Saskatoon

Residents and community leaders say poverty and homelessness on the rise in Sask.

Monday is the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. Inflation and rising costs of living are affecting everyone, but especially the more vulnerable in our society.

'It's expensive to be poor,' says a resident

Elder Lorraine Matechuck and her family in Regina have to choose between paying the rent or putting food on the table. They worry they are inching toward homelessness. (Don Somers/ CBC)

Lorraine Matechuck says she and her family in Regina are on the cusp of homelessness.

"Either I'm going to pay rent and bills or buy food. It's too cruel a scramble," she said.

"It's not getting any better, only getting worse. I'm depressed."

Monday is the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. Saskatchewan residents and community leaders say poverty is deepening in the province, with income support programs pushing more into food insecurity and homelessness.

Matechuck's family is on the Saskatchewan Income Support (SIS) program, which was announced as a way for people on assistance to become "more self-sufficient." Rather than the government paying rent and utility costs directly to landlords, SIS provides monthly cheques to people in the program. 

Matechuck and her husband receive $1,019 under SIS, and her son receives $850. Their rent is $1,120, leaving the family in a tight spot.

"We get threatened by utility companies and we were cut off for a month without hot water and heat," she said, noting that her husband needs hot water for his arthritis.

"Inflation is skyrocketing and I can't keep up with SIS. It's affecting young and old people."

Lorraine Matechuck says she does not want her grandchildren to have to see her become homeless. (Don Somers/ CBC)

Matechuck said her family has special dietary needs, and that grocery bills have risen to $600 from $200 due to inflation. She knows many, including her aunt, whose utilities have been cut off, forcing them to move into encampments.

"I don't want my grandchildren to visit their grandma in a tent. I'm scared I'll be going homeless," the 61-year-old said.

"The system is abusive to families, children and elders. It's based on neglect."

According to a 2021 University of Regina study, 19 per cent of Saskatchewan's population lives in poverty. The child poverty rate is even higher at 26 per cent, the second highest rate in the country.

The Ministry of Social Services said that in August, 35,525 people were on income supports. Of those, 18,590 were on Saskatchewan Assured Income for Disability (SAID) and the remaining on SIS.

"The benefits we provide are some of the most generous in the country," Social Services Minister Gene Makowsky said.

When questioned on the government's plan to alleviate poverty, Makowsky said the income support programs and the $500 Saskatchewan Affordability Tax Credit cheques "will help the folks."

"If you have a family with children, you receive much more. We work hard to have a good strong economy to be able to afford those expenditures. We have other support for children at risk," he said.

He noted that the cost of living is relatively low in Saskatchewan.

Saskatoon resident Karen Swan said Saskatchewan is miles away from eradicating poverty.

"Gene Makowsky may have been a good football player, but he has no clue when it comes to poverty," Swan said. 

The 60-year-old was born with one kidney and is on SAID. She lives with complex PTSD following abusive marriages, agoraphobia and panic disorder, and was recently diagnosed with a thyroid tumour.

"I also have a brain tumour. I've had two physical surgeries and a radiation surgery in Winnipeg. It's still there and can take me out any day."

'It's expensive to be poor'

Swan receives $1,200, of which $500 goes for affordable housing. 

"It's expensive to be poor. I can't go to the local Safeway. I go to Dollarama, Dollar Store and sometimes I'll go to Krazy Binz for their $1 and $3 days. I pick out my clothes from garage sales."

Swan said she should be eating healthy due to her health problems, but that it is too expensive.

"I can't afford that food, but somehow I'm the welfare bum bleeding the system dry. Bite me!"

Karen Swan says she cannot afford the nutritious food she needs. (Kayla Guerrette/ CBC)

Swan struggles to pay for gas to travel for medical appointments, let alone visit her son in Edmonton. Her other son is also on SAID and has "to prove every year to the government that he is blind," she said.

Swan said policymakers should try living on what SAID recipients are given. 

"The government should have some freaking compassion."

In Qu'Appelle, some 50 kilometres east of Regina, Arlo Yuzicapi is in the same boat.

The 63-year-old is on SAID due to her Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease. 

Yuzicapi receives $743 from said, due to being in rural Saskatchewan and on the Canada Pension Plan. With a rental subsidy of $173, she is "managing" her accommodation.

"I need physical support at home and have my youngest son living with me, who is on SIS. People assume it's cheap here, but we have to travel to get groceries and other services. That now at least costs $30 a trip."

Arlo Yuzicapi says it is difficult to make ends meet on SAID program even living in rural Saskatchewan. (Submitted by Arlo Yuzicapi)

Yuzicapi stockpiled frozen and canned goods during the pandemic, but they are running out.

"I'm not getting nutrition in my diet, with inflation increasing the prices, to keep me alive and enjoy my life," she said.

"I don't know how they expect any of us on SIS or SAID to live."

Yuzicapi said a $30 allowance for a phone is not enough for even basic plans.

"If you complain about it, you are told to be grateful," she said.

'Poverty is worsening in Saskatchewan'

The rates on SAID have not changed in the past seven years. Peter Gilmer, an advocate with the Regina Anti-poverty Ministry, is calling on the government to raise it. 

He said SAID beneficiaries have seen cuts to supports for rent and special needs since 2015.

Gilmer said these programs are furthering poverty and food insecurity in the city. The shelter allowance for both housing and utilities is $600 per month in Regina and Saskatoon, and $550 in the rest of Saskatchewan. Gilmer said these benefits do not improve with family size, as a family of three or more children only receives $1,175 for housing and utility costs in Regina. Saskatoon and the rest of the province receives $875. The basic adult allowance for other expenses is $315 per month.

He said previous programs had more categories to compensate for the increase in children. Now, families with three children or seven children receive the same amount.

"Poverty is worsening in Saskatchewan. While the cost of living is increasing, benefits aren't," he said.

Peter Gilmer says both SIS and SAID programs are inadequate. (Don Somers/ CBC)

He said the SIS benefit should be increased by $300 per month and that the province needs a long-term plan to raise people above the poverty line, as many are in debt.

"Both programs are inadequate, forcing people to make a choice between paying bills or having food," he said.

Gilmer said one in four children in Saskatchewan are below the poverty line.

A Canadian making less than $22,518 after tax is considered below the poverty line, according to data cited in a 2021 report from Campaign 2000, a national coalition of organizations that work toward ending poverty in Canada.

Gilmer said people on SIS do not meet "halfway to the poverty line," and those on SAID are thousands below. 

'Deadly winter approaching'

Len Usiskin, executive director of Quint Development Corp. — a not-for-profit that works to provide affordable and transitional housing in Saskatoon — said homelessness is proliferating.

"I've been working in the core neighbourhood for over 25 years now and never seen it this bad," he said.

Usiskin said encampments are popping up across the city, and with the closure of some beds at the Lighthouse, more are unsheltered. He said even minimum wage is nowhere close to a living wage in Saskatchewan.

"It's a very deadly winter approaching for homeless people in the city, with less shelter beds and more people looking," he said.

"We didn't have enough beds last year."

Len Usiskin worries it will be a deadly winter for the unsheltered. (Kayla Guerrette/ CBC)

Usiskin said shelter beds are short term and the government needs to work on long-term solutions.

"There is a big disconnect between the government saying their social policy is a success and what we are seeing on the ground."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Pratyush Dayal covers climate change, immigration and race and gender issues among general news for CBC News in Saskatchewan. He has previously written for the Globe and Mail, the Vancouver Sun, and the Tyee. He holds a master's degree in journalism from UBC and can be reached at pratyush.dayal@cbc.ca

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