HALIFAX, FRIDAY, APRIL 12, 2019
SUBCOMMITTEE OF THE WHOLE ON SUPPLY
THE CHAIR: Order. The Subcommittee of the Whole on Supply will come to order. We are on Resolution E4, the Department of Community Services.
Before we start, I just want to remind people that any type of recordings outside of the media is not permitted. That is by people in the audience and also by members of this committee. There is strict policy around recording, so I just want to remind everybody in the room that there will be no recording unless permitted.
We will start with the PC caucus for 31 minutes. Ms. Adams.
BARBARA ADAMS: I’m going to focus my comments today on some continuing conversations I have had with the minister over the last year and a half. I want to go back to a conversation we had a long time ago. I’m not sure if she remembers, but I do remember it because she said I had a good idea. I want to go back to it. I had pointed out to her that when I had done lectures for seniors in low-income housing, it came to my attention that none of the buildings that I was in had any exercise equipment. I’m there promoting being as mobile and as fit as possible, and they have no equipment.
A couple of the barriers to that were that some people stole equipment that might have been there, but the biggest issue was liability insurance. We had talked about that, and you asked me if you could steal the idea, and I told you go right ahead. I did follow it up by contacting some of the facilities around the province, and I didn’t get any response back. I’m wondering if you think it’s a good idea if we could meet to talk about it. We’re looking at all avenues to try to help improve the fitness and reduce the frailty level of seniors, and I think this is something that would make sense.
HON. KELLY REGAN: I want to thank the honourable member for her good memory. I would note that we’re Housing Nova Scotia. That might be a better fit for the Department of Seniors. We’re focused on improving our housing. I think it’s an idea that is worthy of further investigation, but I’m not sure we’re quite the right department to be doing that. I will just say that.
BARBARA ADAMS: I think you almost said “fantastic” idea, and then you pulled that word back. That’s okay. I’ll go with that.
I think the bus pass is phenomenal. I’m so grateful for it, especially for the fact that it also involves family members, because I think that is a huge step forward. I have some constituents, especially those out in Cow Bay, who do not live on a bus route. They get bus passes but can’t get to the bus, and they lost their ability to use taxis. I’m just wondering if you can comment on that.
KELLY REGAN: The bus pass is available to people who live within half a kilometre, 500 metres, of a bus route. Anyone who is beyond that was not to be considered for that. If that is the case, I would urge them to contact their caseworker. If that does not work, I would escalate and ask to speak to a manager.
BARBARA ADAMS: I know this is an outlier for the issues, probably, but I have a constituent who could not get a family doctor here and convinced her old family doctor to take her on to help with a prescription for depression. She was able to travel down there to get her medication prescribed. I have her permission to use that distinguished comment. The Department of Community Services would not cover her cost of going down there. She appealed the decision, and she got the money. Then her prescription ran out after three months, and she needed to go back down there, and they denied her request for money to get there. She appealed it, and it got turned down. Then she had to go back down there because she needed to be referred to a specialist, and again they denied her request.
I just wonder why they agreed to pay her the first time around and then didn’t agree to pay her to go see the very same doctor. I will point out that one of the comments that she heard from them, according to her, which goes back to my comment about taping conversations from yesterday, is they told her, you could have gotten a doctor in metro. You didn’t have to choose one who was so far away. Of course, we all know that she did, in fact, have to go to that one.
KELLY REGAN: That’s something we should absolutely look at if that is the case. Just to share with the honourable member, I am aware of a clinic that is taking geriatric patients. If she happens to be over 65 - and I don’t know if that’s the definition of geriatric or not - if the member would like to pass her name along to me, I can pass it to the medical clinic, and they can reach out. I am aware of one clinic in my area that is currently taking patients in that particular age range. If not, my executive assistant is going to give you his card and bring that to the attention of the department, and we’ll certainly take a look at that.
BARBARA ADAMS: I appreciate that. I’ll ask more questions about that geriatric thing - she’s not there. We did bring it to the attention of the department a few times, but to my knowledge, it hasn’t been resolved, although I haven’t been in the office too often while we’re sitting in the House.
One of the other questions I have - and I think I’ve referenced it before, and I can’t remember if I asked this yesterday, so I apologize. My memory is not that great. Did we talk about the phones and why we are not covering phones? I was frankly stunned when I found out people were not getting phones, especially when you consider that home phones are a thing of the past, and most people are using cellphones. I don’t even know where in my constituency there is a public pay phone, except for the gas station.
