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social services

It's a welfare benefit enshrined in provincial legislation that promises $100 a month to disabled people who volunteer in the community.

But when Victoria resident Laura Thomson tried to sign up for British Columbia's "community volunteer supplement" last fall, staff at the Ministry of Social Development told her the waiting list was so long they were no longer taking applications.

"What they actually said is, 'The only way you'll get on the wait list is if someone dies,' " said Ms. Thomson, a former registered-care attendant who has been unable to work for the past six years due to chronic back pain. "I asked to see the forms, just to find out what they require, and they refused to give them to me."

Ms. Thomson, a single mother who holds down two volunteer positions, appealed to the ministry in May and finally received her application forms in the mail last month, joining an estimated 7,000 other people on the waiting list.

About 5,000 people currently receive the benefit, which is aimed at welfare recipients who qualify as "persons with disabilities" and perform at least 10 hours of volunteer work a month. Applicants on the list must be active volunteers to remain eligible.

Led by the Victoria-based group Together Against Poverty, social agencies across the province are calling on the government to increase funding for the program, claiming that the B.C. Employment and Assistance Act contains no provisions for withholding payment from qualified applicants.

Since January, 2010, TAPS has successfully appealed 30 cases on behalf of individuals, many of whom have received retroactive benefits for each month they were on the waiting list.

Social Development Minister Harry Bloy said Tuesday the Liberal government increased funding for the program by $2-million in 2007, all but eliminating a waiting list of more than 3,000 names.

"We brought it down close to zero, and since then it's been building," he said. "It's a really successful program and it's grown quite fast over the last two or three years."

The length of the volunteer-supplement waiting list was "one of the main concerns that came up" when he was appointed to cabinet in March, Mr. Bloy said.

Ministry staff have spent the past three months "trying to find an option to make [the program]sustainable," he said. However, he deflected questions about whether another injection of cash is in the works.

The province already doles out $5-million annually in community-volunteer supplements; eliminating the 7,000-person waiting list would cost an addition $8-million, Mr. Bloy said.

However, the small stipend people receive for their efforts is more than justified, given the added expenses that come with volunteering, said Robin Loxton, an advocate with the B.C. Coalition of People With Disabilities.

"Whether it's having a meal or covering some extra transportation costs, that's coming out of their own pocket," Mr. Loxton said. "Most of the people eligible for this program are getting limited funds of only $900 a month."

For Ms. Thomson, who receives about $1,400 a month because she has two children, the $100 volunteer stipend would mean buying her own groceries instead of going to the food bank.

"I'm at the Mustard Seed every month because I just can't make it," said Ms. Thomson, adding that her eldest son suffers from Crohn's disease, requiring frequent and costly trips to B.C. Children's Hospital in Vancouver.

Bernadette Otto, co-ordinator of the Penticton and Area Women's Centre, said Wednesday the community-volunteer supplement has all but disappeared from the landscape of available social benefits in her region.

"We haven't had anyone approved up here for three years," Ms. Otto said. "I don't think people even bother to apply any more.'"