Accessibility at the Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction

poverty-reduction-strategy-final Accessibility at the Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction

The Minister of Social Development and Poverty Reduction will be addressing poverty in BC with a Poverty Reduction Strategy

And we’re thrilled! Now is the time to tackle the serious (and worsening) issues with service delivery at the Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction, and raise BC’s shamefully low social assistance rates.

Honourable Shane Simpson
Minister of Social Development and Poverty Reduction
PO Box 9290 Stn Prov Govt
Victoria BC V8W 9J7

Dear Minister Simpson:

RE: Accessibility at the Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction

Congratulations on your appointment as Minister of Social Development and Poverty Reduction. We are thrilled about your strong mandate to improve life for people on welfare and reduce poverty in British Columbia.

We are writing to you to set out some longstanding and worsening problems that low income people have when trying to access income assistance through the Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction (“MSDPR”), and also to propose a number of solutions to these problems.

Accessibility problems

BC Public Interest Advocacy Centre (“BCPIAC”) is mandated to address systemic issues affecting low income people across the province. Based on consultations with members of the anti-poverty community, we have recently focused our efforts on improving accessibility at your ministry. We are concerned that there is a growing number of British Columbians who are in need of income assistance and disability assistance (often collectively called “welfare”), and are in fact legally eligible for it, but are struggling to survive without it simply because they cannot navigate the welfare system.

As you know, over the past several years, the recently renamed MSDPR has transitioned from delivering services primarily in person to delivering services primarily through an online portal and over a centralized 1-866 phone line. Wait times on the phone line are extremely long – regularly averaging over 45 minutes – and workers are pressured to keep calls within short, arbitrary time limits whether or not the caller’s issue is resolved. Meanwhile, there have been massive reductions in in-person services, including office closures across the province and removal of discretion for frontline workers. Increasingly, those who go into a Ministry office for help are told to leave and use the online portal or phone line instead. This is the case despite the fact that the Assistant Deputy Minister of Service Delivery has repeatedly told advocates that people who require in-person service can go to the front desk of an MSDPR office for intake.

As a result, in order to meaningfully access MSDPR’s services, most welfare applicants and recipients now require:

  • Generous access to a phone, computer, and internet;
  • Computer and internet proficiency; and
  • Ability to effectively communicate and receive information online and over the phone, through a call centre.

We frequently hear advocates and individuals comment that “a person practically has to be middle class to be on welfare these days.” The assumptions underlying this service delivery model do not reflect the lived experiences of many welfare applicants and recipients. First, social assistance in BC is described by the Ministry itself as “income of last resort”, meaning that applicants must exhaust almost all other income and assets before they are even eligible to apply. Welfare applicants and recipients are very poor and most cannot afford their own phones, computers, and internet access. Second, welfare applicants and recipients disproportionately have characteristics that heighten the need for accessible services and accommodation, including:

  • Physical and/or mental disabilities (including mental illness);
  • Limited ability to express themselves or be understood in English;
  • Status as a recent immigrant to Canada, an Indigenous person, and/or as a member of a racialized group;
  • Limited education; and/or
  • Rural isolation.

In its policy manual, MSDPR recognizes that it has a duty to accommodate its clients, and states that it will accommodate individuals who require in-person services. However, members of the anti-poverty community report to us that in practice, MSDPR rarely provides in-person services to individuals who require them. Instead, it has become common practice in MSDPR offices for staff to refer those that need help navigating MSDPR services to community organizations. The reality to which MSDPR must answer is that many, if not most, welfare applicants and recipients require in-person services as a matter of accommodation. Further, those individuals with the highest accessibility needs also tend to be the most entrenched in poverty, meaning that when they are denied access to welfare, they must survive on little to no money.

We (and many others) have repeatedly raised these problems, and a solution is long overdue. In a systemic complaint to the BC Ombudsperson in May 2015 filed on behalf of nine community organizations across the province, we described these problems in detail, and provided a large body of evidence to demonstrate how MSDPR’s service delivery model is effectively shutting vulnerable people out. A copy of that complaint is attached to this letter as Appendix A. We also made submissions about these issues to the Select Standing Committee on Finance and Government Services in 2015 and 2016; our submission from October 2016 is attached to this letter as Appendix B.

Despite our work and the vocal opposition to MSDPR’s service delivery changes by those who regularly interact with the welfare system, MSDPR has continued to forge ahead with its move to an increasingly complex, impersonal, and tech-based model of service delivery. In the meantime, vulnerable people are left without critical supports simply because they cannot navigate the bureaucratic labyrinth.

A recent change by MSDPR is illustrative of the incongruence between MSDPR’s service delivery and the people MSDPR serves. For several years, MSDPR has had an online component to its income assistance application, which applicants must complete before proceeding to the next stages of the application process. The online component was inaccessible to many applicants because it was only offered online in English and was complex and time-consuming. In February 2017, despite widespread criticism about the accessibility of the online component, MSDPR moved its entire income assistance application online. Further, the online application now requires applicants to complete the following steps before they can even apply for assistance:

  • Register for an online account on MSDPR’s “MySelfServe” portal, which in turn requires that applicants:
    • Have access to or create a personal email account; and
    • Create a BCelD username and password.

Since its introduction in February, the latest version of the application process has prompted a flood of calls and emails to our office from advocates and individuals confounded by these new requirements. While MSDPR says that it provides remote-based phone support to applicants who require accommodation in completing the online application, this does not respond to the anti-poverty community’s concerns about the online application. First, asking applicants to complete the application over the phone raises many of the same accessibility issues as asking them to complete the application online. It does not at all accommodate applicants who require in-person assistance in order to complete the application. Second, members of the anti-poverty community report to us that in practice, MSDPR refuses to provide phone support to those who request it.

In May 2017, BCPIAC sent an open letter to all candidates in the provincial election outlining the issues with the new online application process, and calling for candidates to commit to addressing them; that letter is attached here as Appendix C.

Recommendations for change

We are so pleased to have a new government that has committed to creating a province “where no one is left behind.” In service of that commitment, we ask that you take steps immediately to ensure that the most vulnerable people in the province can access the supports they need – supports to which they are legally entitled.

Specifically, we recommend the following:

  1. Providing timely in-person individualized assistance to those that need it;
  2. Providing computers and Ministry staff at every Ministry office for the purposes of helping applicants through the application process for income assistance and other supports;
  3. Modifying the online application for income assistance so that it is not mandatory to create an email address and BCelD;
  4. Institute a review of MSDPR’s accessibility as part of the broader poverty reduction strategy; and
  5. Implement accountability and performance measures based on that review.

We would welcome the opportunity to discuss this letter with you further. We would also be very pleased to work with you in a collaborative manner to improve access to MSDPR services.

Sincerely,

Kate Feeney          Erin Pritchard
Staff Lawyer          Staff Lawyer

cc:
Mable Elmore, Parliamentary Secretary for Poverty Reduction &
MLA (Vancouver-Kensington)

Justice before the Employment and Assistance Appeal Tribunal and Poverty Reduction

Honourable Shane Simpson
Minister of Social Development and Poverty Reduction
PO Box 9290 Stn Prov Govt
Victoria BC V8W 9J7

Dear Minister Simpson:

RE: Justice before the Employment and Assistance Appeal Tribunal and Poverty Reduction

Congratulations on your appointment as Minister of Social Development and Poverty Reduction. We are thrilled about your strong mandate to improve life for people in need of welfare and to reduce poverty in British Columbia.

