Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Welfare outreach puts workers where the homeless are
May 23, 2008

Wendy Sinke remembers wishing the cameras were there one rainy afternoon a few months into her new job.
She was on a downtown sidewalk, balancing an umbrella over her homeless client’s scooter so he and her laptop wouldn’t get wet while he filled out the income-assistance forms she’d brought him. Sinke figures a photo would have been worth a thousand words at that moment as a symbol of changing times.
An outreach worker with the Ministry of Employment and Income Assistance (MEIA), Sinke is part of a new government strategy that ends years of trying to get everyone off income assistance, and instead aims to get a few more on it. The program was launched on the Island last fall after highly successful pilots on the streets of a few small B.C. towns two years ago.
Sinke works with Victoria’s new multi-disciplinary outreach team, which grew out of the 2007 Mayor’s Task Force report on homelessness. Her role on the team is to find people living on the streets who ought to be on income assistance, and make it happen.
Most of the people she’s dealing with have mental illness. Many have a deep and long-standing distrust of government. The major challenge is in developing that trust, says Sinke.
“I definitely don’t go around announcing, ‘Hi, I’m Wendy from the government,’” says Sinke. “Even when I get them on income assistance, they may not always know I’m with MEIA.”
MEIA has had outreach offices for 12 years, including the Downtown Outreach Service on Cormorant Street. But what’s new about Sinke and her co-workers is that they’re now going out to find people rather than just waiting to be found, and speeding them through the process.
The ministry’s outreach workers have also been given more flexibility around policy - an essential change in terms of working successfully with folks who wouldn’t be able to make their way through the system otherwise.
If somebody doesn’t have identification, for instance - a universal problem for those living in the chaos of the streets - Sinke can not only help them fill out the application forms, but offers to keep their ID safe at her office if they want. She can even skip the ID requirement altogether if a street-serving agency can verify who the person is.
“A group of outreach workers meet every Monday morning, and everybody there knows the street clients,” says Sinke. “So if someone from that group calls to tell me that John Smith is in their office right now and could I come down, I’ll be pretty darn sure that’s John Smith.”
B.C. income assistance is divided into two portions, one for shelter and the other for support. Until they find housing, people living on the streets can’t qualify for the shelter portion - currently $375 a month for a single person. But they can collect $235 a month in support, and up to $532 if they’re considered disabled.
Sinke divvies up her clients’ monthly stipends into weekly payments if they request it, which helps them make their money last while also avoiding the month-end welfare spending splurge known on the streets as “Mardi Gras.”
Sinke’s previous job was working at the Victoria Transition House. That gave her an understanding of societal prejudices as relevant for people on the streets as they are for women fleeing domestic violence. Why a person can’t find their own way off the street is as complex a problem as why a woman stays with an abusive spouse, she notes.
With people on the streets slowly becoming more aware of MEIA’s outreach program, the next big challenge is to make sure service providers know about it, says Sinke.
Under pressure from two consecutive governments, B.C.’s income-assistance caseload as a percentage of the population has fallen by two-thirds since 1995 - from nine per cent of British Columbians to three per cent. Service providers have understandably come to believe that many clients don’t stand much chance of qualifying.
But things have changed, says Sinke: “Unless you’re 18 and fresh out of high school, there are enough exemptions now that nobody needs to be denied.”
The changes are small but significant, and urgently needed as part of the strategy for ending homelessness. Sinke sees the proof of that in her caseload files: In the last five months alone, she’s helped find housing for 12 of her clients.
“These were absolute street people, with long histories of living on the streets. Many of them didn’t even want housing when I first met them,” says Sinke. “That just shows how well this program works.”

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