I’m just wondering why that’s not considered an essential service. Is there any plan down the road to actually cover a cellphone? I know some people with medical issues can get it, but if we want people to be able to apply for a job, they need to be able to list a phone number, other than my office - which has happened in the past - on their resume.
KELLY REGAN: I did want to let the honourable member know that, no, you didn’t ask me about that before, so you’re good. A lot of our clients do receive phones if they need a phone for either job purposes or medical purposes. They receive money to do that kind of thing.
What we liked about the standard household rate was that people could make choices about how they wanted to spend the additional money that they would be getting from a variety of different sources under the number of different things that we are doing to improve incomes for our clients.
One of the things that we were investigating was a bulk buying program where we would be able to do that. There are pluses and minuses. It removes choice from people, but it also provides them with a phone. That work was set aside when we were working on transformation and the standard household rate and rolling these things out. It’s something that I anticipate we’ll be getting back to, and they will be coming forward to me with some recommendations around this particular issue. I know it’s something that the honourable member for Dartmouth North, for example, has raised in the past, I believe, as well as a number of others. It is certainly an idea that we anticipate that we will do some work on in the next little while.
BARBARA ADAMS: I especially know how important it is because people can’t, to my knowledge, just drop by the Department of Community Services. They have to call and book an appointment. If they don’t have a phone, then even just getting in to see the Department of Community Services is a barrier.
Those who are low income and on some Department of Community Services programs, if they end up in hospital, I have seen many of them end up with a phone bill that has forced them to choose between eating and paying that phone bill. I’m just wondering whether there’s any program in place that gives them a discounted rate for their phone charges while they’re in hospital.
KELLY REGAN: There are some hospitals that do have discounted rates for that kind of thing. More importantly, if any of our clients find themselves in that situation, I would urge them to reach out to their caseworker. We have in the past covered those costs - reasonable costs. You can’t make long-distance calls all day long. We have in the past covered exactly that kind of thing.
BARBARA ADAMS: I want to ask a couple of housing questions. Do you have the housing wait times for each constituency?
KELLY REGAN: We can get those. I will ask my staff to get those to you. I don’t have them here at my fingertips right now.
BARBARA ADAMS: One of the questions I have, and I don’t have the details exactly right, but I know there was a new pilot program last year for people who were in low to middle income to help them buy a home. My recollection is that it was so successful that it was sort of sold out, if you will, within a few months. There were people who had applied who said that the allotment of money that had been set aside was taken up, I think within a few months. I see the minister shaking her head. I know there were several people - it may be just in certain regions where it was limited. It may have been that the program itself wasn’t completely sold out too soon, but certain regions were sold out. I think that program is now a permanent part of the customer service budget, but I just wanted to ask about that and if the minister can comment.
KELLY REGAN: First of all, last night we indicated that we were going to do Department of Community Services questions first and then Housing Nova Scotia and then Status of Women, but actually, now we have Housing people here today. With the Chair’s permission, I will ask Nancy MacLellan . . .
THE CHAIR: You’re the boss.
KELLY REGAN: Now I’m the boss. Great.
I will ask Nancy MacLellan, who is CEO of Housing Nova Scotia, to join us at the table so that we can continue on with that. Now we can ask Housing questions too. It doesn’t have to be limited to the Department of Community Services and Status of Women.
In terms of that first-time home buyers program, it was fully expended in the first year, but it was not within the first few months. I do have the ability - if we see that in one region things are going great guns, but elsewhere not so much, we’ll try to promote it in those regions. If the uptake doesn’t happen, then we can move money around to a region that is fully expended. Last Fall we weren’t seeing a lot of action. We did some promotion, and we managed to spend all the money.
In the first two years, nearly 300 families were able to buy their first home with the assistance of the first-time home buyers program. It is now a permanent program. I know the federal government has announced a program as well to help people buy a home. I think between these two programs, we could see some increased uptake in home buying.
I’m just going to put my glasses on here. This is the wait-list, okay. I do have the wait-list here in response to a previous question that you had asked me. I have it by district. I don’t have it by individual constituency.
