Dollars away from homelessness: The realities of renting on social assistance in Saskatoon

Mary Ann McLeod and her son Jonathan lived on the street for seven days last year after the squalid garage they were renting was condemned. They have an apartment now, but still only eat once a day.

The McLeods eat one meal per day and still sometimes fall short on rent

Mary Ann McLeod and her son Jonathan have been on social assistance for years, and try their best to make ends meet. They've found there simply is not enough to go around. (Bridget Yard/CBC)

Mary Ann McLeod and her son Jonathan lived on the street for seven days last year after the squalid garage they were renting was condemned.

They have an apartment now, but still only eat once a day.

Both are on social assistance and receive disability benefits, but they say it simply is not enough to stay housed in Saskatoon.

"Where the rent is cheap, it's infested with mice, cockroaches, rats, bats," said Jonathan, sitting in the two-bedroom apartment he shares with his mother.

The provincial government recently unveiled plans to phase out the Saskatchewan rental housing supplement.

It cited falling rental prices. That's not the reality in Saskatoon, Jonathan said.

"It's going higher, not down where we're looking."

'There is definitely not enough money'

When the McLeods were on the street in September, they felt they were out of options until a staff member from Saskatoon's Lighthouse approached them and eventually found them emergency housing.

"We didn't have money for places," said Mary Ann. "The way I thought about it was we have each other and we're trying to keep each other safe." 

The pair ate at the Friendship Inn and slept outside.

Jonathan and Mary Ann McLeod keep careful track of every expense, and review their files often, trying to squeeze the most out of their income. (Bridget Yard/CBC)

Now they live in Saskatoon's Meadowgreen neighbourhood, where they can almost afford the rent on a two-bedroom in a small apartment building.

The situation is tenuous, though, and they are approached regularly to buy or sell drugs, they say.

They're worried they'll be forced to move again soon, since they're having issues getting their rent from social services to the landlord. If they're evicted, they will lose their rental housing supplement, since applications won't be accepted after July 1.

Chandra Lockhart, executive officer of the Saskatchewan Landlords Association, said the organization understands the struggle, both for tenants on social assistance and landlords renting to them.

"Sometimes tenants have a hard time getting forms filled out, how to fill them out, where to bring them in," Lockhart said.

​The process is paper-heavy and may be difficult for someone who doesn't have a cell phone or a permanent address.

Chanda Lockhart, executive officer of the Saskatchewan Landlords Association, recognizes the unique challenges that come with renting to tenants on social assistance, but says a little education can go a long way. (Bridget Yard/CBC)

She urges landlords to be patient and to try to understand the process themselves.

"​I've sat down myself with many tenants and educated them on what we can all get if you check off the right boxes and fill out the right forms because sometimes, they don't even know," she said.

The biggest problem renting to tenants on assistance, though, could be the sum they receive from the government. 

"There is definitely not enough money and the ministry's answer is always 'call your social worker,' " said Lockhart.

"That is not the answer. It's a continual problem and it's going to get worse."

Affordable housing available, says ministry

The Ministry of Social Services is phasing out the rental supplement program, but says it has other programs to help people who need it.

"Over the last 11 years government has raised shelter benefits nine times and that increase amounts to from 11 per cent to 53 per cent depending where a person is," said Jeff Redekop, executive director of income assistance delivery.

The ministry also asserts there are a large number of affordable housing units available in the province.

"Our rents are based on the individual's incomes, or the applicable shelter rate depending on their source of income," said Diane Baird, who runs the housing network with the Saskatchewan Housing Corporation.

If a tenant still needs support, there are options.

"We encourage them to contact the Saskatoon Housing Authority to make applications for housing there. People should be aware also that the way in which people are prioritized for housing is based on need," said Redekop.

"Anyone who is in receipt of income assistance, if they have a challenge with cost of rent or any challenge meeting cost of living, we encourage them to contact their worker, contact the ministry so we can make sure they're receiving all the benefits for which they're eligible."

Sometimes, though, with every benefit accessed, it still isn't enough to make ends meet.

"We're on that incentive for $107 off our rent right now but that will be gone soon," said Mary Ann McLeod, speaking of the rental supplement program.

"We will have to use our own benefits to make it up."

That means less money for food and other expenses.

"We could be back on the streets," she said.

Lockhart said that, as a landlord, she understands the need to pay bills and keep a viable business, but also said others need to be flexible and accommodate their tenants wherever possible, especially since she expects things to get worse.

"We're going to see an increase in homelessness, an increase in crime and addiction. The government has put these most vulnerable people in a very tough place and for no reason."