We work closely with the anti-poverty community in British Columbia to address systemic issues affecting people with low incomes across the province. Based on our experience, an important concern for people with low incomes is access to administrative justice, as administrative tribunals are tasked with determining matters that go to the heart of their social and economic security, including housing, social assistance, and supports for people with disabilities. As such, ensuring access to administrative justice must be part of any poverty reduction strategy.

The purpose of this letter is to highlight the anti-poverty community’s pressing concerns about the effectiveness and credibility of the Employment and Assistance Appeal Tribunal (“the EAAT”), and offer recommendations about how to restore public confidence in the EAAT. As you know, the EAAT determines appeals of decisions by the Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction (“MSDPR”), including decisions that result in the refusal, discontinuance, or reduction of income assistance, disability assistance, or a supplement to either (collectively, “welfare”). Access to these critical supports – and the decisions the EAAT makes concerning them – has a direct impact on the alleviation (or entrenchment) of poverty for many British Columbians.

Our predominant concern is whether the EAAT is providing appellants with an effective and fair review process, in light of the dramatic decline in the EAAT’s appeal success rate over 10 years, as illustrated in the table and graphs below.1

Fiscal year Appeals heard Decisions rescinded Success rate
2015/2016 614 47 7.6%
2014/2015 564 30 5.3%
2013/2014 690 45 6.5%
2012/2013 747 87 11.6%
2011/2012 841 125 14.9%
2010/2011 945 216 22.9%
2009/2010 955 322 33.7%
2008/2009 830 246 29.6%
2007/2008 581 157 27%
2006/2007 840 292 34.7%
2005/2006 1120 426 38%
EAAT_graph_001 Justice before the Employment and Assistance Appeal Tribunal and Poverty Reduction

The data also shows a decline in the overall number of appeals heard by the EAAT, which corresponds to the declining success rate. In our view, a reasonable reading of the decline in the number of appeals heard is that the low success rate is discouraging people from pursuing their statutory right to appeal. This view is supported by anecdotal evidence from our conversations with anti-poverty advocates and affected individuals. We are alarmed by the common refrain from anti-poverty advocates that assisting their clients with appeals is a “waste of time and resources,” and that many advise their clients not to bother with appeals at all.

An important aspect of the appeal success rate is that, pursuant to the Employment and Assistance Act, the EAAT applies a reasonableness standard of review to decisions under appeal. According to a Freedom of Information request by BCPIAC to the EAAT, the EAAT’s standard of review conforms to the reasonableness standard applied by the courts. EAAT members are told that:

“On a proper application of the ‘reasonableness’ standard, the Ministry’s decision must be confirmed as long as there is a logical basis for it on the law and the evidence. The panel may interpret the legislation and view the evidence somewhat differently but as long as there is a logical and rational basis for the Ministry’s decision, the panel cannot properly rescind it. A reasonableness standard recognizes that there are times when legislation can be rationally interpreted and applied in more than one way.”

We say that the level of deference represented by the reasonableness standard cannot be reconciled with the EAAT’s purpose and the social and economic interests at stake. However, a deferential standard of review does not explain what amounts to a nosedive in EAAT’s appeal success rate, nor an appeal success rate that has sat below 10% since 2013/2014.

We are not aware of any publically available review of the EAAT’s declining appeal success rate. In November 2016, after consulting with anti-poverty advocates, we wrote a letter to the Chair of the EAAT, Marilyn McNamara, to identify the same concerns set out in this letter and to request more information about the EAAT’s practices and procedures. Ms. McNamara did not respond to our letter, which we have attached as Appendix A to this letter for your review.

EAAT_Rates_Final Justice before the Employment and Assistance Appeal Tribunal and Poverty Reduction

The gravity of this issue is underscored by the EAAT’s insulation from effective judicial review. First, pursuant to the Administrative Tribunals Act, courts apply a standard of review of “patent unreasonableness” to decisions by the EAAT, which itself applies a “reasonableness” standard to MSDPR decisions. In our view, the combined effect of these highly deferential standards of review, which anti-poverty advocates commonly refer to as “reasonableness squared,” may be unconstitutional in that it is virtually impossible to overcome. Second, in the absence of poverty law legal aid, most individuals cannot access the judicial review process at all.  These issues heighten the importance of the EAAT providing a meaningful opportunity to appeal MSDPR decisions, and getting those decisions right.

Recommendations

In sum, people in need of welfare have the right to an effective and respectful review of MSDPR decisions. The declining appeal success rate raises important questions about whether the EAAT is providing such access, resulting in a loss of public confidence in the administrative tribunal tasked with deciding the rights of highly vulnerable members of our society. In order to restore public confidence in the EAAT, we offer the recommendations set out below:

  1. Initiate an audit or review of the EAAT’s practices and procedures to determine whether the EAAT is accurately applying its legislation and meeting its procedural fairness obligations, with a mind to the particular barriers EAAT appellants may face in accessing justice (e.g. mental and physical disabilities, mental health issues, language barriers, low literacy and/or limited education).
  2. Consult with anti-poverty organizations and affected individuals about the structure, process, and terms of reference for the audit or review.
  3. Institute performance and accountability measures for the EAAT as recommended by the audit or review.
  4. Amend the Employment and Assistance Act to change the standard of review for the EAAT from reasonableness to correctness and to allow for broadened opportunities to submit new evidence.
  5. Remove the privative clauses from the Employment and Assistance Act (ss. 24(6) & (7)) such that courts are not required to apply a patent unreasonableness standard to EAAT decisions.
  6. Work with the Attorney General to provide legal aid funding for EAAT hearings and judicial reviews of EAAT decisions.

We would welcome the opportunity to discuss this letter with you further.

Sincerely,

Kate Feeney          Erin Pritchard
Staff Lawyer          Staff Lawyer

cc:
Hon. David Eby, Attorney General
Mable Elmore, Parliamentary Secretary for Poverty Reduction &
MLA (Vancouver-Kensington)

1 Data has been taken from the EAAT’s Annual Reports, found at http://www.eaat.ca/the-tribunal/annual-report.

Link to original letter including appendices.

Open Letter Regarding Access Barriers to Applying for Income Assistance

To All Candidates in the 2017 BC Provincial Election:

Re:     Access Barriers to Applying for Income Assistance

We are writing to you as a candidate in the provincial election on behalf of more than sixty undersigned organizations to collectively express our concerns regarding chronic and serious barriers British Columbians face when attempting to apply for income assistance. It is our hope that you will pursue this issue, as it affects British Columbians in all corners of the province.

Barriers to accessing income assistance have been steadily worsening over the past several years as the Ministry of Social Development and Social Innovation (the “Ministry”) has increasingly moved to online application processes. This has been coupled with a corresponding reduction in the number of Ministry staff available to provide in person or over the phone assistance to those citizens applying for income assistance. By way of example, fourteen Ministry offices have closed across the province since 2005, while other offices have reduced hours or have been replaced by generic ServiceBC offices. This under resourcing of the Ministry coupled with its insistence on an increasingly technological interaction with the public has led to the entirely foreseeable consequence of downloading much of the responsibility to provide accessible services onto community agencies, such as those signing this letter.

