Homelessness deepens as social aid rejigged: advocate
After almost a decade with Carmichael Outreach, Doreen Lloyd says she has never personally seen Regina's homelessness situation as bad as it is today.
A housing support supervisor, Lloyd said as programs have been phased out through the pandemic, homelessness has increased dramatically in the city.
“It's very visible,” she said. “This is the worst I have ever seen it.”
Lloyd said a growing number of people have simply taken to staying in tents in the city as they are priced out of rental properties or turned away from assistance programs.
She believes the situation worsened when the provincial government scrapped the Social Assistance Program (SAP) and the Transitional Employment Allowance (TEA) program at the end of August and brought in Saskatchewan Income Support (SIS).
“This is just another wrench to make it more difficult for folks and for the agencies trying to find housing for folks,” contends Lloyd.
In an emailed statement, the Ministry of Social Services said it's working closely with clients to help them manage the change.
Those who were on TEA or SAP weren't automatically transitioned to SIS, so if they failed to apply for the new program they would be without benefits.
“What we're finding is that a lot of our folks who are vulnerable and weren't on the disability program are not paying their rents,” said Lloyd. “It sets people up for failure.”
In its statement, the ministry said, “our staff help clients learn to manage their benefits, budget for household expenses and work to make changes in their lives to reach their goals and become self-sufficient to the best of their abilities. This includes helping clients obtain a bank account, set up automatic bill payments and establish repayment plans if they fall into arrears.”
Carmichael Outreach has a housing list published every Monday comprised of postings from online and from rental agencies advertising properties for rent.
“A lot of times now if you go down the list, people automatically say `we don't rent to people on SIS,'” said Lloyd.
In Regina, many of Carmichael's clients are in a lurch, either unable to get onto SIS or once enrolled in the program, they struggle to navigate it.
“It's not working. We've been telling the ministry this since day one. It's a nightmare for a lot of our folks,” said Lloyd.
The SAP program directly paid rent to landlords and utilities to the Crown agencies, taking it out of the individual's hands and guarantying that rent was paid and shelter was provided. With SIS the money goes to clients, who are then responsible to pay their own rent and utilities.
“They're allowed $285 for a basic allowance, which consists of their food, their transportation and their clothing and their utilities,” said Lloyd.
Another hiccup in the program, according to Lloyd, is that it requires a cellphone or an internet connection to access the funds and to check in with support workers, and many of their clients have neither.
The ministry says that like any other citizen, SIS clients pay their rent, damage deposits and utilities directly to landlords and utility companies. “For clients who face challenges managing their own funds, ministry staff help them to make arrangements for a trustee. A trustee can be a friend, family member or advocate,” it adds.
The program allots $575 for shelter in Regina and Saskatoon. “Good luck finding something in the city for $575,” said Lloyd.
According to the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC)'S 2021 rental market report, the average cost of a rental in Regina is $1,061 while a bachelor suite specifically was $757 on average. On Carmichael's housing list for the week of Oct. 4-10 the cheapest available rent was $600. It isn't just a Regina issue. Cameron Choquette, executive officer of the Saskatchewan Landlord Association, said 31 per cent of income assistance renters provincewide had not paid any rent for the month of September.
Another 18 per cent had only paid a portion of rent.
“On average, chronic nonpayment of rent is rather small across the whole industry,” said Choquette, noting arrears ordinarily occur in two to six per cent of tenants.
“This SIS program is not working in Saskatchewan,” said Choquette, adding the failing is due to a number of barriers for those looking to access it.
By eliminating the direct payment of rent to landlords and money to utility companies, Choquette said the government is expecting tenants to learn “financial literacy and budgeting skills with very limited support from the Ministry (of social services).
“It's increased homelessness,” he said.
Choquette said the main thrust of the program is commendable, since he feels it attempts to increase the self-sufficiency of income assistance clients. But it's much harder, if not nigh-on impossible to do that if a person does not have their basic needs met.
“Housing stability really allows clients of all forms and walks of life to be safe, to be warm, so they can tackle other issues in life, whether it be mental health, addiction, domestic violence or any number of other issues,” said Choquette.
To fix the program Choquette offers a couple recommendations — bring back direct payment of rent and utilities, and ensure there are enough income assistance workers to meet clients where they're at, which is integral according to Choquette.
In its statement, the ministry said it continues to provide information and discuss the SIS program with community-based organizations, landlords and housing agencies.
“We encourage landlords to speak to tenants about setting up recurring direct rent payments, and to encourage their tenants to reach out for support from their income assistance worker who are here to help.”