'We're on the front lines': Social agencies bracing for provincial budget

Faced with a projected deficit of $1.2 billion and an overall debt of $14.8 billion, the Saskatchewan government and its agencies have in recent months chopped funding to HIV programs, Indigenous policing and homeless shelters.

Sask. organizations say their programs pay for themselves many times over

AIDS Saskatoon executive director Jason Mercredi prepares a needle exchange kit at the group's office on 33rd Street. (Don Somers/CBC)

It's another busy morning on the front lines tackling Saskatchewan's high HIV rates.

At the AIDS Saskatoon office on 33rd Street, one worker checks on supplies in the needle exchange room. Another fries ground beef in the kitchen. Others are out making hospital visits or driving people to their medical appointments.

The number of at-risk families enrolled in just one of its programs has ballooned to more than 1,000. The organization helps hundreds more with treatment, employment or a hot meal.

Its needs are growing. Its budget is shrinking.

"You can get frustrated and feel like you're beating your head against the wall," said executive director Jason Mercredi.

Faced with a projected deficit of $1.2 billion and an overall debt of more than $14.8 billion, the Saskatchewan government and its agencies have in recent months chopped funding to HIV programs, Indigenous policing and homeless shelters.

AIDS Saskatoon executive director Jason Mercredi is hoping the government realizes the value in helping society's most vulnerable residents. (Jason Warick/CBC)

A government official said in an emailed response that funding for community-based organizations across the province has gone up an average of 12 per cent a year since 2007.

The official said these organizations "will continue to receive support from the government." In making its funding decisions, the government will weigh factors such as utilization and effectiveness of the services.

Helping the vulnerable saves money

Still, those who work with society's most vulnerable are nervous about the March 22 provincial budget. They say their programs constitute a small fraction of the total budget and pay for themselves many times over.

The Child Hunger and Education Program provided school children with 120,000 healthy breakfasts, 250,000 lunches and half a million snacks last year. More than 2,000 people now grow their own food in 42 of the program's community gardens. Its community kitchen program has taught hundreds how to cook their own nutritious, affordable meals.

The program's $1.5-million budget has not nearly kept pace with inflation or rising demand for its offerings, said executive director Yvonne Hanson. One third of its budget comes from the provincial government.

"We really depend on that. We're being very hopeful," Hanson said. "We're seeing people struggle even more than they have been."

AIDS Saskatoon funds cut

As for AIDS Saskatoon, one worker visits nearly 100 people per month in hospital. Many have no family or friends. Others are afraid of hospitals and have to be convinced to stay. Some can't afford basic hygiene supplies.

Funding for that worker and others has been reduced by the Saskatoon Health Region. AIDS Saskatoon's overall budget of $1.1 million will drop to $900,000 this year because of cuts at various levels of government.

"We connect people to HIV treatment. Every time you prevent an infection, that saves the government — and Saskatchewan as a whole — a lot of money."

Mercredi walks into the common area at AIDS Saskatoon. Several men chat over coffee. Another connects with his Facebook friends using the complimentary desktop computer. On the far wall, a giant red and white blanket contains dozens of patches with the names of those who've died.

Mercredi hopes the government will remember these people in its budget deliberations. He's not sure how AIDS Saskatoon will fund all of its positions, but the work has to continue.

"We're on the front lines. It's something we're committed to."

In advance of the March 22 provincial budget, the CBC is examining how people in Saskatchewan are impacted and possible solutions to the projected deficit.


Jason Warick


Jason Warick is a reporter with CBC Saskatoon.


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