The latest iteration of the online application process creates new and substantial barriers for those who either do not have access to a computer or lack the computer literacy necessary to navigate the online processes. Now, before someone can even apply for assistance, they must complete the following steps:

  • Create an email address (if applicant does not have one, which is the case for many older and/or more vulnerable applicants);
  • Create a My Self Serve account, and wait for an email confirmation link;
  • Create a 4-digit PIN;
  • Create a BCeID user ID and password to log into My Self Serve account;

Since its introduction in February, the latest version of the application process has prompted a flood of calls and emails to our office from advocates and individuals confounded by these new requirements. With permission from the authors, we share the following excerpts:

“The new application process simply doesn’t work for many that need to access income assistance. I recently met with a client who is homeless and does not have a computer – the Ministry told him he was ineligible for in-person intake because our organization could assist him instead.  This is despite the fact that our organization does not generally assist with the application process because we view it as the Ministry’s job to assist, and because it is so cumbersome and time-consuming.  My client nearly gave up applying for income assistance at multiple points, despite being eligible, and I know there are many people who, because they cannot navigate the bureaucratic and technological hurdles, simply give up on the meager support available. In-person assistance is the only method that actually works for the majority of people who need these services.”

-Daniel Jackson, Legal Advocate, Together Against Poverty Society, Victoria

 

“…[I] had a horrible experience with the new on-line system. I was assisting a client a day or 2 after the new system was launched.  Trying to register the client and set up her [My Self Serve] account was a nightmare.  Her appointment ended up being a 2-part appointment b/c we had to wait for her registration number.  The 2nd appointment we completed the on-line application which in my opinion was not ‘streamlined’, efficient or ‘more user-friendly’.  At that time we were unable to download the documents for the application and the client had to physically take them into the office.

-Christine Dunlop, Legal Advocate, Quesnel Tillicum Society, Native Friendship Centre, Quesnel

Our overarching message is that many applicants require in person assistance with the application process – and this help is simply not being provided. Despite repeated assurances that there is now a “supported application” whereby applicants unable to use the online application can contact the Ministry to request telephone intake, there is a complete disconnect between these assurances and the actual experiences of British Columbians attempting to access direct help from the Ministry. In person services are not being provided and wait times on the Ministry’s centralized phone line have averaged over 45 minutes over the past six months.

We ask that all candidates commit to speaking out in favour of making income assistance accessible to those that need it by:

  • Providing timely in person individualized assistance to those that need it
  • Providing computers and Ministry staff at every Ministry office for the purposes of helping applicants through the application process
  • Modifying the online application to eliminate the requirement for an email address and BCeID

We are calling for action in the form of fully resourcing the Ministry to fulfill its duty to the citizens of British Columbia.

Sincerely,

BC Public Interest Advocacy Centre

Erin Pritchard & Michael Seaborn
Staff Lawyers

c.  Jay Chalke, BC Ombudsperson

Signatories:

  1. Abbotsford Community Services (Abbotsford)
  2. Action Committee of People with Disabilities (Victoria)
  3. Active Support Against Poverty (Prince George)
  4. Africa Great Lakes Networking Foundation (Vancouver)
  5. The Anglican Diocese of New Westminster Eco-Justice Unit (New Westminster)
  6. Atira Women’s Resource Society (Vancouver)
  7. Battered Women’s Support Services (Vancouver)
  8. BC Government and Service Employees’ Union
  9. BC Health Coalition
  10. BC Poverty Reduction Coalition
  11. Burnaby Community Services (Burnaby)
  12. Canadian Mental Health Association (Port Alberni)
  13. Carnegie Community Action Project (Vancouver)
  14. Carnegie Community Centre Association (Vancouver)
  15. Chimo Community Services (Richmond)
  16. Citizens for Accessible Neighbourhoods (Vancouver)
  17. Coalition of Child Care Advocates of BC
  18. Community Legal Assistance Society (Vancouver)
  19. Council of Senior Citizen Organizations in British Columbia
  20. Dawson Creek Native Housing Society (Dawson Creek)
  21. Disability Alliance BC
  22. Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood House (Vancouver)
  23. Downtown Eastside SRO Collaborative (Vancouver)
  24. Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre (Vancouver)
  25. Family Tree Family Centre (Kamloops)
  26. First Call: BC Child and Youth Advocacy Coalition
  27. First United Church Community Ministry Society (Vancouver)
  28. Fort St. John Women’s Resource Society (Fort St. John)
  29. Golden Family Center (Golden)
  30. Golden Women’s Resource Centre (Golden)
  31. Gordon Neighbourhood House (Vancouver)
  32. Greater Vancouver Food Bank (Vancouver)
  33. Interior Community Services (Kamloops)
  34. Kamloops and District Elizabeth Fry Society (Kamloops)
  35. Kamloops YMCA-YWCA, Violence Against Women Intervention and Support Services (Kamloops)
  36. The Kettle Society Advocacy Service (Vancouver)
  37. Megaphone Magazine (Vancouver)
  38. MS Society of Canada, BC & Yukon Division (Burnaby)
  39. Nelson CARES – The Advocacy Centre (Nelson)
  40. The Nelson Committee on Homelessness (Nelson)
  41. New Westminster & District Labour Council (New Westminster)
  42. Nicola Valley Advocacy Centre (Merritt)
  43. North Shore Community Resources (North Vancouver)
  44. North Shore Homelessness Task Force (North Shore)
  45. Okanagan Advocacy and Resource Society (Vernon)
  46. Opportunities Advocacy Services (Campbell River)
  47. Penticton and Area Access Society (Penticton)
  48. Phoenix Centre (Kamloops)
  49. Pivot Legal Society (Vancouver)
  50. Prince Rupert Unemployed Action Centre (Prince Rupert)
  51. Quesnel Tillicum Society, Native Friendship Centre (Quesnel)
  52. Raise the Rates (Vancouver)
  53. The Realistic Success Recovery Society (Surrey)
  54. Sheila Nelson (Kamloops)
  55. South Peace Community Resources Society (Dawson Creek)
  56. STEPS Forward – Inclusive Post-Secondary Education Society (Vancouver)
  57. Paul’s Advocacy Office at St. Paul’s Anglican Church (Vancouver)
  58. Terrace and District Community Services Society (Terrace)
  59. Together Against Poverty Society (Victoria)
  60. 59. Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter (Vancouver)
  61. Vancouver South Presbytery Community Advocacy Programme (United Church of Canada) (Vancouver)
  62. Wachiay Friendship Centre (Courtenay)
  63. West Coast LEAF (Vancouver)
  64. Vancouver District Labour Council (Vancouver)
  65. Vancouver Island Human Rights Coalition (Victoria)
  66. Victoria Disability Resource Centre (Victoria)

Campaign calls on BC government and official opposition to “step up for Women’s equality”

West Coast LEAF, a BC organization dedicated to promoting women’s equality through the law, along with a long list of endorsing BC organizations, have called on the BC government and the official opposition to step up for Women’s equality and “commit to implementing – fully and without delay – the UN’s recommendations to demonstrably improve the lives of women in our province”

Read the letter to the BC government and official opposition here. (text below)

West Coast LEAF’s campaign page can be found here.

Read the UN’s recommendations here.

Dear Premier Clark and Mr. Horgan,

WCL-legal-aid-shareable-300x300 Campaign calls on BC government and official opposition to "step up for Women's equality"We write to ask you to commit to implement, fully and without delay, the enclosed recommendations of the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. The recommendations were issued on November 18, 2016 after the Committee’s review of Canada’s compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) at its 65th session.

