Dear Minister Regan:
I am a Senior Law Student at Dalhousie Legal Aid Clinic. During the three short months that I have had the opportunity to work with the Dalhousie Legal Aid Clinic I have encountered a number of members of our community that faced barriers in accessing the Department of Community Services’ Income Assistance program.
In my experience, the circumstances of these applications do not fulfill the purpose of the Employment Support and Income Assistance Act. Section 2 reads, “the purpose of this Act is to provide for the assistance of persons in need and, in particular, to facilitate their movement toward independence and self-sufficiency.” The files that I have worked on in my time at the clinic tells a different story; one where the onerous application process leaves progress stagnant, and where the needs of the client are not approached with compassion but are discounted and disregarded.
Falling through the cracks of the system
I acknowledge that each file had their own challenges which made them more complicated than the average file. However, once that extra level of complication was added the existing system was unable to serve them. Each of my clients fell through the cracks of a system that is apparently designed to provide assistance to persons in need.
I too grew up in a situation where my family fell through the cracks of the social assistance system and so I can personally attest to the feelings of hopelessness and defeat that is experienced when this happens. At this time, families and persons in need require support and compassion, however what our clients met with were closed doors. Each of our clients entered ‘survival mode’ and lived in fear of losing access to income assistance, and the consequences that would mean in their lives. The stakes were high in our clients’ cases, including possibly losing their children, being unable to provide essential medication to their family or being left to live in a situation of domestic unrest.
Our existing Employment Support and Income Assistance system needs to develop to ensure that these people are also caught in the safety net. Through extensive work on issues around income assistance, I have identified key areas where improvement is needed.
The application process for the income assistance program is too much as it currently exists. In one of my files my task was to help a client get on income assistance, but this process took a month and a half to complete. Each time that I talked to the intake worker about our progress she reminded me that once she received the initial documents that she requested, she may need more. There was a constant veiled threat of future ‘red flags’ that may block access to the income assistance program.
The documents that were requested by the intake worker were often exacting and captious. Some requests included a letter from a family member who transferred a mere $50 into the applicant’s bank account two months earlier, or an explanation of each money coming into the account, even though the total of that money was less than the budget estimate.
The list of documents that were initially requested was an entire page long. After the delivery of those, more documents were requested. Some of the documents that were requested had fees associated with the provision of those documents, which my client could not pay. We were also required to produce documents from government programs from other provinces where my clients had previously lived. The incremental release of instructions for documents resulted in the application process taking over the 30-day allowance.
During this application process we requested that Employment Support and Income Assistance Regulation 9 be applied. This provision allows income assistance workers to release funds before the application is complete if the applicant faces undue hardship where the money is not paid out. My client was in danger of being evicted because of late rent payments, in danger of having their phone cut off which is necessary for health reasons, and the last money that came into the household was over a month earlier, leaving a need for grocery money. In this request we explained the steps that were being taken to obtain the remaining documentation and committed to providing this documentation at the earliest opportunity. Unfortunately, these circumstances did not accrue to be deemed as undue hardship because our request was denied.
The demanding application process created a situation of hardship. The delays of collecting documents were not for lack of trying, but instead due to transportation, financial and health complications. When the application of Regulation 9 was requested to lessen the burden of the hardship, it was denied.
Lack of compassion
In each of the cases that I worked on, each of the clients was facing a particularly difficult situation in their lives, on top of the stress of not being able to support themselves and their families. The system showed no understanding or compassion to the realities of our clients.
For some health issues made them unable to leave their home and therefore unable to collect the required documentation to finish their application. For others a family emergency resulted in the clients having to move into the same house as other family members. And others still were experiencing domestic violence at home and was stuck in that situation because they were unable to separate the joined income assistance file with the abuser.
In each case not having access to the income assistance could have disastrous outcomes. They were met with a cold and inflexible system, which did not take into account any of their challenges. In each case the client was made to feel like they were doing something wrong in their attempts at simply surviving.
The management and revision process of the ESIA Policy Manual is inappropriate. There is a lack of transparency and accountability in the decisions to alter the policy manual. While the policy manual is not law, it is certainly treated as such by Department workers, therefore, the changes made to the policy manual should be subject to the same level of public scrutiny as would a change in the regulations. However, this is not the case. The Policy Manual is altered without notice or option for the patrons to have a say, even though it is the public that the policy manual is supposed to serve.
The glaring message that I have learned during this term is that the Department of Community Services needs to do better to provide assistance to persons in need whose situation is complicated. The news that the Department of Community Services has not used all of the monies that was originally set aside for various services is not a point of celebration for people in our community. Instead it is a point of frustration because the needs of the people are not being fulfilled, and the social system that is supposed to support them turns them away. The stories that I have heard over my time at Dalhousie Legal Aid Service are of a few, but I know that there are many more in the community whose experience with the Department is similarly unsatisfying.
Senior Law Student
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