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fourteen Ministry offices have closed across the province since 2005, while other offices have reduced hours or have been replaced by generic ServiceBC offices.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)

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 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.