We cannot stress enough the importance of implementing these recommendations. Women’s equality in Canada has regressed over the last two decades. In 1995, Canada held 1st place on the United Nations Gender Equality Index; Canada is now at 25th. Recently, the World Economic Forum ranked Canada 35th on gender equality out of 144 countries. To make matters worse, equality for women in BC is lagging behind the rest of Canada on multiple measures. For example:

  • BC consistently has among the highest poverty rates in Canada, and poverty rates for single women, and particularly single women caring for children, are shockingly high. Further, BC is the only province in Canada without a poverty reduction plan.
  • Families led by women parenting alone experience the highest rates of food insecurity in BC, and the rate is higher than the Canadian average for comparable households.
  • The average earnings of women in BC are well below the Canadian average female earnings and the pay gap between male and female workers in British Columbia is larger than the national average.
  • At BC’s current minimum wage, the earnings of a full time, full year worker are below the poverty line and the majority of minimum wage earners are women. In addition, BC maintains a lower liquor server wage despite research showing that dependency on gratuities increases the risk that these mostly female workers will be subject to sexual harassment.
  • Mothers’ workforce participation rates in BC, access to regulated child care spaces in BC, and provincial public investment per space are all below the Canadian average. Meanwhile, parent fees for regulated child care are higher than the national average.
  • Front line services for women and children harmed by violence have been chronically underfunded, despite the fact that BC has a growing rate of domestic violence-related homicides.
  • BC remains the only province without a human rights commission, which means there is little to no systemic education and monitoring related to gender discrimination in key areas such as employment, housing and public services.
  • British Columbia’s per capita spending on legal aid, services that are crucial to enable women to enforce their legal rights and leave violent relationships, is far lower than the national average.

We know that Canada and British Columbia can do better.

WCL-over-incarceration-shareable-300x300 Campaign calls on BC government and official opposition to "step up for Women's equality"However, Canada, and in particular British Columbia, has a serious implementation gap. For years, Canada and British Columbia have ignored UN treaty body advice and recommendations, to the detriment of the most disadvantaged and vulnerable residents and to the detriment of British Columbia as a whole. Canada has no national mechanism for monitoring and facilitating implementation of treaty body recommendations, and British Columbia has no provincial mechanism for implementation of recommendations within its jurisdiction. Further, there is no mechanism for co-operation between federal and provincial governments on implementation in areas where co-ordination among all levels of government is critical. Because of this, treaty body recommendations tend to be ignored rather than realized in a substantive way through government planning, policy, and programs.

The Canadian and British Columbia governments can take a huge step forward for women and for human rights by immediately beginning to plan for implementation of the CEDAW Committee’s most recent recommendations. The CEDAW recommendations cover a wide range of issues crucial to women’s advancement, many of which are all or partly within provincial jurisdiction: access to legal aid; the gender wage gap and pay equity; housing and poverty reduction; child care; political participation; violence; the socio-economic conditions of Indigenous women; the needs of women with disabilities; detention of racialized women and women with mental health issues; access to abortion; harm reduction strategies; and much more.

Given the legal responsibility and leadership role of the Government of Canada, we have called on the federal government to establish an accountability mechanism and to, in cooperation with the provinces and territories, develop a national gender equality plan so that we can move forward in a coordinated and strategic way to fully implement women’s human rights and advance women’s equality. British Columbia’s commitment and cooperation will be crucial to ensure that implementation is meaningful for women in our province.

The CEDAW Committee recommends two mechanisms for implementation of the Convention rights and treaty body recommendations:

  • WCL-MMIW-shareable-300x300 Campaign calls on BC government and official opposition to "step up for Women's equality"an effective mechanism for ensuring accountability and the transparent, coherent and consistent implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women throughout all jurisdictions (at para 11); and
  • a comprehensive national gender strategy, policy and action plan that addresses the structural factors causing persistent inequalities for women and girls, including those who are Indigenous, Afro-Canadian, racialized, disabled, immigrant, refugee and LGBTQ (at para 21).

Coordinated, robust work to advance women’s equality is particularly timely in light of burgeoning attacks on women’s rights and dignity globally. We urge you to publicly commit to take a leadership role and lead British Columbia to provide a model for other provinces by working with the federal government to take progressive, determined action to implement the CEDAW Committee’s concrete and detailed recommendations. We need action now that demonstrates British Columbia’s genuine commitment to fulfilling women’s human rights.

We look forward to your response and to working with you on a new plan for women’s equality in British Columbia and for the realization of women’s human rights.

Sincerely,

The BC CEDAW Group*

This letter is endorsed by:

Battered Women’s Support Services
BC Poverty Reduction Coalition
BC Public Interest Advocacy Centre
BC Society of Transition Houses
Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives – BC Office
Canadian Federation of University Women BC Council
Coalition of Child Care Advocates of BC
Disability Alliance BC
Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre
Hospital Employees’ Union
Ending Violence Association of BC
First Call: BC Child and Youth Advocacy Coalition
Isabel Grant, Professor and Co-Director, Centre for Feminist Legal Studies, Peter A. Allard School of Law, University of British Columbia
Justice for Girls
Living Wage for Families Campaign
Lynne Kent, Chair, Learning Disabilities Association of BC
Margot Young, Professor of Law, Allard Hall Law School, University of British Columbia Poverty and Human Rights Centre
Single Mothers’ Alliance BC
Susan Boyd, Professor Emerita, Peter A. Allard Law School, University of British Columbia
Together Against Poverty Society
University Women’s Club of Vancouver
Vancouver Rape Relief & Women’s Shelter
Vancouver Women’s Health Collective
West Coast LEAF
Women Against Violence Against Women Rape Crisis Centre
Women Transforming Cities

*The BC CEDAW Group is a coalition individuals and organizations committed to advancing the rights of women and girls in British Columbia. Formed in 2002, the Group has participated in United Nations periodic reviews before a variety of treaty bodies, reporting to the UN on BC’s progress. The 2017 BC CEDAW Group includes the Coalition of Child Care Advocates of BC, Hospital Employees Union, Justice for Girls, Poverty and Human Rights Centre, Vancouver Committee for Domestic Workers and Caregivers Rights, Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter, West Coast LEAF, Single Mothers’ Alliance BC, and the Vancouver Women’s Health Collective.

BC man wins important human rights victory for Deaf people in need of welfare

For Immediate Release | BCPIAC

VANCOUVER, B.C. – Christopher Shay has won his human rights complaint against the BC Ministry of Social Development and Social Innovation, with the Ministry agreeing to make a range of changes to improve accessibility and fairness for people who have communication barriers and need welfare.

Mr. Shay, who is Deaf, applied for income assistance in September, 2014, but had to wait 5 weeks to receive a welfare cheque. Mr. Shay, who had received eviction notices because he couldn’t pay his rent, also told the Ministry that he had an immediate need for assistance, a request that according to the Ministry’s service standards should have resulted in him receiving assistance on an expedited basis. Throughout the application process he faced numerous accessibility issues because the Ministry did not accommodate his disability.

Mr. Shay, with the assistance of lawyers at the BC Public Interest Advocacy Centre, filed a human rights complaint against MSDSI alleging that the delays were discriminatory and the Ministry failed to accommodate his disability. The Ministry entered into settlement negotiations with Mr. Shay, and agreed to make a series of changes in order to accommodate people who are Deaf and have other communication barriers.