In Cape Breton, there were 178 families on the wait-list and 430 seniors; in the Cobequid Region, 152 families and 296 seniors; eastern mainland, 120 families and 237 seniors; metro region, 577 families and 753 seniors; western region, 227 families and 451 seniors. That was at January 31, 2018. I realize I have just given you information from the past and not the current, which I apologize for.
If we look at our current as of March 31, 2019, we have Cape Breton at 193 families and 461 seniors; Cobequid, 122 families and 228 seniors; eastern mainland 176 families and 268 seniors; metro region, 549 families and 710 seniors; and western region, 289 families and 535 seniors. That’s with 1,600 people coming off the wait-list due to the work that we have been doing in terms of our rent supplements and other measures.
BARBARA ADAMS: Thank you very much for those numbers. I was writing them down furiously, but I didn’t get them all. If you could send them to me, that would be great. I just want to clarify. You mentioned in Cape Breton there were 178 families and 430 seniors. Are those 430 seniors part of those 178 families or is that in addition?
KELLY REGAN: No, they are not part of that list.
BARBARA ADAMS: Just to go back to the 300 first-time homebuyers, that’s exciting. I remember my first home. I did wonder, because the rationale for doing it was to help those who had a slightly higher risk of not being able to sustain homeownership - do we have a percentage or knowledge of how many of those 300 who were able to buy their house still own the house?
KELLY REGAN: I’m not aware of any default at this point. We keep a lookout for that. The last time I checked, there have been no defaults.
BARBARA ADAMS: That’s wonderful to hear. Just so I have full knowledge, how much was the budget that allowed for those 300? Was it around $1 million? How much was the actual budget that accomplished that 300?
KELLY REGAN: The total funding for the Down Payment Assistance Program for one year is $1.3 million, and that includes $250,000 to cover interest costs and carrying charges as well as $1.05 million to loan to program participants.
BARBARA ADAMS: I quickly did math, and if I did it right, that totals about $4,333 for each homeowner. If I did the math right, then it’s great. Did I get that right, that it’s around $4,300 for each person?
KELLY REGAN: The maximum loan is $14,000, so it would vary depending on what they needed and what the cost of the house was.
BARBARA ADAMS: Do you have an idea of which regions people bought their homes in?
KELLY REGAN: In Halifax and Hants, in the 2018-19 year, there were 58 home purchase loans. In 2017-18, there were 40. In Cape Breton in 2018-19, there were 27, and in the previous year, there were 33. In South Shore and Annapolis Valley, in 2018-19, there were 35, and in the previous year, there were 45. In the northern region, there were 23 in 2018-19 and 35 in the previous year. In 2018-19, there were 143 loans, and in 2017-18, there were 153 loans.
BARBARA ADAMS: Can you tell me, did the budget for that go up, since it was so successful, or did it stay the same?
KELLY REGAN: It stayed the same, but it became permanent.
BARBARA ADAMS: Can you tell me how much that saved the Department of Community Services, if you have that knowledge? If somebody is not living in Community Services housing, how much does that save the government because they now own their own home and aren’t staying in Community Services housing? Do we know that?
KELLY REGAN: There is not an exact correlation because the home buyers might not be our clients. It’s not just for income assistance recipients, so there’s not an exact correlation there.
What I would say is that the First-Time Home Buyers Rebate Program gives them an interest-free loan repayable over 10 years. It can’t exceed 5 per cent of the purchase price. Eligible first-time home buyers are those with gross household income - gross, not net - of $75,000 or less.
What we do know is that our home repair programs - if we look at seniors, for example, it is much more economical to have a home repair program and help them stay in their home than it is to provide them with a rent supplement or with public housing. For a home repair program to keep a senior in a home, it’s usually an average of $84 per month - with some major repairs going on there, but that’s an average. Rent supplement - rent geared to income - would be $440 per month, and public housing is $512 per month.
In terms of homeownership, being able to support people in their homes to stay in their homes with home repair programs and helping people buy homes is probably a good financial decision for the province. For many people, it’s something that they use to actually save for their retirement, because they sell their house, and they move into something else, or they may stay there, and we assist them with their home repair.
BARBARA ADAMS: I can’t believe I’m even asking this question, but is there a requirement that this is the person’s primary residence? Could they use this to buy a house that they rent out as an Airbnb?
