The Moe government’s expensive SIS mistake leaves the poor out in the cold and communities on the hook for costs
Province | Gregory Beatty | Nov. 18, 2021
After an unseasonably warm fall, Saskatchewan got its first taste of winter Nov. 11 when a snowstorm swept through the province. The next day, after a two-year standoff with an unlikely group of allies that eventually grew to include anti-poverty organizations, the Saskatchewan Landlord Association, FSIN, SUMA and others, the Saskatchewan Party government announced a tweak to the province’s main social assistance program: Saskatchewan Income Support.
The tweak, which allows for the direct payment of rent and utility bills for SIS recipients with, in the government’s words, “complex challenges who are at risk of homelessness”, addressed a flaw that had drawn a lot of media and public attention.
It was a little bit of a thaw for a program that’s deservedly received a frosty reception.
But the problems with SIS don’t end here.
Like a lot of government policies under premier Scott Moe, the changes to Saskatchewan Income Support seem poorly thought out and recklessly implemented. Generally, the policies masquerade as cost saving, but inevitably end up creating an expensive nightmare — while harming some of the province’s most vulnerable people.
More on that in a bit. First, let’s have some background.
Before the government introduced SIS in 2019 it delivered social assistance through three programs: the Saskatchewan Assistance Program (SAP), the Transition Employment Allowance (TEA) and the Saskatchewan Assured Income for Disability (SAID). The programs also had targeted benefits for special expenses — school supplies, moving allowances, clothing and furniture grants, and care supplies for parents with special-needs children.
In 2019, the government streamlined the system by merging SAP and TEA into SIS. At that point, around 22,500 Saskatchewan households were on SAP or TEA, and 16,000 were on SAID.
The government consulted anti-poverty groups in the lead-up to the change, says Peter Gilmer of the Regina Anti-Poverty Ministry. And for awhile, it looked like they’d avoid major problems.
“We didn’t have any illusion we were going to see a significant increase in benefits, but it looked like there would be an improved wage exemption,” Gilmer says. “We didn’t get what we wanted, but it went up to $325 a month, which a person could keep while remaining on SIS (or $500 per family).
“But then a few months later the government came down with all the details, with the understanding that SIS would come into effect later that summer,” says Gilmer. “It was then that we discovered all these, just obvious problems that we said would cause destitution in terms of people not being able to meet basic needs.”
To help SAP and TEA recipients adapt, the government postponed final implementation of SIS until Aug. 31, 2021. But it put new applicants on SIS right away.
As the countdown to Aug. 31 neared this summer, anti-poverty groups’ grim 2019 prediction became chillingly real — with a growing number of people in inner city Regina and Saskatoon “sleeping rough” and struggling to survive.
As cooler weather arrived in early October, a homeless camp was established in a Regina park (Camp Marjorie, later renamed Camp Hope) that eventually “housed” over 100 people. In Saskatoon, makeshift encampments sprung up at different spots, sparking health and safety concerns from the Saskatoon Fire Department.
The Sask. Party government’s Nov. 12 policy tweak willhelp some people — a bit, says Gilmer.
“Certainly, there are folks with addictions or other issues that make financial management difficult,” he says. “But the majority of folks we work with are the best budgeters I know. For a single person in Regina on SIS, they receive $575 a month to cover rent, utilities and other shelter-based costs. Then they get $285 to cover food and all other expenses.”
The government cut or reduced many of the special expense programs, too. One that NDP social services critic Meara Conway points to is the security deposit, which people pay in advance to landlords before moving in.
“It’s only available now once every two years,” says Conway. “Anyone who knows anything about the lived reality of people who face housing insecurity knows they may have to move more than once every two years.”
The Saskatchewan Landlord Association reported in early November that 30 per cent of income-assisted tenants hadn’t paid any rent for September and October and another 12 per cent hadn’t paid full rent. The social housing sector saw a similar situation, with agencies evicting tenants at what one spokesperson described as an “unprecedented” rate.
“Part of that is the direct payment issue, but for many people there’s nothing in the market they can afford with their benefits,” says Gilmer. “Sometimes people are going to choose rent over food, and other times they’re going to feel they have to eat or meet other needs.”
This is all happening, remember, during a 20-month global pandemic which has made what was already a bad situation for the housing insecure even worse, says Kayla Demong.
Demong is the associate executive director at Prairie Harm Reduction in Saskatoon, which operates a safe consumption site and other support services in an impoverished inner-city neighbourhood [see sidebar].
“Restrictions that shelters and other support programs had to implement for safety really highlighted the level of need and the disconnect between street-level homelessness and the programs available for support,” says Demong. “We don’t have an adequate amount of affordable housing, and we don’t have adequate benefits through income assistance.”
Another SIS change Demong is critical of is the government’s decision to route all social assistance financial matters through a call centre that’s separate from the social workers who administer the caseload.
“We are now paying staff to sit on hold with the call centre for five or six hours a day,” she says. “Often, it gets to a point where the centre says they are first in the queue and then they’re disconnected. Or they get a message saying the volume of calls is too high, and they’re disconnected.”