Some of the changes that the Ministry has agreed to make include asking specifically whether applicants for assistance have a communication barrier, offering to communicate with applicants in writing using email, arranging for in-person application meetings with sign language interpreters on an expedited basis, and assigning applicants who are Deaf to a newly-created Specialized Intake Unit trained in accommodating people who have communication barriers.

Mr. Shay will be available for interviews on Friday, September 2, 2016 at 9am at the BC Public Interest Advocacy Centre at 208-1090 West Pender Street in Vancouver. A sign language interpreter will be present.

– 30 –

For more information, contacts us.

Full Press Release

Ombudsperson office denied request for systemic investigation into inaccessibility at BC’s welfare ministry

For Immediate Release | BCPIAC

In a decision dated June 23, 2015, then Ombudsperson, Kim Carter, denied the request of nine social service agencies from across the province for a systemic investigation into service reductions at the Ministry of Social Development and Social Innovation that shut out many eligible people from accessing income assistance. The complaint, filed by the BC Public Interest Advocacy Centre (BCPIAC), a law office in Vancouver, in May 2015, alleged that the government has created insurmountable barriers that deprive people of critical income support to which they are legally entitled.

The alleged barriers set out in the complaint included office closures and significant reductions in office hours, channelling calls to under-resourced centralized call centres that serve the whole province and have lengthy wait times, and the creation of a complicated, 90-screen online application process.  The complaint also pointed out that most income assistance recipients do not have phones or internet access, and many are not computer literate, so the Ministry’s changes do not make sense for the users of its services.

Our clients are disappointed that there will be no systemic investigation into the serious barriers to access to welfare that they witness on a daily basis.

Ms. Carter, who is no longer in the position of Ombudsperson, set out in her decision that the Ombudsperson’s office would continue to welcome individual complaints relating to the service delivery issues raised in the complaint. Ms. Carter advised that focusing on a systemic complaint would take resources away from the many individual complaints their office receives from vulnerable individuals trying to access the welfare ministry.

As of July 1, 2015, Kim Carter, is no longer in the position of Ombudsperson for BC. Jay Chalke is the new Ombudsperson.

“Our clients are disappointed that there will be no systemic investigation into the serious barriers to access to welfare that they witness on a daily basis. We are currently exploring options as to how to address these critical concerns about access to basic income supports,” said Lobat Sadrehashemi of BCPIAC.

Download the Complaint to the Ombudsperson dated May 12, 2015

Download Kim Carter’s June 2015 decision

Income assistance program failing B.C.’s most vulnerable, advocates say

July 01, 2015 | Kat Sieniuc | The Globe and Mail

Link to original article

Christopher Shay thought he was going to lose everything. An unsuccessful job search left the 42-year-old man broke, hungry and with an eviction notice for his Vancouver-area apartment.

Mr. Shay, who is deaf, applied to the province’s Ministry of Social Development and Social Innovation for immediate income assistance. The urgency of his situation qualified him to receive – at minimum – a food voucher or shelter referral within one business day, according to the ministry’s policies.

He and his lawyer both say he received neither for five weeks.

“They never phoned to say, ‘Hey, did you get evicted? Do you have any money for groceries?’ None of that happened,” said Mr. Shay’s lawyer, Sarah Khan.

Mr. Shay said he didn’t get anything from the province until he received his first social-assistance cheque for about $960. By then, he had lost 20 pounds from not eating, he said.

His case is an extreme example of what outreach advocates say is a common problem for people in dire situations who ask for immediate assistance from the provincial government: Applicants are often waiting longer than a day to receive short-term resources or to hear back from the ministry at all.

It just felt like I was being completely ignored through the process.

Mr. Shay said the ministry should have done more to help him.

“[The ministry] kept saying they couldn’t do anything, they couldn’t help, they couldn’t provide anything,” Mr. Shay said through a sign-language interpreter.

“It just felt like I was being completely ignored through the process.”

The ministry’s policy says people applying for social assistance who indicate an immediate need – for food, shelter or medical attention – must be given an appointment with an agent within one business day. If there are no appointments available, “staff must ensure the applicant is provided with or informed of and directed to other available resources … until an intake interview can be held to determine eligibility,” the policy says.

Those resources include food vouchers, shelter referrals, bus tickets and money for urgent medical attention, according to the ministry’s website.

“It’s [taking] over a day to just meet the immediate need of a food voucher,” said Zoe MacMillan, an advocate at Together Against Poverty Society.

“And even then, that would often take a lot of advocacy to let the person know they should ask for a food voucher – calling and following up, doing those extra steps to push the issue.”

The ministry insists all immediate needs were met in one business day last year by providing applicants with vouchers or referrals. However, the ministry also said it does not keep specific data on clients with immediate needs, and a spokesperson could not explain how the department measured its success rate.

Social Development Minister Michelle Stilwell did not make herself available for an interview. She said in an e-mail statement that the policy “does not mean that an eligibility assessment will be complete within one business day, or that a cheque will be issued.” Ms. Stilwell noted the ministry provides short-term resources if an appointment isn’t immediately available.

Ms. Stilwell said the ministry has also made it easier to apply for welfare by offering a toll-free phone number and moving applications online, which she said gives front-line staff more time to deal with people who need extra help.

At a minimum, the ministry should have assisted me to meet my immediate needs by providing me with grocery vouchers or hardship assistance

In May, Mr. Shay filed a human-rights complaint against the ministry, alleging it did not provide him with any immediate assistance after he submitted his application, nor did it follow up to arrange an appointment. He also alleges the ministry discriminated against him for being deaf by failing to accommodate his communication needs with a sign-language interpreter on an urgent basis.

“At a minimum, the ministry should have assisted me to meet my immediate needs by providing me with grocery vouchers or hardship assistance,” Mr. Shay said in his complaint to the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal.

In 2009, the provincial ombudsperson at the time, Kim Carter, released a report concluding the ministry was not consistently providing intake interviews within one business day to people with immediate needs. The report showed it took an average of 1.4 days to schedule assessment appointments in 2007 and 1.6 days in 2008.

The ministry said it accepted the report’s recommendation to better comply with its policy to provide appointments within one day, but that hasn’t happened yet. In a status report on the ombudsperson’s website, the ministry says it has been “identifying improvement opportunities.”

Advocates, however, say delays for appointments are getting worse.

“I don’t know the last time I’ve ever heard of an immediate needs assessment being done in a day,” said Didi Dufresne, a legal advocate at First United Church.

“It’s more like a week to two weeks, to potentially three weeks.”

Amber Prince, an advocate at Atira Women’s Resource Society, said it’s often difficult for her clients to speak with someone at the ministry at all, further putting off emergency assistance.

“We’ve had times where our calls have been disconnected.” she said. “They face so many barriers to even … get to even speak to someone that they’re really going to fall through the cracks.”

Welfare process assailed for ‘extreme’ delay

June 23, 2015 | Stefania Seccia | 24 hours

Link to original article

Unable to find work after taking time off school to pay his student loan bills, Christopher Shay found himself needing social assistance.

He didn’t expect the system assigned to support him would place more barriers in his path.

That’s why Shay, 42, who was born deaf and speaking through his interpreter Alana McKenna, has filed a complaint against the Ministry of Social Development and Social Innovation to the BC Human Rights Tribunal.

