Christopher Shay thought he was going to lose everything. An unsuccessful job search left the 42-year-old man broke, hungry and with an eviction notice for his Vancouver-area apartment.
Mr. Shay, who is deaf, applied to the province's Ministry of Social Development and Social Innovation for immediate income assistance. The urgency of his situation qualified him to receive – at minimum – a food voucher or shelter referral within one business day, according to the ministry's policies.
He and his lawyer both say he received neither for five weeks.
"They never phoned to say, 'Hey, did you get evicted? Do you have any money for groceries?' None of that happened," said Mr. Shay's lawyer, Sarah Khan.
Mr. Shay said he didn't get anything from the province until he received his first social-assistance cheque for about $960. By then, he had lost 20 pounds from not eating, he said.
His case is an extreme example of what outreach advocates say is a common problem for people in dire situations who ask for immediate assistance from the provincial government: Applicants are often waiting longer than a day to receive short-term resources or to hear back from the ministry at all.
Mr. Shay said the ministry should have done more to help him.
"[The ministry] kept saying they couldn't do anything, they couldn't help, they couldn't provide anything," Mr. Shay said through a sign-language interpreter.
"It just felt like I was being completely ignored through the process."
The ministry's policy says people applying for social assistance who indicate an immediate need – for food, shelter or medical attention – must be given an appointment with an agent within one business day. If there are no appointments available, "staff must ensure the applicant is provided with or informed of and directed to other available resources … until an intake interview can be held to determine eligibility," the policy says.
Those resources include food vouchers, shelter referrals, bus tickets and money for urgent medical attention, according to the ministry's website.
"It's [taking] over a day to just meet the immediate need of a food voucher," said Zoe MacMillan, an advocate at Together Against Poverty Society.
"And even then, that would often take a lot of advocacy to let the person know they should ask for a food voucher – calling and following up, doing those extra steps to push the issue."
The ministry insists all immediate needs were met in one business day last year by providing applicants with vouchers or referrals. However, the ministry also said it does not keep specific data on clients with immediate needs, and a spokesperson could not explain how the department measured its success rate.
Social Development Minister Michelle Stilwell did not make herself available for an interview. She said in an e-mail statement that the policy "does not mean that an eligibility assessment will be complete within one business day, or that a cheque will be issued." Ms. Stilwell noted the ministry provides short-term resources if an appointment isn't immediately available.
Ms. Stilwell said the ministry has also made it easier to apply for welfare by offering a toll-free phone number and moving applications online, which she said gives front-line staff more time to deal with people who need extra help.
In May, Mr. Shay filed a human-rights complaint against the ministry, alleging it did not provide him with any immediate assistance after he submitted his application, nor did it follow up to arrange an appointment. He also alleges the ministry discriminated against him for being deaf by failing to accommodate his communication needs with a sign-language interpreter on an urgent basis.
"At a minimum, the ministry should have assisted me to meet my immediate needs by providing me with grocery vouchers or hardship assistance," Mr. Shay said in his complaint to the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal.
In 2009, the provincial ombudsperson at the time, Kim Carter, released a report concluding the ministry was not consistently providing intake interviews within one business day to people with immediate needs. The report showed it took an average of 1.4 days to schedule assessment appointments in 2007 and 1.6 days in 2008.
The ministry said it accepted the report's recommendation to better comply with its policy to provide appointments within one day, but that hasn't happened yet. In a status report on the ombudsperson's website, the ministry says it has been "identifying improvement opportunities."
Advocates, however, say delays for appointments are getting worse.
"I don't know the last time I've ever heard of an immediate needs assessment being done in a day," said Didi Dufresne, a legal advocate at First United Church.
"It's more like a week to two weeks, to potentially three weeks."
Amber Prince, an advocate at Atira Women's Resource Society, said it's often difficult for her clients to speak with someone at the ministry at all, further putting off emergency assistance.
"We've had times where our calls have been disconnected." she said. "They face so many barriers to even … get to even speak to someone that they're really going to fall through the cracks."