Breaking Down the Brick Wall: Overcoming Bureaucratic Barriers to Income Assistance

By: 

Khalela Bell

I enter the welfare office, past the ever present “Washrooms Out of Order” sign, and am immediately greeted by a security guard offering a wait number ticket. He is disgruntled when I do not oblige, and questions what I need and where I am going. I walk past the waiting area, filled with silent faces that would clearly rather be anywhere but here, and by another security guard who sizes me up with clear irritation at my disrupting of the human conveyer belt. Elementary-school style signs requesting respect are posted above the two intake workers at the front, and a “Floor Warden” sign hangs above a desk behind them. To the right, one of the two computers provided for client use is “Out of Order”. As I walk through the office to the outreach area at the back, there is a line of largely empty, outward facing desks fronted by platforms raised five feet high. As I approach an outreach worker at the back, she lowers her platform, which feels like the final touch to the Ministry’s many barriers and sums up their approach to customer service.

 

 

TAPS’ Outreach Legal Advocacy project (OLA) provides outreach services to people who are experiencing homelessness and who need help accessing income assistance and disability benefits. OLA works in partnership with several local organizations that provide services to people coming up against the brick wall of bureaucracy. These organizations may refer clients to me, but more importantly a couple of them have opened up their offices to me so that I can be available to their clients in a place they are already familiar with and comfortable in. OLA’s work with the Daily Dose Society (DDS) is one example of how community partnership and grassroots efforts can help meet client needs. DDS’s mandate is to support people receiving opiate replacement therapy at the neighbouring Specialized Therapeutic Solutions Pharmacy, and they will do such things as help people apply for housing and give people rides to doctors’ appointments. DDS is a true community space where progressive healthcare is delivered with humility and compassion. I have a regular shift at DDS each week, which means that our mutual clients are able to access multiple services in one place, become familiar with me, and develop enough trust to be able to be candid about their health.

The Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction (MSDPR) has requirements that make income assistance and other benefits inaccessible to many, not because they don’t qualify, but because it is so difficult for people to get all the documents they need to prove to MSDPR that they do qualify. The whole process is a maze, with Catch-22s along the way. A person may have to order a birth certificate, obtain proof of their social insurance number, get a doctor’s note, or prove they have been “independent” (by MSDPR’s criteria) for two years. I go with people to government offices, to their bank, or to their doctor’s office, and I help them write the letters and fill out the forms necessary to get any documents they don’t have. The income assistance and disability application process is designed by and intended for those with economic and social privilege. OLA aims to give people the support the bureaucracy has effectively eliminated.

The OLA project lies at the centre of the housing crisis, opioid crisis, doctor shortage, and continued criminalization of low-income and racialized people. In line with the TAPS approach, client support is not carried out as an act of charity, but rather as part of big-picture thinking about how to address injustice through policy change and building community power. OLA clients are diverse and include elderly clients, single mothers, youth who have aged out of foster care, and people who have become unhoused for the first time due to ill health. Every client has a story of how they got to where they are, and how systemic failures have contributed to their current difficulties. Each story drives home the fact that homelessness can happen to anyone.