May 12, 2015 | Lori Culbert | Vancouver Sun
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.