Shay was a life skills worker and an educational assistant, and then began studying computer science at Douglas College in 2012. He withdrew two years later as his student loans were high and he wanted to work to pay down some of the debt incurred.

After being unable to find employment, he applied for welfare last September, specifying he had an immediate need of assistance.

In the subsequent five weeks he waited to get $610 a month, lost 20 pounds, faced eviction three times, and “didn’t want to be alive.”

I thought I would become homeless, and maybe die on the street because I didn’t know where I was going to get any money from

“I thought I would become homeless, and maybe die on the street because I didn’t know where I was going to get any money from,” he said. “I felt very angry at the system. I felt very depressed.

“My self-esteem was absolutely diminished and it was a real hit on my dignity.”

In January, Shay started receiving about $906 a month for disability assistance, but only has $65 left for everything beside his BC Hydro bill and rent.

“I know I’m not alone,” he said. “To wait five weeks before receiving any sort of assistance is outrageous when the policy specifically states it’s meant to be within one business day.

“There was no explanation.”

The BC Public Interest Advocacy Centre filed the complaint on behalf of Shay, and the tribunal has agreed to hear his case.

Sarah Khan, Shay’s lawyer, said his case is one of the most extreme ones she’s seen.

“Usually the delays are one to three weeks and five weeks is an extreme delay,” she said. “The policy sounds good on paper; meeting the (immediate need of assistance) within one business day is a great policy, it’s a great service standard to have, but when it’s not being implemented I find it really frustrating that year after year this problem persists.”

In May, the centre filed a complaint with the B.C. ombudsperson on behalf of nine groups over allegations that the government has slashed access to welfare despite claiming enhanced services.

In response, Minister Michelle Stilwell said, “I trust you will understand that we cannot comment as the matter is before the human rights tribunal.”

Deaf man takes B.C. ministry to Human Rights Tribunal over delays in income assistance

June 23, 2015 | Cheryl Chan | The Province
Link to original article

When Christopher Shay applied for income assistance in September, he was at his wit’s end.

Shay, who is deaf, had applied for various jobs since August, a month after taking a hiatus from his computer science program at Douglas College, but failed to find employment.

Worried about paying the rent for his Coquitlam apartment, he applied for income assistance on Sept. 30, specifying “immediate needs,” a request which, according to the ministry’s own service standards, should have been addressed on the same business day.

But it took the 42-year-old five weeks to receive a welfare cheque — an outrageous waiting period, said advocates, for someone who needed help immediately.

“Five weeks is not a reasonable amount of time to be waiting,” Shay told The Province on Tuesday through sign language interpreter Alana McKenna in his lawyer’s office. “I was able to receive income assistance, but what was the point of that? I suffered for five weeks for no reason.”

Shay is now taking MSDSI to the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal, alleging discrimination on the basis of physical disability.

Shay is now taking the provincial Ministry of Social Development to the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal, alleging discrimination on the basis of physical disability.

Despite knowing he was deaf, “the ministry failed to accommodate me and actually made things worse for me by failing to comply with their own legislation and policy because they did not give me an immediate needs assessment on an urgent basis,” Shay said in the complaint, which was approved by the tribunal on June 4.

Shay said that, unlike hearing people, he is unable to call the welfare office and was dependent on others to call on his behalf or had to visit the office in person to talk to a case worker.

The visits and calls went nowhere, he said. The ministry was supposed to provide an interpreter to help him, but that wasn’t always the case. Often, he had to scribble notes back and forth with the person behind the counter. “It isn’t an effective method of communication.”

Shay admits he made mistakes that could have slowed down his application, such as initially providing the wrong email address and showing up 45 minutes late to an appointment. But the latter was moot, said Shay, because a promised interpreter wasn’t there anyway.

I felt like I was going to lose everything and live on the streets

“They couldn’t serve me anyway,” said Shay. “And they didn’t care. They’re like, ‘Oh well, you’re deaf, so we can’t serve you.’ That’s what it felt like.”

During the five-week wait, Shay received three eviction notices from his landlord. He borrowed money from friends to pay rent and relied on the food bank. He lost 20 pounds and sank into a depression.

“I felt like I was going to lose everything and live on the streets,” recalled Shay. “I felt very ashamed of what was happening. The system itself felt like it didn’t care about my immediate needs. It was a horrible, terrible time.”

Shay didn’t receive his first cheque from the ministry until Nov. 7. He then had to apply to get the funds backdated to October. No explanation was given for the delay.

Lawyer Sarah Khan of the B.C. Public Interest Advocacy Centre said Shay’s case is not unique but is “pretty extreme” compared to the usual wait time of one to three weeks.

Khan’s non-profit organization, which advocates for low-income and disadvantaged people, had filed a complaint against the ministry with the B.C. Ombudsperson in 2005 for systemic delays, particularly with the immediate needs assessment. It filed another complaint on behalf of several community organizations last month.

“We’ve heard countless stories over the years,” said Khan. “But we think because (Shay) is deaf and has communication barriers, the delays were more significant for him than (they) would have been for other people.”

In an emailed statement, Social Development Minister Michelle Stilwell said she understands Shay’s frustration but cannot comment because the matter is before the human rights tribunal.

chchan@theprovince.com

twitter.com/cherylchan

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Welfare ministry fails to recognize access problems exist

Erin Pritchard & Lobat Sadrehashemi | The Vancouver Sun

Link to original article

BCPIAC filed a complaint to the BC Ombudsperson on May 12, 2015 on behalf of nine community service agencies across the province, based on evidence that some of BC’s most vulnerable people are being denied access to basic welfare services.

The government’s response was  that the Ministry always “looks at ways to improve welfare services.”

BCPIAC staff lawyers Erin Pritchard and Lobat Sadrehashemi wrote this op-ed for the Vancouver Sun highlighting the government’s refusal to address a problem exists in the first place.

It is difficult to work to improve something when you won’t accept there is even a problem.

We recently filed a complaint to the B.C. ombudsperson on behalf of nine community service agencies across the province, based on evidence that some of B.C.’s most vulnerable people are being denied access to basic welfare services.

Welfare Minister Michelle Stilwell commented within hours to the media that the government always “looks at ways to improve welfare services.”

But the government’s response suggests that, in the immediate term, the government will deny that the problem exists and take no meaningful action to fix it.

People are denied vital income supports because the system is designed in a way that is difficult for many people to access. Welfare services are now primarily delivered through a centralized phone line and over the Internet. The initial application for income assistance is more than 90 screens and must be done online, with no dedicated Ministry services available to assist applicants with its completion. Call centre waiting times are long, and when callers finally get through, the Ministry places limits on the length of the call. Just this week, a caller was told to try again later in the afternoon, as the Ministry’s system was down and staff were unable to locate individual files. Last week, an advocate reported waiting over 80 minutes on hold to get through the phone line.

All this together creates a grim picture for what it is like to have access to services at B.C.’s welfare ministry.

While local ministry offices still exist, face-to-face services have been dramatically reduced, resulting in long lines. Fourteen ministry offices have been closed completely since 2005, and in September, 11 more offices in the North and Interior reduced their hours each day to only 1-4 p.m. Two offices in the Downtown Eastside are only available for drop-in appointments for two hours each day.

All this together creates a grim picture for what it is like to have access to services at B.C.’s welfare ministry.

