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The Frustration of Welfare

O ne pumpkin-coloured wall mocks the dull interior of the Victoria Employment and Income Assistance office on Pandora. It’s broken up only by an IKEA frame of a Venice landscape and a poster of a bleak snowy fence.
Welfare recipients line up for their monthly cheque outside the Victoria Employment and Income Assistance office on Pandora Ave.

Ministry of Social Development and those in need

face strain under the weight of heavy demand

O ne pumpkin-coloured wall mocks the dull interior of the Victoria Employment and Income Assistance office on Pandora. It’s broken up only by an IKEA frame of a Venice landscape and a poster of a bleak snowy fence.

Of the 30 or so people in line at 3 p.m. on “Welfare Wednesday” — the day cheques are issued — the demographics are varied. Middle-aged men don construction, military and hunting gear; young women hold babies, while a few older ones cradle canes. Some patrons loom heavy in the doorway, while others hide their faces, too thin to be healthy. After minutes turn to hours lost in line, many stare grimly at the grey walls, blinking against the fluorescent glare off blue laminate flooring.

Mike, a 49-year-old computer technician, says that when he discovered his Employment Insurance (EI) would run out at the end of last year, he immediately applied for social assistance. But after applying online, he heard nothing back for weeks. He was short on rent, bills were piling up and he was getting concerned. Mike decided to visit the office in the first week of January. They booked him an intake appointment for Feb. 1 — meaning the process would not even get started until his rent was overdue.

Mike — who doesn’t want his last name used because he’s concerned about his friends, potential employers and landlord finding out he’s in need of welfare — says that when the staff at the Employment and Income Assistance (EIA) office met with him, he was asked if he’d considered moving.

“I’ve been a resident here for 13 years, and I’ve built a life here in Victoria. I have my friends, my support network, my hobbies,” he says. “They say we’re out of this recession, but we’re sure still seeing consequences.”

Mike chatted with people at the Cool Aid Society to see if he’d qualify for funding to help with rental assistance, but the fund had expired for the month. He decided to head back to the social assistance office a week later and, after waiting out the morning in line, he was able to express his need more urgently and booked an intake interview for Jan. 20 with a cheque promised shortly thereafter.

The EIA staff would not comment on Mike’s case.

Rolling in dough

The Ministry of Social Development vows, on their website, to serve new applications for income assistance eligibility within five business days. The website also states that people facing immediate need will receive same-business-day food, shelter and urgent medical attention, while general requests will be processed within one business day.

The ministry says that, during office hours, phone calls are answered by the fourth ring. After two weeks of being met with the message “calls are at a higher volume than usual; please check our website; your call will now be disconnected,” it seems safe to say the ministry isn’t meeting some of its goals.

Despite repeated attempts by Monday, Social Development Minister Kevin Krueger was not available for comment. However, a ministry spokesperson stated that “we take a balanced approach — a realistic undertaking between what is fair to our clients and what is fair to working British Columbians,” when it comes to setting income assistance rates.

The total provincial budget for income assistance for the 2010-2011 year is over $1.58 billion, up $57.8 million from last year. Currently, the number of people on income assistance in B.C. has grown by 15 per cent over the last year to 176,956 recipients. In Victoria, the caseload has hit 5,906, while the caseload for Vancouver Island is 26,277. 

“The current economy has placed greater demands on the province’s income assistance programs,” states the ministry. “However, the ministry remains committed to continuous improvement in compliance with its service standards and in providing eligibility appointments to individuals with immediate needs, and has made every effort to respond to immediate client needs during this challenging period.”

B.C.’s total income assistance rates are the third highest of all Canadian provinces for employable singles ($610 per month) and fourth for people with disabilities ($906). The ministry says the average monthly payment for an income-assistance case has climbed, since 2001, by nine per cent — or $98 — to $787 in 2009. The B.C. government has also been investing over $70 million a year in employment programming for income assistance clients.

While people like Mike wait around, the ministry says that in combination with the increase in need, they are currently in the process of implementing a new computer system, which has created some delays in providing service.

“We apologize for the inconvenience and expect that this will be short-term,” states the ministry. “However, it is important to note that reconsiderations involving requests for basic assistance, or urgent situations, are given priority to ensure we are not leaving those who have no means waiting.”

The ministry does offer an Immediate Needs process to ensure people who contact an EIA office have their immediate needs looked after in the timeliest manner — from food vouchers, hydro assistance and shelter referrals to urgent medical care and prescriptions.

The ministry admits that applicants who present in person at a local office are often assessed the quickest.

Cheques and imbalances

Back at the Pandora office, one woman makes small talk chatting with bystanders in line about the week she’s had. She laughs about getting drunk and singing karaoke at the Upper Deck that night. A man with a cane waits for almost an hour before a staff member comes over to tell him: “Sir, your cheque’s gone out in the mail—you should get it in the next day or two.” He nods a thank you and leaves.

