Saskatchewan’s auditor has found thousands of phone calls have gone unanswered from people trying to get provincial social income support.
In her report, released Tuesday, Tara Clemett said that over a recent six-month period, the social services ministry received 50,000 calls from people hoping to use the Saskatchewan Income Support program. But 65 per cent of those calls weren’t taken.
She said even though staff have been trying to fix the issue, many needing help have been left struggling.
“(The ministry) needs to re-evaluate,” Clemett told reporters after tabling her report.
“If the clients are attempting to apply through the phone mechanism, they have to make it seem more accessible so that clients who are in need for these benefits have a mechanism by which they can be applying and get those benefits really in a timely manner.”
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Clemett found that when people sought help in person, ministry staff did not always allow applicants to use computers in the offices and required them to use the phone.
She said this is unacceptable.
Clemett recommended the ministry better accommodate people seeking help by providing improved in-person assistance and making computers available at all offices.
Peter Gilmer, an advocate with the Anti-Poverty Ministry in Regina, said long waits have been stressful for people.
“If you’re waiting on the phone for 45 minutes and then you get cut off and you’re having to call back again, at a certain point, people get frustrated with that,” he said. “Too much of our work time is spent trying to make sure that the ministry is responding in terms of that most initial and basic communication.”
The income support program provides financial assistance to help people meet their basic needs while they try to become more self-sufficient.
In the 2022-23 fiscal year, the ministry expects to spend $261.5 million on the program. It has an average monthly caseload of more than 17,000 clients.
While the auditor found the program delivery adequate, Clemett’s report flagged areas that need improvement.
It found ministry staff don’t always complete and update timely client case plans. One client waited 20 months before they met with staff to develop a plan.
Addressing case plans sooner can help ensure clients meet their goals and work toward self-sufficiency, the report said.
Clemett also said the ministry needs to analyze why some clients were unable to pay their electricity and gas bills.
Her report found more than 5,200 clients did not pay their gas and electricity bills for more than 30 days. These unpaid amounts were greater than $100 per client and amounted to almost $4.2 million.
It identified 35 clients who were evicted between May and November of 2022, based on ministry data obtained by landlords. Saskatchewan Sheriff Services Office data showed 228 clients were evicted between February to November of last year.
The report said having better tracking would help the ministry understand issues and identify changes that need to be made.
Anti-poverty advocates have said the program has not been sufficient in helping people meet their basic needs.
“It really is a mess,” Gilmer said.
In 2021, the ministry made changes allowing it to make direct payments to landlords for clients more at risk of being evicted.
Clemett said the ministry has to figure out why people can’t pay their bills or are being evicted. She’s expected to follow up on the government’s progress in about two or three years.
Meara Conway, the NDP Opposition critic for social services, said the Saskatchewan Party government program is failing to keep people housed.
She said the government should scrap the program and replace it with one that provides “livable” support. She would also like the direct payment model to be made available for all clients.
The Saskatchewan Party government did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Clemett said her report did not look at whether benefit amounts were sufficient.
However, she said rates need to strike a balance.
“It has to contemplate not being too high and being reasonable to support people in terms of their basic needs, but not incentivizing such that people will continue to stay on it and not attempt to become self-sufficient,” she said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 6, 2023.
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