We filed our complaint because the ministry has built a system that disregards the needs, abilities and resources of income assistance recipients. It makes no sense to require people who often lack reliable access to phones and the Internet to obtain services through a call centre and online. Yet this is exactly what the ministry has done and what it is planning to continue to do.

Stilwell’s quick statement in response to our complaint strains credibility. First, she pointed out her ministry “meets with advocates to resolve issues of concern.” True, but it is at these meetings where advocates have repeatedly complained, in detail, about the barriers their clients face in trying to access ministry services. The government’s failure to act on these complaints is precisely what prompted the nine organizations across the province to file a systemic complaint with the ombudsperson.

Stilwell referred to feedback from clients indicating “a growing interest in services available over the phone or online.” What she omitted is that the last time the ministry solicited feedback on its methods of service, it only conducted its survey online, denying clients a paper copy of the survey even when they specifically asked for one. Despite this obvious design flaw that excluded people without Internet access, the majority of income assistance recipients that were able to complete the online survey still responded they preferred face-to-face services. Despite the clear results favouring face-to-face services, the ministry concluded it should move forward with offering more services online and over the phone.

Stilwell’s statements demonstrate how out of touch the government is both with the needs of the people that it has a legal duty to assist, and with what happens on a daily basis at ministry offices across the province.

Stilwell also claimed that urgent food and shelter needs are addressed within one business day, no matter how clients contact the ministry. This is simply not happening. In our research with advocates across B.C., we heard repeatedly there were delays in providing assistance for people with urgent needs. If you design a system with long waiting times on the phone, lines at offices with limited hours, and offer no help with completing a required initial online application, it should come as no surprise your staff members have difficulty responding to those in crisis.

Stilwell’s statements demonstrate how out of touch the government is both with the needs of the people that it has a legal duty to assist, and with what happens on a daily basis at ministry offices across the province.

Mental health advocate Kris Sutherland was asked at our recent press conference what he would say to Stilwell if he had the opportunity to speak to her face-to-face. Sutherland quickly responded he would ask her to sit at his office for a week and see what his clients experience. We think this would be a great idea. Maybe the government would begin to acknowledge it has a problem, which they need to do before they can fix it.

Erin Pritchard and Lobat Sadrehashemi are staff lawyers with the B.C. Public Interest Advocacy Centre.

© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun

BC Residents Living in Poverty Deserve Accountability

On May 12, 2015 BCPIAC filed a complaint to the BC Ombudsperson on behalf of nine community service agencies across the province, based on evidence that some of BC’s most vulnerable people are being denied access to basic welfare services.

access-denied-meme-draft1-1024x768 BC Residents Living in Poverty Deserve AccountabilityFourteen Ministry offices have been closed completely since 2005, and in September 2014, 11 more offices in the North and Interior reduced their hours to only three hours per day, from 1pm to 4pm. Two offices in the Downtown Eastside are only available for drop-in appointments for two hours each day.

Call centre wait times are long, and when callers finally get through, the Ministry places limits on the length of the call. The initial application for income assistance is more than 90 screens and must be done online, with no dedicated Ministry services available to assist applicants with its completion.

Online welfare system a barrier: advocate

May 13, 2015 | Stefania Seccia | 24 HOURS

Link to original article

Nine groups filed an official complaint with the B.C. ombudsperson Tuesday over allegations that the government has slashed access to welfare despite claiming enhanced services.

Over the last five years, the Ministry of Social Development and Social Innovation has made radical changes to how it delivers services – more online and on the phone – that has resulted in barriers, according to the 40-page complaint filed by nine social service agencies by the BC Public Interest Advocacy Centre.

Since 2005, 14 ministry offices have closed, and 11 out of 82 have reduced the times they’re open to three hours a day.

“The B.C. government needs to be held accountable for its unfair treatment and the ministry needs to design services so it serves the very people it’s supposed to,” said Lobat Sadrehashemi, staff lawyer with the advocacy centre.

Amber Prince, Atira Women’s Resource Society’s legal advocate, said getting access in person is “severely restricted,” and many women tell her about waiting outside the ministry office in the rain.

When she helps women with a call it’s usually a long wait – up to 30 minutes – and for women without phones, computers, and fleeing violence, it’s a “huge barrier.”

“Recently, a woman said to me in tears while we were on hold, ‘Remember the days when you could speak to an actual person?” she said.

But Minister Michelle Stilwell, of social development, defended her ministry’s actions towards centralizing the service online and on the phone.

“Feedback from ministry clients indicates a growing interest in services available over the phone and online,” she said in a statement to 24 hours. “That in turn means that frontline staff has more time to help those who need extra assistance.

“In person or face-to-face services will always be available to clients who require it, as well as outreach services for the most vulnerable.”

Stilwell said the ministry meets regularly with advocates “to maintain open communication on our services for clients and work to resolve issues of concern.”

The ministry also works closely with the ombudsperson to resolve client concerns, “and looks forward to continuing to do so,” she added.

But Sadrehashemi noted that back in October, the ministry had an online survey asking clients to evaluate how they wanted services provided, and many preferred face-to-face services.

Welfare office reductions prompts complaint to BC Ombudsperson

May 13, 2015 | The Early Edition, CBC News

Link to original article

Listen to the full audio interview with Lobat Sadrehashemi.

The B.C. government is making it harder for vulnerable people to access income-assistance according to nine community organizations who’ve filed a complaint with the BC Ombudsperson.

The organizations, which include the Kettle Society and Atira Women’s Resource Society in Vancouver, argue the province has shut down or reduced the hours of many welfare services offices across the province, making it more difficult for people to speak to staff in person.

At it’s core, it’s really about vulnerable people effectively being shut out by welfare services

Lobat Sadrehashemi, BCPIAC staff lawyer

“At it’s core, it’s really about vulnerable people effectively being shut out by welfare services,” said Lobat Sadrehashemi, a lawyer with the B.C Public Interest Advocacy Centre which is representing the agencies.

“Not because of any change in the law or because they’ve been explicitly excluded, but simply because of the way the welfare ministry has decided to design its services.”

Shift in services

Over the last few years the Ministry of Social Development and Social Innovation has shifted the way it provides its services to relying more on call centres and encouraging people seeking welfare services to apply by phone or online.

But many low income people don’t have reliable access to either, Sadrehashemi said.

“The organizations we represent have repeatedly raised these concerns with the Ministry,” said Sadrehashemi. “It’s fallen on deaf ears.”

Since 2005, the Ministry has closed 14 offices and reduced operating hours at others — 11 offices located in northern  B.C. and the southern interior are now only open three hours a day.

B.C government says changes reflect feedback

In a statement emailed to the CBC, Minister of Social Development and Social Innovation Michelle Stilwell acknowledges it may be challenging for many low income individuals and families to access modern technology, but feedback from ministry clients indicates a growing interest in services available over the phone and online.

The ministry argues it provides more flexibility on how, when and where people access services.

“In person or face to face services will always be available to clients who require it, as well as outreach services for the most vulnerable,” said Stilwell. “If people have an urgent need — no matter how they contact us — help is immediately offered”

But Sadrehashemi says it’s not enough to create greater access online while reducing access to staff face-to-face. She hopes the ombudsperson will recommend systemic change.

“Ultimately this is not an individual issue, it’s the way the entire system is designed is shutting out people.”