Mike says that, for the people who are already uncomfortable with reaching for handouts, it sends the wrong message.

“The first time you go into a welfare office, you realize what a depressing environment it is,” he recounts. “There’re no inspirational messages or uplifting artwork on the walls, it feels roughed up and derelict, there are no toys for children to play with, no easily-accessible bathrooms and everything’s grey. It just feels like no one really cares.”

Mike says he felt out of place, but couldn’t help but marvel at the reasons people were there.

“Everyone has a different story, whether to do with broken homes, abuse and addictions, a poor season out of work, or just a steep raise in rent,” he says. “But a lot of people in there did have what I have now. These aren’t people who have never known wealth. These are people just like me.”

Don McTavish, manager of the Cool Aid’s Shelter Program, sees a lot of people one step away from Mike who’ve exhausted all their resources.

“People come in to our shelters, and they’ve been couch surfing for a while and maybe no longer have the option to do that, so they ask if we have room for the night,” says McTavish. “We try to meet their immediate needs, then figure out how else we can be useful.”

McTavish says part of Cool Aid’s role is to match people with the services and funding they need. In an effort to achieve this, a partnership with the Coalition to End Homelessness has led to the “Homelessness Prevention Fund,” an emergency rental assistance program that’s based entirely off donations.

The fund is currently sitting at about $80,000 and is meant to stretch over two years, but it is still growing through donations. As Mike found out, though, currently it can only help five or six people per month at a max of about $500.

McTavish also speaks of another lesser-known option: a three-way emergency split that the shelters, the coalition, Mustard Seed Food Bank and other affiliates can offer select cases in the form of out-of-pocket rental assistance.

“Our number-one goal is to keep people in their homes and get them the services they need,” says McTavish. “If someone gets evicted who has been through our shelter system and was housed, we’ve wasted three months work, or more. There’s not much there, but we help with what we can.”

The biggest tool Cool Aid and the community has in its box, however, is the Ministry of Social Development itself, McTavish says. Recently, the ministry has been able to send workers out to the individual shelters to get people signed up for the services they desperately need. While this resource hasn’t always been there, McTavish says it’s a blessing, especially when each worker can see up to 10 people per day at the shelter.

“For many people, it’s intimidating to go down and stand in a line outside a building for welfare services. It’s embarrassing, demoralizing and comes with a thick stigma,” says McTavish.

He also points out that many street people aren’t used to going inside buildings at that point. Whether by choice — like the “homesteaders” who choose to live outside society — by the challenge of mental illness, or by the pain of pride, McTavish says it can be a real challenge to get people into the system in the first place.

“You can’t always just ‘pull up your socks and get to work,’ as some would like to believe. Many times, people are their own worst enemies, and pride is often the biggest barrier,” he says. “We see people who won’t let us help them unless we agree to trade for some work.”

McTavish believes that part of the problem comes from a system that is set up in a “hands-down” approach. While people could work casually for a buck or two years ago, McTavish points out how safety regulations, strict hiring codes and a labour force crunch has squeezed off most of those options.

“It’s a really difficult world for people who want to find work and make something of themselves but have to compete with a growing skill base,” McTavish says. “The west has been won, so to speak, and there just aren’t the options for people who still want to ride out into the wild sun and make a living.”

Living wage woes

Rupert Downing, executive director of the Community Social Planning Council, says that part of the difficultly of living in the Capital Regional District comes from the disparity between wages and the cost of living. The council, which advocates for a $17.31/hour living wage, notes that rent in Victoria is one of the biggest challenges.

“We have a population that moves on and off social assistance, which is not a healthy way to live life . . . and it can be extremely difficult to get out of the poverty trap,” says Downing. “Income assistance recipients are on one extreme end, but we’re seeing a growing number of working individuals experiencing the affordability crunch.”

Downing says studies have shown that almost one quarter of the population in the CRD is living at or under the poverty line. Victoria also has the highest income inequity rate in the province — meaning most people fall on either the “disposable income” or the “struggling to get by” line, says Downing.

“With B.C. still maintaining the lowest minimum wage in the country, and the living wage going up every year, we have to start asking what else we can do.”

Mike considers himself lucky. He has a computer, printer and access to a car — what he considers his gateway to work.

While social assistance is there to help, Mike is quick to point out it’s not a solution — in fact, often it’s not enough to tip the scale back in someone’s favour.

“When you’re standing at the counter and you hear the welfare receptionist say, ‘We guarantee your rent’ you breathe a huge sigh of relief. Then, in the same breath she adds ‘Up to $375,’ and you gasp and say ‘What! This is Victoria,’” says Mike.

Now, Mike is looking for work as a computer tutor. “It’s hard to get well-paid work out here, but I’m very optimistic about this year. I don’t think I can go wrong investing in myself. I’m not sure what else I’ll do,” he says, laughing. M