Change With A Big Blue C
When voters first elected the Saskatchewan Party in 2007, premier Brad Wall promised to not let ideology cloud his government’s thinking. He didn’t always hold true to that pledge, but the 2012 introduction of a revamped support program for physically and mentally disabled people (SAID) was an example of a pragmatic policy that improved people’s lives, says Conway.
Today’s Sask. Party, though, bears little resemblance to the one Wall led. That party had a sizeable Liberal/Progressive Conservative contingent. Now, the party is strictly hard “C” conservative, and ideology seems to factor into every decision it makes.
“That’s one thing that strikes me about the government’s approach, whether it’s SIS or mental health and addictions,” says Conway. “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. This is all just crisis response.”
Not only is the government’s refusal to proactively address these complex challenges bad social policy, she says, it’s also fiscally wasteful.
“Housing insecurity leads to downstream costs in health, justice and social services, whether it’s $10,000 a month for a hospital bed, $6,000 for a jail cell, or $2,000 for a shelter space,” says Conway. “Accessible social housing is by far the most affordable option.”
Given that Indigenous people face higher rates of poverty and other social challenges, the government’s indifferent attitude calls into question its commitment to reconciliation, says Conway.
“When you think about the discovery of unmarked children’s graves and other disturbing revelations about residential schools and the resulting intergenerational trauma, we should be especially aware about the social determinants of poverty and that blaming individuals just won’t work,” she says.
As a Nov. 5 statement by the Saskatchewan Urban Municipality Association (SUMA) made clear, this isn’t simply a “big city” issue. Even smaller Saskatchewan communities, which form the heart of the Sask. Party voter base, are hurt by these changes. And frontline health and emergency response workers, who are already run ragged by the pandemic, are essentially being forced by the government to perform damage control, leading to further stress and burnout.
In Regina, city administration scrambled in late October to find an indoor replacement for Camp Hope to serve as an emergency shelter this winter — eventually opening a 40-bed space on Nov. 15. Saskatoon, meanwhile, has activated its Emergency Management Organization to visit camps and help people find shelter, and Saskatoon Tribal Council is working on a plan to open a temporary 50-bed shelter by Dec. 1.
There’s also the broader impact on residents and businesses to consider, says Conway.
“In Saskatoon, Prairie Harm Reduction had an encampment behind their facility, and that led to a fecal waste issue where the city had to come down four times a day. It’s not just burdensome on the public purse, it’s burdensome on public morale.
“An effective social safety net has so much to offer,” she says. “It’s really a no-brainer to invest in some front-end prevention and basic security.”
Harm Reduction Deserves Help
On Nov. 9, the Saskatchewan Coroner’s Office released updated statistics on overdose deaths for 2021. As of Oct. 31, there had been 161 confirmed and 202 suspected deaths from drug toxicity — 81 deaths in Regina and 42 in Saskatoon.
While the numbers are shocking, they’re an improvement from 2020 when Regina had 139 fatalities and Saskatoon 73. Still, with growing poverty and homelessness in both cities, and a new fentanyl variant on the streets that contains the depressant benzodiazepine (which inhibits naloxone from reversing an overdose), the crisis is no less dire than last year. Yet overdose deaths in both cities are down significantly.
Well, one factor that has undoubtedly helped is that both cities now have safe consumption sites with staff trained to deal with people in medical distress from drug toxicity. Prairie Harm Reduction opened its site in Saskatoon last October, while the Nēwo Yōtina Friendship Centre opened its site in Regina in May.
Even if overdose stats are better in 2021, the situation is still grim, says Kayla Demong of Prairie Harm Reduction.
“We are seeing the fentanyl-benzo drugs coming through so we’re dealing with multiple crises,” says Demong. “We have homelessness, the opioid overdose crisis, and we’re still dealing with our crystal meth crisis that we’ve been fighting for years to get better supports for.”
Twice now, the Sask. Party government has turned down a $1.3 million budget request from PHR to help fund the site, which also plays a critical role in limiting the spread of blood-borne infections such as HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis B by providing clean needles. Instead, PHR has had to rely on fundraising and community donations to run the site.
Four years into the fentanyl-fueled overdose crisis, the government continues to focus its attention (and our tax dollars) on treatment programs and counselling. The latest commitment came in the Oct. 27 Throne Speech, with the promise of an additional 150 treatment beds over three years.
“For a small portion of people who are well enough off to get there, treatment is effective,” says Demong. “But at this point, recovery is a privilege, because you have to have all the resources line up exactly.”
Treatment has a place in the continuum of care, and it’s an important place, she adds. “But so is harm reduction, and ensuring people live long enough so they get to a point where they can recover.”
Like the anti-poverty coalition and its allies in the SIS struggle, PHR and other harm reduction advocates have met a brick wall trying to get the government to listen.
“I don’t know what the best way is to get them to listen,” says Demong. “When you look at it from even an economic standpoint, the increase in homelessness, in opioid use and overdoses, we’re not saving the province and taxpayers any money because it all ends up in health and justice.
“We have emergency rooms that are overrun,” she says. “And right now that’s a huge issue, because we’re further burdening a health system that is barely able to keep up with what Covid has done to it.” /Gregory Beatty