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Sask. social income support changes spark criticism at SUMA convention


The Saskatchewan Urban Municipalities Association (SUMA) wrapped up its annual convention Wednesday with the province's social income support (SIS) program drawing plenty of questions and criticism.

The open session "bear pit," which customarily closes the four-day convention every year, allowed the roughly 1,000 delegates at TCU Place to pose any question to the provincial cabinet.

"The Saskatchewan Income Support program is not helping people who are vulnerable to being unhoused. In fact, across Saskatchewan, people are saying SIS is manufacturing homelessness. People are stuck in shelters. SIS is not working," Saskatoon councillor David Kirton said before asking his question.

"Will the Saskatchewan Assistance Program return with direct payments to landlords, guaranteed utility payments and fewer barriers to rehousing?"

Rather than answer the question, Minister of Social Services Gene Makowsky touted the province's existing programs and repeated some familiar talking points.

"It is a roughly $275 million program on top of the income assistance programs that we have. Roughly $620 million we will spend this year, more than double the record amount of revenue sharing for municipalities," Makowsky said.

"Because of a strong growing economy, we're able to make investments like these to have some of the highest rates in Canada for those (who are) most vulnerable."

Multiple questions from delegates asked pointed questions about SIS. The program was introduced in 2019 and replaced the Saskatchewan Assistance Program, or SAP, and the Transitional Employment Allowance, or TEA, in 2021.

One of the main changes brought on by SIS was giving cash to recipients directly instead of directly paying landlords and utilities. Some delegates during the final session of the convention blamed that specific change as a reason for increased evictions and increasing homelessness across Saskatchewan.

"I would say, we have about 17,000 households on the SIS program," Makowsky said. "The vast majority are able and willing and do a good job budgeting to pay for their needs."

A resolution earlier in the convention voted in favour of increasing SIS rates to meet the cost of living, restore direct rent and utilities payments, and develop more housing options for those deemed “hard to house” stemming from mental health and addiction issues. The vote carried with more than 90 per cent of delegates voting in favour.

"There are tent cities in our province. This is not an urban issue, this is not a rural issue, this is a Saskatchewan issue," La Ronge councillor Jordan McPhail said. "What is the government going to do to take people from tent cities to shelters? And if we pass the bylaws will you pass the budgets?"

In its budget revealed in March, the province announced the Ministry of Social Services will see an increase of $46.7 million. In a news release, the province said SIS clients will receive higher monthly benefits for the second consecutive year.

An additional $14.3 million will go towards SIS benefit payments to clients. Recipients of the Adult Basic Benefit and Shelter Benefit will each increase by $30 per month and clients who use alternative heat sources will also see a $30 increase.

Overall, Prince Albert councillor Tony Head wasn't impressed with Makowsky and other members of the provincial cabinet dodging questions.

"I'm not sure I got the answers that I wanted to get," Head said. "They seem to skirt the issues a bit. I wish they were a little bit more forward with their answers."

"This is my third SUMA convention and I have to say that's been an ongoing topic of conversation the last three years."

With the province seemingly reluctant to change the income assistance program or revert back to how it was before SIS was introduced, Head and many of the other delegates are hoping some form of support comes soon.

"We need more help. We need more assistance from the government," Head said. Top Stories

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