Rally highlights the fallout of province’s catastrophic welfare system
Poverty is a policy decision
In response to the burgeoning numbers of people being forced into homelessness by the province of Saskatchewan’s much-maligned Saskatchewan Income Supplement program, some Regina residents organized a rally at the Legislative Building on October 27, the first day of the new legislative session. While the rally was well attended, it also drew antivaxxers, many of whom were rude, loud, and obnoxious to other rally attendees. Alejandra Cabrera, one of the organizers of this The SIStem is Broken rally, spoke to the Carillon about the reasons behind organizing the gathering and what she hopes to see change.
What is the purpose of the rally? What inspired you to go about making it happen?
I’ve been working for this project that had exposed me to the system that folks were going through when navigating social assistance. As of August 31, the ministry of social services changed the income assistance program. We’ve seen a huge spike in folks who are becoming homeless. It is getting worse and worse with the weather changing. Meara Conway mentioned at a previous community emergency meeting that the ledge was going to be back in person on Wednesday October 27, she said it would be a perfect opportunity to greet the ministers when they get back to work. I jumped on the opportunity to see if there was anyone putting it on. From there, I connected with other folks who work in the same field and have experience and took it from there.
What are the main issues with the Canadian welfare system?
The previous system, SAP/Saskatchewan Assistance Program, compensated folks and gave direct deposit to the landlord. The ministry was responsible for paying utilities to the companies. SAP was still well below living wages based on inflations. It was still lacking based on how much people were getting. But it was still helpful, because it gave people the option that they wanted to pay for landlords. But they also had the option that it could be direct.
Obviously, a lot of folks chose that option. It’s hard to manage finances when your income is so tight. Now that they switched to SIS, Saskatchewan Income Support, there is no option. It’s deposited directly to the person’s bank account or they receive a cheque and they’re given a fixed amount of income, and based on that they are responsible for paying the landlord and the utilities. For a single person, they get $575 for an apartment, and that includes utilities and everything else. There is nothing you can find for that amount. At least before, the social services would cover if the person went over in utilities. Now there is no additional coverage. You are given a basic benefit of $285, so even if you pull that all together, it is still not enough. Maybe you have a house and power but you might not have money for food or transportation or medication. Based on how folks are unable to pay rent on the last month alone, there is about 31 per cent of evictions in September in Saskatchewan. Landlords are now not taking people who are on assistance. It is straight up discrimination but landlords won’t say it outwardly.
What do you think the privileged Canadian needs to understand or know about the issue?
I think it’s interesting for people to try and think about how they can think of living on $860 a month looking at the market right now for renting. For couples, they get $750 plus the $285 each. You have to make choices. Even the person with the best financial skills would struggle on that. It’s a system that was set up for people to fail.
We also need to consider that housing is crime prevention. Consistent housing is crime prevention. It also saves people’s money. Every time people experience homelessness, they get jumped, their things are stolen, they end up in the emergency room quite often, and those are expensive things. In the long term, it is cheaper for us as a civilization.
You can tell a lot about a society based on how they treat their most vulnerable folks. I think it is important the people making these policies go through the system themselves. It is important to see what folks are going through. You need to know how it actually works. They need to include other organizations. They rely so much on non-profits. If that is the case, if they want to rely on folks in the non-profits to help navigate the system, then they need to include them in to the conversation.
What changes do you think the welfare system should make for low income and people who are living below the poverty line? How should we accommodate them?
Honestly, when CERB came out and people were getting the $2000. It covered peoples housing, food and more. Housing is a human right. The fact that people are living on the streets in this country is despicable, especially Indigenous people who were the first people of this land. There is no reconciliation until they are treating First Nations and Indigenous Peoples respectfully. First of all, they need to increase the $2000 so that people can get more housing and include the option of direct deposit. We need an option for people to choose. If that is not an option, they need to provide assistance and education for people to become self-sufficient as they say. The ministry of social services is not the only problem. We need all ministries to be talking and communicating because at the end of the day they are all interconnected. They need to connect and share resources. It should be a system that is easier for people to navigate.
What do you think we need to do to ensure that the work goes beyond that?
We must keep city councils accountable because they are working for us. They are working for us and they need to respond to everyone’s needs. It has been amazing to see how the community has gathered to be able to help other people whether it is time or money. I also think that if you are unable to do those things, if you see anyone on the streets, say hello. People ignore them. A simple hello or acknowledging them is important. People need to show more empathy and patience with folks. They’re not in those positions because they want to, rarely is that the case. Kindness goes a long way.