KELLY REGAN: Again, it’s primary, and we also indicated that their gross income has to be $75,000 or less.
BARBARA ADAMS: Just the last one on this: I have constituents who live in income assisted housing in my constituency who are over 65, and they’re no longer working. They’re both getting Old Age Security and CPP. They have never owned a home, and because the rent went up by $200 or $300, they could, in fact, afford a very small home, but because they’re not working and their age, they’re not eligible for this grant, even though they would be in the right income range. They are disqualified because they’re no longer working. One of the requirements, I believe, is that they be working, even though their income collectively would be right in the ballpark. Given the fact that seniors are living into their 80s and 90s, is that something that could be changed, the working requirement?
KELLY REGAN: It’s actually that they have an approved bank, so the bank has to approve their mortgage. We’re not approving their mortgage. We’re approving the mortgage payment. If they’re not getting approved by their bank.
BARBARA ADAMS: Is one of the requirements for the loan that someone provide their employment income for the previous year and that they be working?
KELLY REGAN: There is no requirement that you have to work, but you have to be able to secure a mortgage. A bank may not approve a mortgage because they don’t feel that the person is a good risk. I actually think that people who are getting CPP and Old Age Security have a pretty secure income. That’s a bank’s decision. We don’t have a requirement for working.
BARBARA ADAMS: That’s great, because that wasn’t their understanding, so I’ll be happy to share that with them. I just have one question - I know that you went through the wait times for housing. If it’s possible, I would love a breakdown for my area just to see if it’s going up or down. The community’s perception is that for the two income-assisted housing units in our area, it’s getting longer than the two years. They’re getting discouraged.
The last question I want to ask is just back to the phones for a second. I have constituents who don’t have a phone, but they live in an apartment building where you have to call them and then they buzz you in through the phone, but they don’t own a phone. In those cases, does Community Services provide them a phone if they’re on income assistance?
KELLY REGAN: If it’s required for security reasons in an apartment building, we can absolutely look into that. I’m not aware whether that has happened in the past or not. I would think it would have. Again, Edgar will give you his card, and we’ll put him to work.
BARBARA ADAMS: The last question is just on Child Protection Services. I’m just wondering if there has been any increase in staffing for social workers in that department.
KELLY REGAN: To the phone question, just so you know, 7,850 of our clients do in fact have phones. They have been able to get them through a special needs request, just to share that with you.
In terms of social workers, we have been able to shift resources about. When vacancies come up in other areas, and it’s not something that we feel add a resource to social workers, we have been able to shift 15 into adding more front-line social workers.
BARBARA ADAMS: There’s 15 more social workers. Where did they come from?
KELLY REGAN: In terms of where they come from, most of them are from administrative positions. Some of them were from the ESIA eligibility review. As we standardize more, it frees up the time that it takes to look at things like the eligibility review. I think we also had . . .
THE CHAIR: Order. The time for the Progressive Conservative caucus has come to an end. We’ll now go to the NDP caucus for one hour. Ms. Leblanc.
SUSAN LEBLANC: Thank you, minister, and all of the staff who are here. I want to start my comments by making some shout-outs to DCS staff. This year, we have had a number of complicated constituency issues in Dartmouth North. I have to say that the responsiveness of people like Nancy MacLellan, Tracy Embrett, Sandy Graves - those three have been amazing to work with.
Also, I just want to say that one day randomly, I was at the Dartmouth North Community Centre in the summer - I forget why. I wandered into the main room, and there was the bus pass photo booth happening. I was talking to the staff there, and as it happened, that first roll-out did not go very well in Dartmouth North. It didn’t have a lot of uptake. We had a great conversation with the folks who were there from the department and talked about how we could make it better. It was awesome to connect with them, and I was really happy to meet them. Thank you to those staff people for your work.
I want to be specific, but I can’t be specific. To echo my colleague’s comments from the PC Party, one of the main things we hear from our constituents when they come in is that they have issues with their front-line workers. I understand that there are two sides to every story. I also understand that when one is talking with their worker, there is a lot at stake, and there are a lot of issues already at play. It must be one of the hardest jobs in the world to be a front-line worker in the Department of Community Services. I just want to flag that because it’s something I hear all the time. I can’t believe that it’s always an issue with the client, so I just want to register that.
