The first time Jean Pollard called the Ministry of Social Services helpline to get hardship assistance to stave off an eviction notice from her landlord, she waited 45 minutes on hold before the automated system cut her off.
The system played the same trick on her the second time she called. And the third time. And after more than a dozen futile attempts over the next week, she finally gave up and turned to a local poverty agency for help.
"I was phoning on lunch breaks, between classes, after school," said Ms. Pollard, a 56-year-old Victoria woman who attends a government-funded trades retraining program for women. "I called them so many time I lost count."
A month later, the only thing keeping Ms. Pollard from life on the street is the charity of her landlord, who agreed to give her a break for the month of December.
The delays Ms. Pollard experienced are becoming all too familiar to poverty advocates and social agencies in B.C., who say that problems with the toll-free line in recent weeks have made it almost impossible to contact ministry staff by phone.
"It used to take about 10 minutes to leave a message and four to five days for them to get back to you," said Sian Thomson, executive director of Island Jade, an advocacy group for low-income and disabled people in Campbell River.
"Now they can't even leave a message because the system denies them access."
The problem is particularly acute in remote communities, such as Smithers, where welfare clients can only apply for benefits by telephone or Internet because of staff cuts at the local ministry office.
Angela Sketchley, legal advocate for the Dze L K'ant Friendship Centre in Smithers, said some of her clients have waited up to six months to get on income assistance.
"They don't have phones and they don't know how to use computers, so then they have to find an advocate," Ms. Sketchley said.
Ms. Sketchley's efforts to help people have also been hampered by long delays with the ministry helpline this fall. "I've waited on hold for hours without getting through, sometimes up to three days," she said.
"Quite frankly I feel like I'm doing the ministry's job for them."
Staff at the Ministry of Social Services issued a statement Thursday blaming recent glitches with the phone lines on a new computer system that "has created some delays" for clients.
The system was also overburdened by a large volume of annual bus pass renewals - about 79,000 - that had to be processed this month, the statement said.
In interviews, several social agencies also reported long delays in the welfare appeals process for disability applicants, who receive close to $300 in additional benefits if they qualify.
"I had a client who put in the appeal at the end of May. He should have heard something by the end of June but he didn't hear until September," said Susan Henry, a poverty advocate at First United Church on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.
"He won the case, but he missed out on $300 for July, August and September. That's a lot for someone in his position."
Ministry staff said the appeals process has also been impacted by the new computer system.
On the advice of advocates from Victoria-based Together Against Poverty, Ms. Pollard spent another week calling the ministry. She finally got through but couldn't get an appointment to discuss her case until Dec. 20.
With Christmas coming, she's penniless but still grateful to have a roof over her head, at least for now.
"My landlord's been great about it but he has a boss too, so I don't know how long this can last," she said.
Special to The Globe and Mail