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Thousands of disabled denied legislated benefit, anti-poverty activists charge Add to ...

Thousands of B.C. disability-assistance recipients are being denied the right to an extra $100 a month for volunteering in the community even though provincial legislation guarantees the benefit to all eligible applicants, a Victoria-based anti-poverty agency says.

Under the B.C. Employment and Assistance Act, welfare recipients who qualify as “persons with disabilities” are entitled to the extra $100 if they perform a minimum of 10 hours of volunteer work a month.

Kelly Newhook, executive director of Together Against Poverty Society, said 5,000 people receive the $100 top-up on their benefits, but another 7,000 have applied and are on a waiting list because the province refuses to provide the funds to make the payments. Some applicants have been on the list for two years or more.

“There’s nothing in the legislation that even allows for a wait list, so we’ve taken the position that they’re being denied a legislated benefit,” Ms. Newhook said. “It’s like saying ‘you’re eligible for old age security, but we don’t have enough money right now so you have to wait until someone dies.’ ”

More than a dozen social agencies in the province, among them the Salvation Army’s B.C. division, have joined TAPS in calling for $840,000 in additional funding for the program.

Since January, 2010, TAPS has successfully appealed 30 cases.

The first few went through a tribunal process and multiple appeals, but the province has agreed to dispense with formal hearings and now routinely approves the requests. Tribunal decisions have also forced the ministry to provide the payment for each month an applicant is on the waiting list.

To remain on the list, applicants must maintain a volunteer position, although Ms. Newhook said some applicants have likely let that requirement lapse because the wait is so long.

Ellen Eckstrand, 59, of Victoria has schizophrenia, and received the supplement for seven years while volunteering at Esquimalt Neighbourhood House. But when she switched to the Cook Street Village Activity Centre in 2009, the ministry cut off Ms. Eckstrand’s funding and told her to rejoin the waiting list.

Six months later, after appealing for help from TAPS, her benefit was reinstated and she received $600 retroactively.

“That $100 makes a lot of difference to someone like me,” said Ms. Eckstrand, who receives $900 a month, not including her volunteer supplement.

Salvation Army spokesman Brian Venables said volunteer work helps people who are unable to hold jobs maintain a sense of dignity.

“Where there’s barriers to dignity, we need to remove those barriers,” he said. “The Salvation Army couldn’t do what it does without volunteers, and we rely heavily on people with all kinds of disabilities.”

Social Development Minister Harry Bloy was unavailable for comment on Tuesday.

Staff with the ministry issued a brief statement saying the volunteer supplement’s “tremendous popularity” is behind the long waits.

“The ministry is currently working on a number of potential options to improve the administration of the supplement and address the waitlist,” the statement said.

Port Hardy resident Robert Holmes, a disability-payment recipient who volunteers alongside his wife serving breakfast at a local elementary school, placed his name on the volunteer supplement waiting list “at least two years ago” and has yet to be approved.

Despite the prospect of receiving more than $2,400 in retroactive benefits, he does not plan to launch an appeal.

“With or without the [$100] I’ll keep contributing to the community,” he said. “It’s how we repay society for taking care of us.”

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