By Tamsyn Burgmann, THE CANADIAN PRESS
VANCOUVER — Every day, Robin Loxton hears the same story: Someone disabled or sick or elderly is not getting enough to eat, in part because of a labyrinthian process involving computers, telephones and paperwork.
“People have huge challenges in making ends meet, as well as having their health and disability issues,” said Loxton, advocacy director for the Vancouver-based B.C. Coalition of People with Disabilities.
“The fact of the matter is there’s not enough resources or advocates to go around.”
So it comes as no surprise to him that a report released Thursday looking into B.C. support programs for people living with disabilities spells out a range of shortcomings.
The report, by the provincial auditor general, pegs at the top of its concerns the possibility that people with disabilities may be at risk of not having their basic needs met. That means about 95,000 people who are currently accessing funds and programming are still struggling to obtain food, clothes and shelter.
The program costs the province $1 billion annually, but people are likely suffering due to its own structural problems and an onerous five-step process, said Auditor General Russ Jones.
Given that people with disabilities already face numerous challenges, the system should be “simple and accessible,” he said, but “it is not.”
“That’s probably the biggest barrier to access, is just the complexity of the system,” he said. “And while the ministry does try to help, it still is difficult for people and can be, probably, imposing.”
The examination into the Social Development Ministry found it does not define the extent to which basic needs should be met, and has collected limited information on how effective the program has been.
The report makes 10 recommendations, including clearly setting out the program’s objectives and improving measurement of the program’s impact on people’s lives.
It also recommends the implementation of ongoing eligibility checks — rather than just reviewing financial status — because some recipients may be getting undeserved benefits while others are missing out.
The ministry’s program was designed to assist vulnerable people whose disabilities leave them financially dependent. Among other supports, it provides monthly assistance of $906, but that has not been adjusted since 2007, Jones said.
It also provides supplementary health and living supports like mobility aids, nutritional supplements and dental care, as well as employment assistance.
He said those working within the ministry are “trying to do the best they can,” but improving the situation requires the mass efforts of multiple agencies and leadership from the government as a whole.
A statement from the ministry said its staff will begin implementing all of the recommendations immediately. It said many recent improvements to the disability program have been made, with more to come.
“The ministry is fully committed to making this the best program we can within the current fiscal situation, and providing the best services possible to people who rely upon our program,” it said.
It noted a rate increase is not currently under consideration due to economic conditions, but if they improve the government would like to boost funding in the future.
New Democrat social development critic Michelle Mungall called the report “very critical.
“It’s basically saying that people with disabilities are struggling. They are relying on charities such as food banks for food because the supports are just not adequate,” she said.
Compounding the issue has been clawbacks of child support payments, she said, adding the report highlights the province’s need for a comprehensive poverty reduction plan.
Just a day before the report’s release, 14-year-old Rosie Sothcott joined her mother at the provincial legislature to candidly share their own plight.
Jessica Sothcott was left permanently disabled after being injured while working as a home-care aide. Her daughter receives $187 monthly as a support payment from her father, but the current scheme takes that cash away. Rosie has severe allergies, and so she can’t eat most food they obtain from a Victoria food bank.
“They feel desperate and they’ve just got a little light of hope left,” Mungall said. “Jessica will tell you that she was among the working poor, she struggled when she was working, but not like this. And her daughter is the one who is suffering the most.”