YWCA Homeward Bound asking for exemption from social assistance changes

YWCA program worried changes make it impossible for vulnerable clients to access services

The back end of Homeward Bound apartments. Herald File Photo

A local program is asking for an exemption to recent changes in how social assistance payments are distributed as they fear their most vulnerable clients will fall through the cracks.

As initially reported by CTV, the YWCA and its Homeward Bound program have asked the province to request an exemption from the new measures, which see rental and utility allowances distributed directly to recipients’ bank accounts, instead of giving recipients the choice to have the payments forwarded directly to their landlords instead.

The change came into effect this summer as part of a social assistance overhaul. Existing clients have been grandfathered in.

Donna Brooks, the YWCA’s executive director, said the majority of social assistance recipients can probably handle having their rent forwarded to their bank accounts, for the most vulnerable clients, that might not even be an option.

“Some clients can’t get a bank account due to past events” she said.

“But even if they can get a bank account, the majority of clients that are in our programs, particularly Homeward Bound, which works with people who have a past history of being chronically homeless, have issues over and above that really hinder their ability to manage money and pay rent.”

Brooks said those clients might battle cognitive issues, addictions issues or cognitive issues.

“If they could pay their rent, they wouldn’t be in our programs in the first place. They’ve proven in the past this has been a barrier for them. That has us really worried that they’re not going to be able to pay their rent and end up homeless.”

That would lead to further pressure on other systems, Brooks said, as those vulnerable clients would then likely end up in the emergency room, in detox beds or in shelters.

Homeward Bound manager Dave Hobden echoed some of Brooks’ concerns.

“It’s going to be really a challenge to make sure that programs like this continue,” he said.

Hobden said that they’ve already had 13 clients attempt to apply for assistance under the new program. There have been huge challenges recovering rent, getting people connected to the system and receiving payments on time, he said, “almost without exception.

“Almost 40 per cent of the clients we have right now … have some measure of intellectual delay,” he said.

“But when you’re dealing with mental health and then you throw in addictions and circumstances, trauma and things like that, it’s very difficult to expect them to focus on things like paying rent and utilities.”

Many of the clients also have little formal education. The application process itself is rated at a grade 10 reading level or higher, he said, meaning many clients can’t understand it.

“It’s putting them at a very, very awkward spot.”

Adding to that challenge is current struggles rolling out the new system. Applications must be completed online or through a call centre. Even Homeward Bound staff are struggling to get through.

“Our staff are often sitting 4,5,6 hours — that’s not an exaggeration — to try to get through,” Hobden said.

“If it’s frustrating for our staff, could you imagine what it’s like for a client who has no supports and nobody to help them?”

That’s complicated by late payments in many cases, Brooks said. She’s confident those wrinkles will be worked out. It’s the other concerns — the inability of high-risk clients to pay rent or even access a bank account — that has Brooks worried. But both she and Hobden praised local social services staff who are doing everything they can to help out.

“They have been very helpful and they understand our challenges,” Hobden said. “They’re also facing those challenges.”

Rancourt speaking up

Thursday, Prince Albert Northcote MLA Nicole Rancourt, who is also the NDP’s social services critic, rose to add her voice to the YWCA’s calling for the Homeward Bound program to receive an exemption.

“The Prince Albert YWCA’s Homeward Bound program is designed to rapidly move homeless people from the street or emergency shelters into permanent housing and to follow up with supports. One of the ways that Homeward Bound continues to operate is to collect rent from its clients once they begin to receive provincial assistance,” she said.

“The YWCA has asked the Minister of Social Services to have their clients exempt from these requirements under the new Saskatchewan Income Support program, allowing them to continue to receive direct payments for rent for their clients. Mr. Speaker, I ask the Minister of Social Services, to please consider their request to ensure the continued success of Homeward Bound.”

Speaking to the Herald Thursday, Rancourt said the concerns the YWCA expressed have also been brought up by other frontline workers and landlord associations.

“Now they’re not able to have that choice (to receive the payments directly or to have them go to their landlord),” she said.

“That’s going got put a lot of people at risk and from what I’ve heard … some individuals have already lost their housing.”

Rancourt acknowledged that having choice and encouraging independence is important.

“We have to be mindful that there are a lot of individuals who aren’t at a point where they’re able to make that decision. Having agencies … to be able to advocate for these clients and have their rent directly given to the landlords, a the very least these residents will still have a roof over their head,” she said.

She pointed the blame at the feet of the Minister of Social Services.

“I know he’s hearing it from a whole bunch of non-profit organizations and the landlord’s association has been hearing from it as well.”

In a written statement provided by the Ministry of Social services, they said that support may be provided to those struggling with the new system.

“The ministry works with clients to determine what types of services or supports might best help them to become self-sufficient to the best of their ability. For those who need more support, this can include working with clients to help them learn how to make good financial decisions, manage their benefits and budget for their household expenses. Part of this may be setting up automatic bill payments to landlords and utilities if they don’t already have them set up,” they said.

Minister of Social Services Paul Merriman also told CTV that provincial caseworkers are providing motivational interviewing and helping clients set up bank accounts.

“But what we ultimately want is an individual, that is receiving social services cheques from us that they can pay their own rent and manage their own bills,” he reportedly said.

Merriman told CTV he plans on visiting the city to help provide clarity to the program. The ministry said they have met with over 100 service providers, including the YWCA.