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'Inadequacy' of SIS program lead to challenges for addressing homelessness, anti-poverty advocate says

Peter Gilmer, an advocate with the Regina Anti-Poverty Ministry, poses for a photo at his office. Peter Gilmer, an advocate with the Regina Anti-Poverty Ministry, poses for a photo at his office.
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The need for support for those in Regina experiencing homelessness was pushed to the forefront of community conversation in 2021 -- taking new heights when Camp Hope was created in Pepsi Park.

Peter Gilmer, an advocate with the Regina Anti-Poverty Ministry, told CTV News changes to government assistance programs have left more people out in the cold.

In 2019, the Ministry of Social Services announced the creation of the Saskatchewan Income Support (SIS) program, which would replace the Saskatchewan Assistance Program (SAP) and Transitional Employment Allowance (TEA).

Gilmer said when this program came into effect, his organizations put out warnings that it would lead to “significant destitution and homelessness across the province because of the inadequacy of the program.”

SAP and TEA previously covered the cost of utilities for clients, but the new program puts the costs of rent, utilities, taxes and all other home-related costs under a shelter benefit, meaning a single adult will have to pay for all the home-related costs with $500 to $600 a month.

Clients also receive $285 to meet all other basic needs including food, transportation, clothing and personal items.

The ministry phased out the SAP and TEA and fully transferred all clients to the SIS program in August.

“It makes it extremely difficult for people to meet their rent, let alone their other utility costs,” Gilmer said. “We knew there was going to be higher rates of eviction and homelessness, but even for those who could keep a roof over their head, they’re having to give up something. So they’re giving up a basic utility or they’re not being able to feed themselves or their family.”

He said it was a problem the anti-poverty ministry saw coming.

On Oct. 6 the Anti-Poverty Ministry and Knox Metropolitan United Church hosted a community gathering to address the issue of homelessness and draw attention to the need for more supports.

This sparked the creation of a tent community in Pepsi Park, which hosted about 200 people before being dismantled in mid-November.

Advocates and community groups took to the Legislature to protested against the SIS program on the first day of the fall assembly sitting, calling for changes or the reversal of the program.

Surveys by the Saskatchewan Landlord Association showed more than 30 per cent of SIS clients – about 4,000 people – did not pay rent in September or October.

The provincial government, at that time, said it was moving forward with the SIS program as planned.

According to Gilmer, reforming the SIS program would help the current homelessness situation.

“There’s been an ongoing call and an ongoing need for permanent support of housing programs whereby you first of all make sure that people have a roof over their head,” said Gilmer. “But then you make sure that there’s wrap around supports for people so they have the supports that they need whether that be in relation to addiction, mental health or a range of barriers that they are dealing with in terms of being able to maintain housing so that indeed they can have a decent quality of life and keep a roof over their head.”

In November the province made changes to the SIS program, providing direct payments for rent, utilities and security deposits for some clients who are considered high needs.

The Ministry of Social Services also pledged an additional $113,000 in 2021-22 to increase money management and trusteeship services, provided through community organizations.

Heading into the New Year, the Regina Anti-Poverty Ministry believes the greater pressure put on the government in 2021 needs to continue.

“So that we can actually ensure that people have a decent standard of living, that they have and adequate income and have adequate housing,” Gilmer said. “These are basic human rights and we think it’s long time that the government ensures that these rights are in place for all people.”

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