Two weeks ago, Brant Cechanek went to the local welfare office to apply for a small lump-sum payment that would allow him to buy a mini-fridge and a microwave to help the laid-off oil sands worker eat healthier and stretch his meagre food budget.
He said he was told to call the Social Development and Social Innovation Ministry's central hotline after lining up at a Downtown Eastside office for about half an hour to see a drop-in social worker during the one-hour window scheduled for such visits twice each day. He phoned the hotline, was told he would get a call back in five days, but he said that call never came. After phoning the ministry number again, he was denied the $150.
Mr. Cechanek said he is convinced that if he could plead his case face-to-face with a social worker he could get the payment, as a friend and neighbour at his run down single-rent occupancy hotel did weeks earlier with an outreach advocate at his side.
"We're just a voice, we're nobody to them on the other line," Mr. Cechanek said in an interview on Tuesday. "We're not drug addicts, we're not junkies, we're just stuck in between a rock and a hard place right now."
Mr. Cechanek's problems getting services echo those laid out in a new complaint by a group representing nine non-profit organizations across the province. The BC Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC), a not-for-profit law firm, issued a report at a news conference on Tuesday morning and has asked B.C.'s Ombudsperson to investigate systemic issues it says are caused by the ministry's "radical changes" over the past five years. Those changes include pushing social-payment recipients toward phone or online interactions and closing 14 offices and cutting hours at another 11.
Many people on social assistance are homeless or live in unstable housing and do not own a phone or computer or have easy access to the Internet, PIAC lawyer Lobat Sadrehashemi told reporters on Tuesday.
Some, like Mr. Cechanek, waste valuable time on their pay-as-you-go mobile phone plan waiting 20 minutes or more on the centralized ministry hotline to speak to staff who are under pressure to keep calls short because of backlogs, Ms. Sadrehashemi added.
On top of that, new social-assistance applications must be done online, are offered in English only and are complicated, asking for information on applicant's assets, work history and immigration status, the complaint alleges. Some people have experienced substantial delays in getting their first social assistance or disability cheque because of this online system, the complaint also alleges.
"At its core, this complaint really is about how welfare services are not being designed with their users in mind," Ms. Sadrehashemi said.
Minister Michelle Stilwell acknowledged on Tuesday it can be challenging for "many low-income individuals and families to access modern technology, or perhaps maybe they're just not comfortable with doing that."
But she said the push to provide service via the centralized hotline and online gives front-line staff more time to serve people face-to-face. She said she is only aware of long lineups at social-assistance offices on the days cheques are issued.
She said the average wait on the social-assistance hotline is less than 10 minutes. Last December, it was more than half an hour, according to the ministry data obtained by the PIAC. Ms. Stilwell said those long waits were due to "problems with the network" that have been rectified.
Ombudsperson Kim Carter said her office will review the complaint and determine whether it is a systemic issue that merits a report, which could take up to three years. She added that, year after year, the largest number of complaints to her office are lodged against the ministry overseeing welfare (about 19 per cent of files in the 2013 fiscal year). That's in part because welfare recipients "are people who often don't have other places to turn," she said.