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Community Services closes Sheet Harbour office

Residents fear there is more bad news to come

by Robert Devet

This office building in Sheet Harbour once housed a Community Services office with a staff of three. Now the office is closed down, and local residents worry that access will become more difficult. Photo Sheet Harbour Chamber of Commerce
This office building in Sheet Harbour once housed a Community Services office with a staff of three. Now the office is closed down, and local residents worry that access will become more difficult. Photo Sheet Harbour Chamber of Commerce

(KJIPUKTUK), HALIFAX - Local residents and community workers are upset that the Department of Community Services quietly closed its office in Sheet Harbour in late September last year.

They worry about what it will mean to the vulnerable people in the region who rely on Community Services for support. As well, they are concerned about what it will do to the economy of a struggling rural community.

And they fear that there may be more bad news to come.

At one time three workers staffed the Community Services office. The office was open five days a week.

One position was eliminated earlier, and the remaining staff, a receptionist and a case worker, both local people, either retired or took a severance package late last year.

“The office closure impacts our most vulnerable population,” Myrene Keating-Owen, executive director of the LEA Place Women's Resource Centre tells the Halifax Media Co-op.

Sometimes due to stressful situations and life circumstances of a lot of different reasons the women we work with are worn down the complexity of the system and are not always in the best place to be an advocate for themselves and just may give up, says Keating-Owen.

“We already have seen an increase in people coming to see us about poverty-related issues. I am sure it is linked (to the office closure),” she says.

Keating-Owen is upset about the the lack of communication from the department. She didn't hear about the closure until people on income assistance came to her with questions about rumours in the community. 

A letter they had received later on stated that their file was transferred to the Cole Harbour office, about an hour and a half away but provided no further explanation..

A petition, organized in haste, was quickly signed by 191 residents. It mentioned the loss of service, but also referred to the economic impact of the office closure on a rural community that has seen better days.

But to no avail.

Community Services argues that the office closure was justified because the number of cases handled there has gone down steadily over the years.

“A caseworker will be traveling to Sheet Harbour and surrounding communities regularly to meet with clients as necessary in their own homes,” Community Services spokesperson Chrissy Matheson writes to the Halifax Media Co-op.

Community workers are concerned that these visits will not be reliable, especially during the winter months. And they doubt that that the number of people living in poverty in the region has decreased.

There is also a fear that the office closure is only the beginning of what has become a familiar pattern of service erosion and promises not kept.

What happened last year in the community of Middle Musquodoboit, about an hour's drive from Sheet Harbour is not forgotten, says Earline Sharpe, a clinical therapist and community activist.

Until a year ago Middle Musquodoboit had its own Income Assistance worker. But no more, says Sharpe. Middle Musquodoboit clients are now expected to travel to the Cole Harbour office.

Rumours swirl through Sheet Harbour that it is only a matter of time until Community Service workers will be told to stop their trips to the community.

And travel is a challenge for people on low income in rural Nova Scotia.

Without public transportation and without a car, people have to rely on family, friends and neighbours to get anywhere. Hitching a ride to Sheet Harbour is tricky enough, but a trip to the city is pretty near impossible, says Sharpe.

“If you have small children at home it is a matter of finding somebody to look after them, or taking them with you,” she says. “And if you have children in school you have to work around that, then you have the cost of a meal while you're there.”

Keating-Owen also worries that this is not the end of the story. Nor does she think that Sheet Harbour is unique.

“If it is happening to us then it is going to happen to other rural communities,” she says.

We don't need everything Halifax and Dartmouth have, but there are elements that we do need in order to be thriving communities,” says the executive director of LEA. “We don't ask for much but we do need to be supported and we can't continue to take away from rural areas.”

The Halifax Media Co-op asked Community Services if it is contemplating any other office closures this year. It is a question the department chose not to answer.


See also: Community Services embarks on mystery welfare project

Follow Robert Devet on Twitter  @DevetRobert



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Topics: Poverty
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