I want to make a couple of comments on things I have heard so far. I will also say that throughout this sitting, I have been listening very carefully and closely to the minister about programs that are happening. I want to say again that I do appreciate many of the programs that are happening and the shift in understanding or focus in the department, but I want to call into question some of the logic - some of it, not all of it.
Again, I will talk about the bus pass for a minute. The bus pass has been a very good program for many of my constituents. We live in an urban centre, and there’s buses all over Dartmouth - thank goodness. For those few who have come to me who can’t use the bus, their experience with getting some kind of compensation for their transportation has not been good. They have had to go through a million hoops to prove why they can’t use the bus. I understand that now the kilometre rate that is being calculated is something like 5 cents to 10 cents a kilometre. They went from getting $78 a month for their transportation allowance to $11 in a couple of cases. It’s obviously not sustainable for these people: $11 really won’t get you anywhere in a taxi, or it will get you one trip. Part of the rationale of bringing in the bus pass was that people not only have doctor’s appointments to go to but also have church and visiting family and shopping and all of those things that allow a person who is vulnerable and perhaps disconnected somehow with their community to be more included. I think that rationale needs to be looked at so that people who can’t use the bus have the same opportunities as those who do get a bus pass to be out in their community.
I also want to pick up on something that the minister has been saying in this Estimates session, but also in general in the House. That is, the standard household rate that’s going to be implemented in January is providing the maximum that people are eligible for. I just want to pick up on that because that seems to me a line that suggests that they’re not now getting the maximum they’re eligible for. Why aren’t people getting the maximum they’re eligible for? If you’re eligible for something, why aren’t you getting it? If that has been going on in the department, that to me makes zero sense. If it has been going on, it feels to me a kind of slick talking point, basically. I just want to challenge that.
KELLY REGAN: Okay, so many things to talk about here. Sandy Graves, yes, phenomenal. She’s not with us today. She’s off solving a problem somewhere, if I know Sandy. Thank you for mentioning those people - Tracy Embrett, folks who are sitting here at this table today. They make a huge difference in the department.
You talked a bit about the bus pass at the very beginning. What I want to share with you is that our folks who volunteer to work on that - when I say volunteer, they said, I’m happy to come out on a Saturday. They still got paid; I want to be clear. They found it a most energizing and inspiring opportunity to meet our clients in a different way than they often meet them. Some of them were not people who always got to meet them. They were not necessarily front-line workers. They came out, and they worked with folks on that bus pass. It was inspiring for them, and it was inspiring for me. We heard stories from people - an elderly woman who said, I can finally go to church, and I don’t have to worry about how I’m going to get there and get back. We heard from families. An 18-year-old said, I can take my little brother, we can go places, we can go to the library.
For us, part of why we wanted to do this was so that our clients could be involved in their community, and that’s a big shift. It was a very inspiring time for us. The three of us here were out at that. I know that it had a big impression on all of us. Thank you for sharing that story.
In terms of front-line workers, what we have heard when we went out and did our consultations, is that the relationship with our caseworkers was a make-or-break thing. Having a good relationship with a caseworker is a big deal. That was underlined for us. There are a couple of things that we’re doing. One of them is the reclaiming social work initiative, where we’re getting back to the sort of roots of social work. Before, the way the system worked was that our caseworkers spent a lot of time looking at receipts and how much was actually spent. Now they’re spending more time on social work. That’s the direction in which we want to go, and we will continue to go.
The other thing we have is an initiative called Getting to Yes. It’s about when people come into the department. If there’s a service that they need, maybe we can’t give them exactly what they want, but we try to problem-solve and figure that out. It’s about getting to yes. I do want to say that it takes two to seven years to shift a culture in an organization. We’re under way on that. It’s not going to happen overnight, but when I said the other day that I’m very proud to be the Minister of Community Services in Nova Scotia, that’s part of why, because this work is under way. We do want to make life better for our clients.
Then you spoke about folks who have to go through, as you termed it, a million hoops to prove why they can’t get the bus pass. If they were getting $78 in transportation allowance before, then they were getting money for the bus. If they were using the bus, but then they couldn’t use the bus, they’re going to have to prove that. If they were getting $78, that was for a bus pass. How the system worked before, it was, what’s the cheapest option? Most people would not have actually had money for a bus pass. It would have been things like bus tickets. If you had lower than X-number of trips that you needed to make each month to things like medical appointments, education, employment-related, then you were not getting a bus pass, you were getting tickets. Most of our folks who are not using the bus pass in metro are getting far in excess of the $78.
