Saskatchewan opposition calls for income support program suspension, new housing strategy

“We are currently facing a crisis.”

Those words were uttered by Saskatchewan NDP Regina Elphinstone-Centre MLA Meara Conway on Tuesday morning at an event in Regina regarding the Saskatchewan Income Support (SIS) program.

Standing near a group of tents pitched in Regina’s Pepsi Park east of downtown, Conway said she wrote a letter to Minister of Social Services Lori Carr to call on the provincial government to suspend the program and return to a direct payment model for housing and utilities.

The New Democrats are also requesting increases to payment amounts which better reflect cost of living in the province and a working roundtable to create a comprehensive housing strategy to connect people with supports and shelter before the winter months.

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Members of the NDP say this is in light of increasing rental arrears, evictions and homelessness among SIS clients.

“I want to emphasize this is a crisis of the government’s own making,” stated Conway at Tuesday’s event in Pepsi Park in Regina.

“This was a slow-moving car crash that everyone around me has been warning the government about since 2019.”

Conway admitted she is getting calls every day about concerns from people in her constituency being impacted by issues surrounding the program.

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“We’re one month in to the full implementation of this program and already one-third of those on the program are at risk of eviction,” shared Conway, who serves as the NDP’s critic for social services, housing and human rights.

“We’re hearing from the landlord association that nearly half of people could not afford their full rent in September and 30 per cent didn’t pay their rent at all. It’s an unmitigated disaster.”

SIS replaced the Saskatchewan Assistance Program (SAP) and the Transitional Employment Allowance (TEA). Both programs were closed out on Aug. 31.

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The party noted in a statement on Tuesday that warnings have been voiced by social service workers, landlords, housing and anti-poverty advocates about the potential outcome for a couple years.

“This government is unbelievably out of touch with the chaos they caused by cutting supports during an unprecedented pandemic and transitioning over to the Saskatchewan Income Support program,” said Conway.

“The minister says she doesn’t know how many people transitioned to the SIS program or how many people fell through the cracks. She doesn’t know how many clients are assigned to a social worker, doesn’t know that clients are waiting 4-5 hours on the phone to reach their social worker.”

Conway urged Carr to go back to the drawing board and meet with groups involved in this situation to find solutions moving forward.

Minister Carr responds

Carr provided a statement late Tuesday afternoon following the NDP event the same day.

In her response, she said the Saskatchewan government recognizes every client situation is different, but that they remain committed to supporting low-income individuals and families.

“SIS takes a ‘whole income’ approach by providing a financial benefit for shelter and basic needs, with additional benefits available for emergency health and safety needs or starting a new job. It also recognizes that SIS is not the only source of income clients receive,” reads Carr’s response.

“Ministry staff (meet) with clients on a case-by case basis to help them develop a monthly budget, access all income supports that may be available to them, including provincial and federal benefits. SIS also includes increased earned income exemptions so clients can keep more of what they earn before their benefits are reduced, and supports that client in their move to self-sufficiency.”

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The minister mentioned that clients were able to switch from TEA or SAP at any time once SIS launched in July of 2019.

“The majority of income assistance clients continue to manage their own benefits and finances. This is a similar approach to many other provinces in Canada including British Columbia, Nova Scotia, Ontario, Alberta and Manitoba. Being able to manage their own finances is a critical skill for our clients as it helps to ensure they can get jobs and sustain employment without returning to income assistance programs,” the statement continues.

“For the minority of 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, community-based organization or advocate.”

Carr added that the Ministry of Social Services will continue outreach efforts to support their clients in becoming self-sufficient to the best of their abilities.

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