program will make things even more difficult for low-income people in the province.

Announced in 2019, the Saskatchewan Income Support (SIS) program was touted as a way for people on assistance to become more self-sufficient.

Rather than having rent cheques paid directly to their landlords, the new program gives people a monthly cheque to pay their utilities, food and rent bills. The old Transitional Employment Allowance and Saskatchewan Assistance Program are being phased out, and everyone must be on the new program by Aug. 31.

RAPM advocate Peter Gilmer said people on the new program don't make enough money to meet their basic needs and it sets them up for failure.

He said a family with three or more children will only receive $1,150 to cover all of their rent and utilities in Regina and Saskatoon, and only $850 outside of the two largest cities.

"Frankly, if people think that this is a flexible program that helps with independence, we would suggest that members of cabinet try living on this program without any other supports," said Gilmer.

"The reality is that as long as the program is as inadequate as it is, people's ability to have control over their lives is extremely limited."

'We could see a massive onslaught of evictions': landlords association

Meanwhile, the Saskatchewan Landlords Association believes the program is driving up homelessness rates across the province.

CEO Cameron Choquette has been advocating for a return to the old system, where cheques are delivered straight to landlords.

He said that landlords who rent to people on assistance have seen their tenants' accounts go anywhere from 10 to 40 per cent in arrears already. 

Choquette worries the situation will get even worse by the end of the month. People still on the old programs are still getting their rent cheques delivered to their landlords, but that will change at the end of the month.

"We could see a massive onslaught of evictions due to rent arrears," he said.

"That would burden the temporary shelter system, but also in alignment with what the community support program is seeing, increase homelessness."

On Monday, Choquette brought his concerns to Saskatoon city councillors talking about reports of increasing homelessness in the city. The Community Support Program said its officers are seeing more and more instances of people sleeping outside in the city's downtown, often in unsafe circumstances.

Choquette said landlords have been worried about the new system for years and are finally seeing its effects.

"It really puts landlords in a tough spot because we'd love to keep these tenants," he said. 

"But unfortunately, without any rental revenue, we are financially unable to do so, which means that we have to proceed with an eviction and put somebody out on the street or in the shelter system."

Meanwhile, Gilmer said he has also seen instances of homelessness in Regina. He said he knows many people who are constantly on the brink of being out on the street.

"We've often said that for every one person who is dealing with abject homelessness, our office is dealing with 20 that are on the cusp," he said. 

"People are having to sacrifice the most basic of other needs to maintain a roof over their heads."

Gilmer said the situation is made worse because the new SIS program takes away many other add-ons, including a $200 per year gift subsidy as well as provisions for extras like school supplies.

"When this program was first announced, the one positive that we saw was an increase in the wage exemption, the fact that people would be able to keep $325 per month of earned income," he said.

"But this is really offset by the loss of all the special needs on the program, plus other forms of exemptions that people could receive on social assistance that are gone on this program." 

Transfer ongoing

According the the Ministry of Social Services, applications to the older programs stopped as soon as the new SIS program was launched.

In August, there were around 3,200 people still on the old programs, meaning about 13,100 households had been transferred to the SIS program.

The ministry said anyone being moved from the old programs to SIS are regularly contacted to tell them about the changes to the programs and given instructions on how to apply to SIS.

The SIS program offers a temporary stabilization benefit of $150 for people who have difficulty accessing stable housing due to challenging behaviour, the ministry said.

The program also offers an additional benefit  which includes moving costs and utility hook-ups — for people who have to move after a fire, due to interpersonal violence or after finding a more affordable place to live.

Finally, the SIS program offers an alternate heating benefit of $130 per month for clients who have to use heating fuel, propane, wood or electricity to heat their homes.