Then we talked about when I said they’re moving up to the maximum they’re allowable for. How the system has worked for decades is that our income assistance recipients are given the money for the actual up to the maximum. If you are in public housing, we haven’t raised our rental rates in a couple of decades. You may not be paying the maximum you’re allowed to get for your rent. We would only be giving you what your actual rent was. That is the way the system has existed since forever. It is not some slick way that the department has suddenly come up with to do it. This is the way it existed. We’re now moving everyone up to the maximum allowable, and that’s where you’re seeing some of the increases come.
SUSAN LEBLANC: Thank you for some of those clarifications. I don’t understand that one, but I’ll talk to you when I’m not on the clock.
I’m going to ask some specific budget questions. On Page 6.7, it appears that last year the department spent less than what was budgeted for income assistance payments, almost $5 million. I’m wondering why that was and if you anticipate that the budget for income assistance payments will be underspent again this year.
KELLY REGAN: That was the result of the caseload declining, approximately 400 cases during that time. We don’t have any particular reason why it’s declining. There are no steps we’re taking to make it decline. It has been on a decline for a number of years, but right now it’s flat, in recent months, so we haven’t seen further declines. We don’t know at any given time when that decline is going to stop or whether there’s going to be an uptick. If there’s an economic reason, if there’s a plant shutdown somewhere or something like that, we can’t predict that.
SUSAN LEBLANC: DCS Transformation Projects, $3,183,000 in 2018-19. How much of the $3.2 million was directed to child, youth and family services? I’ll ask my second part while my light is still on. What was accomplished with the funds, and how have they impacted the safety and wellness of vulnerable children and youth?
KELLY REGAN: I’m going to give you a rough number because I don’t have the exact number here. I am reliably told that about $2 million was spent on CYFS - Child, Youth and Family Supports.
In terms of what the money was spent on, we have 17 new parenting programs. That’s to prevent families from entering the system. That includes added support and protection for young people between the ages of 16 and 18.
We made a lot of improvements to the foster care system. We implemented the Alternative Family Care program. That currently supports about 200 at-risk children and youth. I’ll remind you what that program is: when a child or a young person cannot stay with their family, they can be placed with extended family or close family friends. This is to help those folks with the cost of having the children in their home. It’s better for the children to be with people they’re familiar with, often in the same community. We believe it’s going to produce better outcomes.
In terms of what we’re doing for CYFS this coming year, we’re building new residential placement options for targeted groups of children and youth in care so they receive appropriate supports and services. We’re redesigning the entire foster care system because foster homes are the most appropriate placement option for the vast majority of children in care, kids who cannot go back home. Our goal is always, if possible, if it can be done safely, to return a child to their original home, but sometimes that’s not always possible.
SUSAN LEBLANC: On that, I have been hearing about this issue since I was elected. I have been listening to families and listening to social workers and listening to Legal Aid lawyers about all angles of the situation since the new Child and Family Services Act was brought in.
When I was first elected, I said that I was hearing that this is not really working. The response I got was, we’re going to resource the social workers with laptops and make it easier for them to do their job. Then the next time I asked - I forget what happened. We know that the child welfare social workers have launched their campaign, Child Welfare on the Brink, because it really is on the brink.
There is a wider scope of duty to report because of the parameters of the new Act, so there are way more cases that are investigated on the front end. In spite of the investments being made in parenting programs and that kind of thing so that people don’t get involved with the system, we still see that there are way more cases being opened.
Then there’s the shortening time for people to get their lives together, figure things out, take a parenting course, go to counselling, and all of those things. Because the social workers are burned out, I’m hearing that, in one year, people have six social workers on one case. How is it possible for a vulnerable parent to prove to six different social workers that they are actually capable of taking care of their child or children?
I find it heartbreaking. I also know that the Policy 75 counsellors have been getting the same amount of money forever, and they are getting burned out as well. They are sometimes the lifelines for these vulnerable parents. I want to ask the minister, given all of those things and what is happening on the ground, will you acknowledge in some way that the child welfare social workers are burned out and are sick, which is negatively affecting vulnerable children and parents in our province?
