Organizations working with vulnerable people in Saskatchewan are calling for changes to the Saskatchewan Income Support (SIS) program, claiming it is putting more people at risk of ending up on the street.
Demonstrations were held in Regina and Saskatoon, calling for changes to the program.
The SIS replaced the Saskatchewan Assistance Program (SAP) and the Transitional Employment Subsidy (TEA). Both programs closed on August 31.
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SIS has made things much more challenging for those in need of such financial support, according to Quint, a development corporation that helps people get a home.
Quint owns about 100 affordable rental housing units in Saskatoon.
“In September we discovered that we had to issue 11 eviction notices,” said CEO Len Usiskin. “That is unprecedented for us.”
The main problem: SIS deposits money in the tenant’s bank account, where previously the money was sent directly to landlords and utility companies.
The new system means that SIS recipients are responsible for paying their bills themselves.
“In many cases, they don’t have the ability to make those payments directly,” Usiskin said, explaining that some tenants may be struggling with different situations, including debt, family situations, or mental health and addiction issues.
“People are falling behind on their payments, they are not paying the rent, they are using the housing allowance for other things.”
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Prairie Harm Reduction said Saskatoon is seeing more and more homeless people.
“We see them in alleys, we see them in vacant lots, and we have people if you drive down 20th Street in the morning, people who sleep on the sidewalk,” said Associate Director Kayla Demong.
“We have a visibly homeless population on a level that we have never seen before in this city.”
He said he is concerned that more people will continue to resort to living on the streets if the SIS is not repaired.
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Kristen Thoms, manager of Quint, shared how the program change has affected her clients.
She gave the example of ‘Johnny’, a man who agreed to previous financial aid from the province because he has an “acquired brain injury” that affects his memory and functioning.
With old income assistance, Johnny’s rent and utility bills were paid directly. But after some confusion, Thoms said Johnny was transferred to SIS.
“Your rent was not being paid to your landlord, it was being sent to him. Their public services were not being paid to the utility company and not in full, ”he said.
“Johnny is in our office last month crying, holding up the few dollars he has left and saying, ‘Look, this is all I have to rent.’
She said her October rent is not paid yet and Quint is working with Johnny to avoid being evicted.
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The Saskatchewan Homeowners Association said in October that 30 percent of SIS tenants did not pay rent and 12 percent paid only part of it.
Previously, this was only one to three percent of tenants, CEO Cameron Choquette said.
“It was not common for financial aid clients to have persistent arrears like now,” he said.
Quint said another problem that comes up is that many private landlords are saying they don’t want to rent to someone who charges SIS.
“Current SIS program policies make it very risky for homeowners … to rent to income assistance clients because it is very risky and has a great financial cost,” said Cameron.
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Advocates said trying to get people to help is also a challenge; Quint said employees are waiting for hours trying to reach someone from social services.
Prairie Harm Reduction and Quint are calling for the province to change the SIS so that utilities and rent are paid directly. They also want more social workers to be hired to reduce wait times for help.
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