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Online welfare system a barrier: advocate

By Stefania Seccia

Lobat Sadrehashemi is a staff lawyer with the B.C. Public Interest Advocacy Centre who filed a complaint calling out the barriers in the province's welfare system.
(Stefania Seccia, 24 hours)

Lobat Sadrehashemi is a staff lawyer with the B.C. Public Interest Advocacy Centre who filed a complaint calling out the barriers in the province's welfare system. (Stefania Seccia, 24 hours)

Nine groups filed an official complaint with the B.C. ombudsperson Tuesday over allegations that the government has slashed access to welfare despite claiming enhanced services.

Over the last five years, the Ministry of Social Development and Social Innovation has made radical changes to how it delivers services – more online and on the phone – that has resulted in barriers, according to the 40-page complaint filed by nine social service agencies by the BC Public Interest Advocacy Centre.

Since 2005, 14 ministry offices have closed, and 11 out of 82 have reduced the times they’re open to three hours a day.

“The B.C. government needs to be held accountable for its unfair treatment and the ministry needs to design services so it serves the very people it’s supposed to,” said Lobat Sadrehashemi, staff lawyer with the advocacy centre.

Amber Prince, Atira Women’s Resource Society’s legal advocate, said getting access in person is “severely restricted,” and many women tell her about waiting outside the ministry office in the rain.

When she helps women with a call it’s usually a long wait – up to 30 minutes – and for women without phones, computers, and fleeing violence, it’s a “huge barrier.”

“Recently, a woman said to me in tears while we were on hold, ‘Remember the days when you could speak to an actual person?” she said.

But Minister Michelle Stilwell, of social development, defended her ministry’s actions towards centralizing the service online and on the phone.

“Feedback from ministry clients indicates a growing interest in services available over the phone and online,” she said in a statement to 24 hours. “That in turn means that frontline staff has more time to help those who need extra assistance.

“In person or face-to-face services will always be available to clients who require it, as well as outreach services for the most vulnerable.”

Stilwell said the ministry meets regularly with advocates “to maintain open communication on our services for clients and work to resolve issues of concern.”

The ministry also works closely with the ombudsperson to resolve client concerns, “and looks forward to continuing to do so,” she added.

But Sadrehashemi noted that back in October, the ministry had an online survey asking clients to evaluate how they wanted services provided, and many preferred face-to-face services.

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