Welfare system ‘discriminates’ against those who need it: report

May 12, 2015 | Lori Culbert | Vancouver Sun 

Link to original article

Nine social services agencies from across B.C. will file a joint complaint to the provincial ombudsperson today, alleging that changes to the welfare system make it nearly impossible for vulnerable people to access government assistance.

The complaint calls for a systemic review, arguing people on welfare often live in precarious housing with little or no access to computers or phones. Therefore, it is difficult for these clients to adapt to the “radical changes” made by the Ministry for Social Development and Social Innovation over the last five years to deliver most services through centralized phone lines and over the Internet.

At the same time, the complaint says, in-person services have been cut, with 14 ministry offices closed in the past decade. And since 2014, 11 more offices across B.C. reduced their hours to just three a day, and two others are open just two hours a day, resulting in long lineups.

“The current service delivery scheme at the ministry is unjust, oppressive and improperly discriminatory,” alleges the complaint, prepared by the B.C. Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC). “(It) results in serious barriers to access for a vulnerable group of people who are attempting to access critical services to meet their basic needs.”

The PIAC will file the complaint on behalf of the social services agencies, including Atira Women’s Resource Society, First United Church and the Kettle Society in Vancouver, as well as similar organizations throughout B.C. It asks provincial Ombudsperson Kim Carter to conduct an investigation into the ministry’s “arbitrary, unreasonable, and unfair procedures.”

Lawyer Lobat Sadrehashemi said the PIAC, a Vancouver public-interest law office, will make the report, “Access Denied: Shut Out of B.C.’s Welfare System,” public at a news conference today. An advance copy was provided to The Sun.

The changes have forced some clients to wait longer to be approved for income or disability assistance, Kettle Society advocate Kris Sutherland says in the complaint.

“I have noticed a significant change in the time required for our clients to receive their first cheque. Once a client completes an application for income assistance online, they must wait until a ministry worker calls them to participate in the eligibility review interview. If a client does not have a phone, or if they miss the call, their benefit payment can be substantially delayed,” he said in an affidavit.

Scott Simpson, who injured his back at work in 2010, is on disability assistance. He relies on a scooter or walking sticks to get around, and has chronic pain. He cannot drive and finds tasks such as cooking very difficult.

When it comes to filling out forms, he said the online option is confusing and the long wait for an answer on the phone is frustrating. Simpson had workers in his local Nelson ministry office who helped him, but now it is open only three hours a day and has regular lineups.

“They are not thinking about the people who need these services,” he said in an interview. “I can understand why they want to save money, but they have to figure out other ways to do it.”

In its 2012-13 budget, the ministry said the new system was not meant to replace in-person services but to improve options available to residents: “To broaden client access through multiple channels; maximize efficiency; integrate with other ministries and government priorities; and, ensure continuous service improvement.”

But, the complaint alleges, the initial application for income assistance must now be done online. It is only available in English and is lengthy, asking for detailed information about assets, immigration, employment history, and homelessness.

“The majority of our clients are not computer savvy and many are not even computer literate. In my work I have seen that the move toward the increasing use of online services has had detrimental impacts on clients who are older, have mental health challenges or cognitive disabilities, or are too poor to afford a computer and don’t want to use public computers to work on such personal matters,” said Sutherland.

Clients who go to ministry offices for help with issues such as crisis supplements or medical services are routinely told they must first phone the “Automated Telephone Inquiry” line, said Danielle Dufresne, legal advocate at First United Church.

Assuming clients can find a phone, they face considerable time on hold, confusion about using the automated menu, time limits on the calls, and impersonal service by a worker who may not have the authority to solve the problem, she said.

For someone with a mental illness, trying to understand a complex issue such as monthly deductions is tough to do over the phone without a face-to-face worker writing down an explanation, the advocates add.

The report says the ministry started a three-month pilot project in March that attempts to speed up complaints from advocates representing multiple clients, but noted this doesn’t help the individual with a personal complaint and/or no advocate.

“These access barriers continue to deprive clients of critical, life-sustaining supports — supports to which they are legally entitled,” the report says. “It is critical that the ombudsperson investigate.”

The ministry is expected to respond when the report is released today.

 

B.C. ombudsman asked to look into welfare access

May 12, 2015 | Mike Hager | The Globe & Mail

Link to original article

Two weeks ago, Brant Cechanek went to the local welfare office to apply for a small lump-sum payment that would allow him to buy a mini-fridge and a microwave to help the laid-off oil sands worker eat healthier and stretch his meagre food budget.

He said he was told to call the Social Development and Social Innovation Ministry’s central hotline after lining up at a Downtown Eastside office for about half an hour to see a drop-in social worker during the one-hour window scheduled for such visits twice each day. He phoned the hotline, was told he would get a call back in five days, but he said that call never came. After phoning the ministry number again, he was denied the $150.

Mr. Cechanek said he is convinced that if he could plead his case face-to-face with a social worker he could get the payment, as a friend and neighbour at his run down single-rent occupancy hotel did weeks earlier with an outreach advocate at his side.

Many people on social assistance are homeless or live in unstable housing and do not own a phone or computer or have easy access to the Internet

“We’re just a voice, we’re nobody to them on the other line,” Mr. Cechanek said in an interview on Tuesday. “We’re not drug addicts, we’re not junkies, we’re just stuck in between a rock and a hard place right now.”

Mr. Cechanek’s problems getting services echo those laid out in a new complaint by a group representing nine non-profit organizations across the province. The BC Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC), a not-for-profit law firm, issued a report at a news conference on Tuesday morning and has asked B.C.’s Ombudsperson to investigate systemic issues it says are caused by the ministry’s “radical changes” over the past five years. Those changes include pushing social-payment recipients toward phone or online interactions and closing 14 offices and cutting hours at another 11.

Many people on social assistance are homeless or live in unstable housing and do not own a phone or computer or have easy access to the Internet, PIAC lawyer Lobat Sadrehashemi told reporters on Tuesday.

Some, like Mr. Cechanek, waste valuable time on their pay-as-you-go mobile phone plan waiting 20 minutes or more on the centralized ministry hotline to speak to staff who are under pressure to keep calls short because of backlogs, Ms. Sadrehashemi added.

On top of that, new social-assistance applications must be done online, are offered in English only and are complicated, asking for information on applicant’s assets, work history and immigration status, the complaint alleges. Some people have experienced substantial delays in getting their first social assistance or disability cheque because of this online system, the complaint also alleges.

“At its core, this complaint really is about how welfare services are not being designed with their users in mind,” Ms. Sadrehashemi said.

Minister Michelle Stilwell acknowledged on Tuesday it can be challenging for “many low-income individuals and families to access modern technology, or perhaps maybe they’re just not comfortable with doing that.”

But she said the push to provide service via the centralized hotline and online gives front-line staff more time to serve people face-to-face. She said she is only aware of long lineups at social-assistance offices on the days cheques are issued.

She said the average wait on the social-assistance hotline is less than 10 minutes. Last December, it was more than half an hour, according to the ministry data obtained by the PIAC. Ms. Stilwell said those long waits were due to “problems with the network” that have been rectified.

Ombudsperson Kim Carter said her office will review the complaint and determine whether it is a systemic issue that merits a report, which could take up to three years. She added that, year after year, the largest number of complaints to her office are lodged against the ministry overseeing welfare (about 19 per cent of files in the 2013 fiscal year). That’s in part because welfare recipients “are people who often don’t have other places to turn,” she said.