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Saskatoon protesters take aim at provincial government's social assistance changes

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SASKATOON -

A group opposing changes to Saskatchewan’s social assistance program protested in front of the Sturdy Stone building in Saskatoon on Wednesday morning.

Several people held signs with slogans such as “evictions equals deaths.”

A similar rally was happening outside the Saskatchewan Legislative Building.

The rallies come after the death Tuesday of a resident of Camp Marjorie – a camp of unhoused people living in Regina’s Pepsi Park which started with one tent and has grown as more people who are facing homelessness come to seek shelter.

In 2019, the Ministry of Social Services announced the creation of the Saskatchewan Income Support program, replacing the Saskatchewan Assistance Program and Transitional Employment Allowance.

SAP and TEA previously covered the cost of utilities for clients, but the new program puts the costs of rent, utilities, taxes and all other home-related costs under a shelter benefit, meaning a single adult will have to pay for all the home-related costs with $500-600 a month.

Clients also receive $285 to meet all other basic needs including food, transportation, clothing and personal items.

Critics say the elimination of the direct payment to rental housing and utility providers was driving up arrears and evictions, as clients could decide to spend their money on items other than rent.

Kayla Demong, associate director of Prairie Harm Reduction (PHR) in Saskatoon said the elimination of the direct payment to landlords and utility companies is what’s driving up homelessness in the city.

“We have an increasing number of people unable to pay their rent, unable to pay their bills, evicted because of rent arrears and they have nowhere to go," Demong said.

“We don’t have the shelter beds to send them too, we don’t have the resources to house them in the community so we do have a growing homelessness problem and we’re seeing this in encampments popping up all over our city.”

Demong said currently there is an encampment behind PHR’s building on 20th Street West near Avenue O South. She said she worries when winter hits and extreme cold blankets the city, what will happen to those who don’t have a shelter.

“With an increase homeless population we are going to see an increased need in health, an increase in the amount of people who die this winter because they’re out in the cold weather,” she said.

Holly Lucas is the affordable housing coordinator with Quint Development Corporation where six evictions were executed last month because of unpaid rent from tenants on social assistance. Lucas said she expects more evictions ahead as arrears continue to pile up.

“This system is set up to serve individuals in one way, there’s no leniency for anybody who has any challenges in meeting their needs in terms of financial literacy, addictions get in the way, life gets in the way,” Lucas said.

“It’s really frustrating to see such a simple solution as direct payments are ending up with people having to pack their bags and hit the street.”

The Ministry of Social Services previously responded to a CTV News request about changes to the SIS program and the elimination of direct payments.

Doris Morrow, the ministry’s executive director of income assistance program design, said the SIS program helps people who are on income assistance overcome challenges, earn more income, become more self-sufficient and start a career or participate in their communities.

“Clients on the Saskatchewan Income Support program are responsible for paying their rent, security deposits and utilities directly to landlords and utility companies, just like any other citizen,” Morrow said in a statement in September.

She said the ministry has been reaching out to landlords and housing agencies encouraging landlords to speak to tenants about setting up recurring direct-rent payments.

The ministry said it can also make arrangements for a trustee to help manage funds and become more self-sufficient.

Lucas said the trustee option isn’t perfect either. She said she’s heard stories where trustees fail to meet their obligations to settle bills for an income assistance client, and instead use the income assistance money for their own benefit.

“A lot of people are vulnerable and a lot of people are easy prey for other individuals; they don’t even make it out of the bank when they cash their cheque,” Lucas said.

In a statement to CTV News the Ministry of Social Services said under the previous SAP and TEA programs, 70 per cent of clients were already managing their own finances, including paying rent and utilities.

For clients who have complex challenges, the ministry said social services staff work with those clients to understand their needs, provide budgeting and financial information to develop long and short-term plans.

“Our Ministry is also continuing to reach out to landlords and housing providers, encouraging them to connect with us if they aren’t being paid rent,” the ministry said in a statement.

“We can connect with our clients to assist them with managing their budget to meet their rental obligations.”

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