Last night in the Legislative Committee dealing with Poverty Reduction, the Conservatives abruptly brought in closure at 7:30 pm. They used their majority to vote to end the discussion even though there remained many questions yet to be asked. With Bill 29 now before the Legislature, a bill in which the Conservatives will end the annual meetings of the poverty committee, this could be the last meeting of the committee to discuss poverty and social inclusion. The Conservatives closed the committee for this year, and are also doing it for all years.
In my experience over 20 years, last night's committee was unusual in the speed with which the Conservatives moved to terminate the committee meeting. Once upon a time Brian Pallister said addressing poverty was his top priority. Yesterday his team showed it is no longer a priority. It is sad because this happened in a year when evidence suggests poverty is increasing. For example, the number of people going to Winnipeg Harvest each month is up substantially.
This closure of the committee was disappointing for a number of reasons:
1) The lack of interest in addressing poverty during the COVID pandemic.
2) The need to address the current delays with people getting access to income assistance under the provincial EIA program. Currently, it is taking about three weeks just to get an intake appointment to get EIA. Frankly this delay is unacceptable and it is harming people who need help. People who are homeless usually need first to get access to EIA and then they can get access to housing. Every day in delay in getting EIA means another day and night on the street.
3) There are a number of people who were on EIA who were able to receive the federal CERB benefit. EIA is now clawing back the CERB moneys. Whereas British Columbia does not consider the CERB benefit income under EIA, Manitoba does. Under Manitoba’s EIA, the amount of the CERB benefit is clawed back.
One gentleman I am trying to help has a severe mental condition and was chronically homeless for many years. Finally in 2016, he was able to get help under Manitoba’s Housing First program. He got into housing and it made a world of difference (For years before that he had slept in bus shelters). A number of months ago the Housing First program ended his participation. He was able to get into Manitoba Housing and has continued to be housed. When the pandemic arrived, he was able to get the CERB benefit. However, EIA is now clawing that money back. They are taking $300 a month from him out of his monthly EIA income. Since EIA is usually just $285 a month above rent, this is a challenge! He is very concerned that he will not have enough money left to survive each month and could, as a result, soon become homeless again. This would be a tragedy. When I visited Medicine Hat to learn about their program to end homelessness, I was told they do everything they can to make sure a person who has housing stays housed because they have found it is much more expensive to have to start at the beginning and to have to search for housing and the supports that are needed again. Sadly the individual I mention is not alone. I am hearing that there may be quite a number of people who become homeless this fall as a result of how the province operates its EIA program.