Saskatoon landlords and advocates say changes to Saskatchewan's social assistance program are fuelling a worsening homelessness crisis in the city.
The new Saskatchewan Income Support (SIS) program was announced as a way for people on assistance to become more self-sufficient. Rather than the government paying rent and utility costs directly to landlords, SIS provides monthly cheques to people in the program.
The old Transitional Employment Allowance and Saskatchewan Assistance Program (SAP) have been phased out as of Aug. 31, with everyone receiving assistance in the province now on the new SIS program.
Justine Yantz, a 30-year-old single mother of a 10-year-old autistic daughter diagnosed with myotonic dystrophy and intellectual disability, said she gets less money under SIS and wants the province to switch back.
Yantz said that on the old SAP system, she had her rent and utilities paid for, and also received a $305 rental supplement and a monthly allowance of $285.
Under SIS, she receives $955 from the province per month, of which $700 goes for her rent and the remainder barely covers her utilities. Her $305 rental housing supplement burns out quickly on groceries and other bills.
Yantz said SIS also doesn't pay some other expenses the old program did, like her daughter's special diapers, which are $100 per box. An extra $50 she used to receive for her daughter's dietary needs has also been stopped.
"It's like do you get diapers, or do you buy food?" she said.
Though she has received some support from a non-profit, Yantz said she is finding herself about $500 short every month since the change to SIS.
"I'm stressed out figuring out all the bills and cutting down on essentials. I can barely afford clothing. The old program was working," she said.
Social Services Minister Lori Carr said recently on CBC Saskatchewan's Morning Edition that SIS would help "clients become more independent by having them pay their own bills."
"We need to watch as we move forward and see what's happening," Carr said.
Yantz said it is unfair of the government to ask people like her to be financially independent, especially since her daughter is hospitalized almost every month due to health complications.
LISTEN | Social Services Minister Lori Carr spoke with host Stefani Langenegger on the Morning Edition
Kathy Mahar has been donating warm apparel and food to homeless people around 20th Street for the past decade. She said she's never seen so many people sleeping in doorways on the street.
"Many are young folks. It's a human right to have safe housing," she said.
Mahar said she could see something in Saskatoon like the encampment of tents that recently appeared in Regina. She wants more permanent housing.
"It's shocking and heartbreaking that human beings are left to the streets. It's unacceptable," she said.
More evictions to come
Sheena Keslick, vice president of operations at Mainstreet Equity Corp., which owns more than 1,000 rental units in the city, said the company predicted that SIS would fail, and it has.
Keslick said Mainstreet has been evicting 30 to 50 per cent more people since the change to SIS. In September alone the company evicted people — including families with children — from more than 50 units where the rent was more than two months behind.
Keslick said the SIS payments do not come close to covering the rent for many tenants, let alone other expenses.
According to the national rent report by rentals.ca, the average monthly rent in September in Saskatoon was $900 for a one-bedroom home and $1,059 for a two-bedroom home.
"The government needs to go back to the rent direct to landlords, so that there are assurances to landlords and renters. If not, then 100 per cent the homelessness crisis is going to get worse in Saskatoon. It's not 'maybe,' it is going to get worse," she said.
Len Usiskin, the executive director of Quint Development, told Saskatoon Morning that the homelessness crisis in the city is at an unprecedented high that he has never seen in his past 25 years of work.
"Many landlords are saying that they're not willing to rent to people who are on SIS, the chances of people not paying rent is too high," he said.
He said Quint issued eviction notices to 11 tenants in September alone, which "is probably the same amount that we'd do in an entire year."
LISTEN | Len Usiskin spoke with host Leisha Grebinski on Saskatoon Morning
Assistant fire chief Yvonne Raymer said the Saskatoon Fire Department is seeing more encampments across the city. He said one of them had people using a barbecue for warmth, which led to a fire. No one was injured, but a garage was destroyed.
Raymer said the department is concerned about increasing evictions.
"It is concerning what may be coming with the encampments, and it is a huge safety concern for the fire department. We are trying to be proactive so that fire services don't get overwhelmed," she said.
Better solutions needed
Toby Esterby from Saskatoon Housing Initiatives Partnerships (SHIP) said the pandemic has accentuated the inadequate housing infrastructure in the city. Some people who used to couch-surf or stay with relatives are now in encampments, Esterby said.
He said the notion behind SIS is encouraging, but the execution was poor.
"Without any support surrounding people, it's going to put them in a very precarious situation that grows more precarious everyday," he said.
"We've people that are dealing with years of intergenerational trauma, the effects of addiction, persecution, colonization, that are not ready to take control of their own financial health schedule."
Esterby said that SHIP and most other landlord associations and housing initiatives had warned the province of the drastic repercussions of the SIS program on homelessness when it was first announced in 2019.
He said time is of the essence to reverse the SIS program and create additional spaces for warm overnight stays as the province works on long term plans on affordable housing.
"Time has passed. This program has had time. This government has had time to get the pieces in place, to hear the feedback to make the adjustments that should have been made a long time ago," he said. "So the time is upon us now to come together, lower the fences, drop the egos and let's make sure that no one dies."