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Squeezing the poor

Too many cut off from social assistance for trivial reasons, support workers say

by Robert Devet

Earlier we wrote about Vicki Butler, who could no longer afford her medications after her social assistance benefits were cut off. Last week she nearly died because of that.  Scenarios like Vicki's occur all the time, community advocates tells the Halifax Media Co-op. And often for trivial reasons.  Photo Robert Devet
Earlier we wrote about Vicki Butler, who could no longer afford her medications after her social assistance benefits were cut off. Last week she nearly died because of that. Scenarios like Vicki's occur all the time, community advocates tells the Halifax Media Co-op. And often for trivial reasons. Photo Robert Devet

(K'JIPUKTUK), HALIFAX - Last Tuesday Vicki Butler had to rush to the hospital with dangerously high blood sugar levels. She was kept there all night. She could have died, a nurse told her.

Earlier this month we ran a story about Butler, a Dartmouth woman who lost her income assistance support because she missed one day of a mandatory class she was taking.

She was told she could re-apply after a six-week wait. She says that her case worker advised her “to go to the churches” for food.

What Butler, who suffers from diabetes, was not told was how to pay for her medications.

“I am pretty destitute right now,” Butler told the Halifax Media Co-op at the time. “When I got my very last cheque in September I took $30 out of my grocery money to pay for my pills. Now I don't have any left, I can't afford them. I have been off my diabetes pills for two weeks now.”

Which explains the latest crisis in Vicki's life.

Vicki's story is far from unique, independent community workers tell the Halifax Media Co-op.

People are cut off from support for trivial reasons, they say. And consequences are disastrous. No money for food, shelter, medications or childcare leaves entire families destitute and often causes tailspins into homelessness.

Meanwhile, they assert, Community Services lets its case workers get away with not following the department's own protocols.

People were cut off from income assistance 280 times between April 2013 and March 2014, Lori Errington, spokesperson for Community Services tells the Halifax Media Co-op in an email.

People's supports are terminated for reasons that vary from quitting a job without just cause, to refusing to participate in an employability assessment or not adhering to an employment plan, writes Errington.

“This measure is not an option of first resort, is never taken lightly, and there is a process in place for clients to have their cases reviewed,” she adds.

Not so, says Paul O'Hara, a long-time social worker with the North End Community Health Centre.

“Just yesterday I heard of somebody who lost his job because his employer found out that he had a criminal record. Now he has lost his welfare because of that, so he is going to lose his place and end up in a shelter,” O'Hara tells the Halifax Media Co-op.

“He didn't quit the job, but the was let go for a reason that he has no control over. So he has been punished because of that policy, and those things happen quite a bit,” says O'Hara.

Butler's story also does not come as a surprise to Fiona Traynor, a community legal worker at Dalhousie Legal Aid, an organization that provides legal support for people on low incomes.

Lately Traynor sees many cases triggered by a perceived failure to adhere to an employment plan or undergo a so-called employability assessment, she tells the Halifax Media Co-op.

“One woman I know of, who was told to go to this orientation session, had an emergency situation she had to deal with on the day that the class was offered,” she says.

“She had an infestation of bedbugs. But when she explained that to the department, it would not make her eligible for another six weeks,” says Traynor.

That means six weeks of no money whatsoever.

“Being cut off from income assistance for six weeks puts you at great risk of getting evicted, you will not have any of your medications covered, no money for transportation, no money for food. If you were relying on childcare you will not get any childcare coverage,” says Traynor.

In all these cases Community Services procedures call for an escalating series of letters to warn the income assistance recipient that he or she may be cut off and to allow for explanations. As well, the appeal process needs to be clearly explained once a final decision is issued.

That doesn't always happen, the community workers we spoke to for this article tell us.

Things are especially bad in rural Nova Scotia, Brenda Thompson believes, where people living in poverty are often isolated and without the network of support that cities offer. Thompson is a peer support worker with the Women's Place Resource Centre in Annapolis Royal.

“Not only are you suspended, you don't receive notice until you find out the money isn't coming in,”Thompson says. “No communication whatsoever.”

“Often there is no letter, there is no phone call, they find out when there is no money in the bank. Then they phone their caseworker and often they even can't get through to them,” Thompson adds.

“I have gone in with a number of clients (who were cut off) to get them reinstated, and they were never told, and that is part of the basis of my appeal. They have not received any information in writing nor have they received any information on how to appeal,” says Thompson. 

O'Hara sees the same.

“People who are cut off from benefits are never really given any kind of opportunity to defend themselves. Nor are they given information that would change the position they are in,” says O'Hara.

“There is no question they are very rarely told that they could appeal,” O'Hara adds. And even if they were to appeal, the process is so long they would lose their shelter anyway.

That's why O'Hara would like to see benefits continue while the appeal process unfolds.

“I want to tear my hair out,” O'Hara says. “Not only because of the consequences on the health of Vicki Butler, but the expense to the taxpayers of this person ending up in hospital.”

Traynor thinks it's part of a trend.

“Over the last several years Community Services is squeezing and squeezing, making income assistance recipients jump through more an more hoops, cutting them off more and more often and making it harder and more undignified to be a person on income assistance,” says Traynor.

“It is a very punitive system,” she says. “I have heard (Minister of Community Services) Joanne Bernard talk about it as a system of support. I don't see that very often.”

Follow Robert Devet on Twitter  @DevetRobert

 


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Comments

More evendients whcih shows the system needs to be changed!

Hello,

So she was rushed to hospital because she could not afford her medcations. that is sad and Community Services does not care about this assect of her life. SHe almost ended up homeless because of the rescent cutfoo of her assitance.

 

kendall Worth

 

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