Having just been denied an investigation by the previous B.C. ombudsperson, a Victoria anti-poverty advocate hopes that the new office-holder will tackle the provincial push to make social-services recipients use computers to get assistance, something he says contributes to homelessness.
“The moral, and I think responsible, decision — given the purpose of the ombudsperson’s office — is to do something about what is happening at the Ministry of Social Development,” said Stephen Portman, interim executive director of the Together Against Poverty Society.
“The inaccessibility of the ministry is perpetuating our homeless crisis, and it is perpetuating misery in the people who depend on [it] as a lifeline.”
The difficulties included wait times averaging 34 minutes in 2014 for the ministry’s call centre and 90 computer page-views to apply for welfare, something that hampers people who cannot read or afford access to phones and computers, says TAPS. It is one of nine public-interest groups that applied to former ombudsperson Kim Carter on May 12 for an investigation of the denial of services due to technological issues.
They were turned down on June 23, with Carter stressing in a five-page letter that investigations of individual cases, some with wide-ranging repercussions, were the way to go.
In addition to the problems with access to phones and computers, the technological approach is difficult for people who have problems with literacy, affordability, translation or typing, Portman said.
However, Carter did note that the lack of translation services for online applications and a 20-minute increase in average call waiting times in 2014 “particularly engaged” her attention.
The province said recently that all but 10,000 of almost 72,000 applications the ministry handled last year were initiated online.
However, homeless people frequently come into the TAPS office and say: “I applied for income assistance two months ago, but they didn’t call me back or I didn’t have a phone. Or I did it online and I sent it in and nobody got back to me,’ ” Portman said.
The province removed the $75 shelter allowance for homeless people in 2010, but they are still entitled to $235 per month in income support, Portman said. When he sees someone sleeping on the sidewalk, he doesn’t see a broken person. He sees a broken system.
People with a limited number of paid minutes on their phones are left hanging if the wait time is too long. Moreover, sometimes the entire B.C.-wide 1-866 number is shut down, as it was on July 29, he said, meaning that no one calling about social assistance and disability support could get through.
“And it goes down on regular basis.”
Those using the phone system get whoever is on the line, not a person familiar to them or what used to be called their welfare worker.
The assistance rate for a single person has not changed from $610 per month since 2007, Portman said. Until there is adequate support for more than survival, he predicts homelessness will increase.
When the investigation request into technological barriers was launched, minister Michelle Stilwell said that the ministry often works closely with the ombudsperson to resolve issues affecting people receiving social assistance.
“We are always looking at ways to improve our service and ensure we’re treating people fairly and respectfully,” she said. “We continue to review what additional steps we might take to ensure our services can be provided in a manner that reflects the needs of clients.”
The B.C. Public Interest Advocacy Centre, which led the call for a system-wide investigation, is trying to arrange a meeting with new Ombudsperson Jay Chalke.
“We need to move forward with this new ombudsperson, and I also respect Kim Carter,” Portman said. “If she was unsure about investigating [the issue], she could have left that decision to Jay Chalke.”
Carter said in her denial letter that investigation of individual cases is the way to go.
“We don’t usually get decisions back that quickly,” Portman said. “There’s a sense that it maybe wasn’t given the careful reading that it could have been given, so I’m disappointed in that.”
Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps said she would like to see the ombudperson’s office look at the issue of the ministry’s technological approach.
“I’ve watched people try and fill out the social services form online and it is cumbersome. And if your time is up at the library, you have to start over. So I think it’s definitely something worth investigating.
“I think an investigation is a good idea to see if people are actually being served as effectively as they can be. But I wouldn’t go so far as to say it leads to homelessness because I would like to see evidence — that’s the whole point of doing the research.”
Portman said he doesn’t know if the ombudsperson’s office has been given enhanced resources in light of the decision by a legislative committee to have Chalke probe the termination in 2012 of eight Health Ministry researchers, one of whom later committed suicide.
“I should hope so, given the reasons behind the denial to complete a systemic investigation” of the Ministry of Social Development, Portman said.
Carter noted in her letter of denial that the office had done three reports involving income and disability assistance in the past 10 years and disagreed with the need for a systemic investigation.
“I believe most of our resources must continue to be devoted to resolving individual complaints and cases, which also have the potential to resolve broader issues of unfairness,” she wrote. “I believe that individual investigations have enormous power to address administrative unfair policies and procedures.”
Portman said as it stands, “I’m upset for the fact that nothing is going to be done about this increasing problem and it’s so [much a] part of all of our clients’ lives. The accessibility at the ministry is preventing people from meeting their basic needs that they’re entitled to. And we see this every day in this office.”
TAPS deals with about 5,000 people a year and they feel helpless in the face of what’s happening, and believe that because they are poor, they don’t matter, Portman said.