Rent issues follow Saskatchewan’s income assistance clawback due to CERB

A former client of Project Safe Haven in Yorkton tried for weeks on end to reach an income assistance worker through Saskatchewan’s Ministry of Social Services, says shelter director Nola Mahingen.

“She just left. We don’t know where she went,” Mahingen told Global News on Monday.

“All I know is the struggle she had with trying to get a hold of someone, someone to call her back.”

Mahingen said that after an extended six-week stay at the shelter, the woman was trying to prove she would be able to pay for the housing she’d found.

“This is just one example,” said Mahingen, who noted she also witnessed a mother of four go through a similar struggle trying to figure out what was going on with her provincial income assistance.

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Between April and September, when the federal government’s Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) was offered, the total number of households receiving any kind of provincial income assistance declined overall by 4,503.

Saskatchewan, which clawed back CERB payments dollar-for-dollar from income assistance recipients, placed clients’ files on hold if CERB exceeded their provincial allocations. After 60 days, the files were closed.

Doris Morrow, the social service ministry’s executive director of income assistance, previously told Global News in a statement that there are various reasons files can be placed on hold and couldn’t say how many resulted strictly from that CERB overlap.

Read more: Saskatchewan social services put support on hold, closed files for some CERB recipients

“After 60 days, they can apply for the Saskatchewan Income Support or Saskatchewan Assured Income for Disability program if they do not have the means to provide for their basic needs,” she wrote.

The path for CERB recipients to get back to provincial income assistance is troubling for advocates like Mahingen, who are particularly worried about how vulnerable people’s housing situations are being impacted as the pandemic wears on and the cold weather settles in.

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In response to a request for an interview with the social services minister regarding concerns about the length of time it’s taking people to reach an income assistance worker, the government said in a statement that income assistance workers have been working with their clients, including on how to understand the impact of CERB on their provincial benefits.

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Cameron Choquette, executive officer of the Saskatchewan Landlord Association, said he doesn’t think the full weight of the impact was effectively communicated to vulnerable people early enough or effectively enough.

He said members are struggling to help their tenants navigate the system, but the Ministry of Social Services “is throwing up roadblocks” for landlords and other service providers trying “to keep those wrap around services in place.”

“Absent a landlord’s actions or another service provider’s actions, these people on income assistance really become quite vulnerable to an eviction notice,” he added.

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Choquette said he spoke with one landlord Monday who had been trying for several days to reach a tenant’s income assistance worker “in an effort to try to keep him in housing.”

Citing privacy concerns, the income assistance workers landlords do manage to contact won’t engage on tenants’ situations, Choquette said.

Saddled with arrears as a result of the pandemic, evictions are not appealing for many landlords, Choquette said.

“It is our view that the government has forced landlords to really have these hard conversations with tenants who can’t pay for their housing because this province is choosing to claw back income assistance benefits from those who applied for CERB,” he said.

The Social Services Appeal Board has already called on the ministry to amend its existing policies to reflect the consequences of the pandemic.

Read more: Sask. government to pay back emergency benefits clawed back from student’s disability income

Monday, the NDP opposition critic for social services, Meara Conway, added her voice to the chorus calling for changes to how the government is handling the situation.

“This government is letting people down,” Conway was quoted as saying in a press release. “Especially as we are seeing staggering numbers of new cases, the Sask. Party needs to finally admit that this policy is literally leaving people out in the cold and putting lives at risk.”

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