KELLY REGAN: First off, let me just say that I think our child welfare social workers probably have one of the toughest jobs in government, absolutely. It’s a very important job because they’re looking after our youngest and most vulnerable citizens. That said, it is often an entry level position. What happens is, this is how people get into the department. What I have heard from social workers is, if you love doing child protection work, you’re kind of there for life. It’s not a job for everybody, and people do move on. At one time, it was a different classification, and people didn’t move on as much, and they were paid differently. Now, there’s standardization, which came through the negotiation of contracts. I don’t think that came from government.
What I will say is that there are a number of things that we are doing to assist our child welfare social workers. These include giving priority to filling vacant positions related to child welfare. As I said, this is how workers would come into the department, so we have, in fact, increased the priority to make sure those are filled quickly so they’re not left vacant. We created 15 additional front-line child protection positions by - as I indicated earlier - reassigning vacancies from other program and geographical areas. Other supports include added staff training, supervisor training, and tools to support their work.
Just to recap, since 2017, we have consistently filled vacant positions. We have created 15 additional front-line child protection social work positions. We moved the time-sensitive, workload intensive, screening process from individual social workers to a consolidated team. That was to decrease the workload for their colleagues. We reintroduced float staff with a stronger evidence-based approach. We worked with social workers to identify specific tasks, activities, and processes that were creating an administrative burden for those social workers. We issued smart phones, laptops, voice recognition and dictation software, and upgraded video recording technology for testimonies. We created a consolidated placement referral tool that combined four forms into one. We introduced autonomy for social workers to spend within policy limits without the administrative burden of supervisory approval. All of those things are as a result of spending time with social workers and asking what we can do to make their job easier.
The other thing I did mention earlier was reclaiming social work initiative that we have begun. As I indicated earlier, we had folks spending a lot of time on tasks that really weren’t social work. Those are some of the things that we’re doing.
SUSAN LEBLANC: I really hope that some of those changes actually result in children not going into care unnecessarily. That is ultimately what we’re talking about here. We know that some children will need to go into care for their own protection. Then there are so many who would be better off, probably, without the trauma of being separated from their families.
One of the things you said is that child welfare social work is an entry-level position. In my opinion, that is a desperately bad problem. We can’t allow the people who work directly with our most vulnerable children, and the most vulnerable citizens, have entry-level positions. These are specialized skills that these social workers need to have, and we shouldn’t allow them to be entry-level positions. They need to be paid properly. The minister could show leadership in this and work with the School of Social Work to make sure that child welfare is a required course at the social work school. Let’s get rid of the idea that it’s an entry-level position, and you get in to go somewhere else in the department. That is a big part of the problem. I’m going to leave that there right now, but I am going to keep my eye on all of those changes and see if, when we come back in a year’s time, we can hopefully see some changes for our children.
I want to go back to child poverty, since we’re speaking about children. I just want to ask a couple of questions around that. Minister, I appreciate all of the talking you have been doing about this lately, but I want to ask some specific questions - not just child poverty, actually, everyone’s poverty. The budget for the Nova Scotia Child Benefit is the same as it was last year. When was the last time that the Nova Scotia portion of the child benefit was increased?
KELLY REGAN: In terms of what the member mentioned about entry-level positions, I could not agree more. Part of it is, again, this is where the vacancies are, so that’s where new employees come in. One of the things that we’re doing under our reclaiming social work initiative is actually looking at how we can change it. Senior staff are doing intake. The most senior people are actually dealing with children as they’re coming into contact with the department initially.
You talked about the young person who had six social workers. What we are striving for is to make sure that there is, in fact, less turnover among our social workers who are dealing with children because they do better when they don’t have to deal with a whole bunch of different people.
I would note that my deputy minister and the senior executive director of Child, Youth and Family Supports, in fact, met with the School of Social Work on this particular issue last week. It is an issue that we agree with the member on - that changes are warranted. We’re working on doing those.
In terms of the child benefit, the last increase was three years ago, in 2015-16. Since that time, we have seen the federal government institute their Canada Child Tax Benefit, which as I have mentioned before, brought just shy of $600 million to the province to families receiving the Canada Child Tax Benefit.
SUSAN LEBLANC: In response to a question in the House, the Premier said that there was more money in this year’s budget for the Strait Area Women’s Centre. What line is that in the budget, and how much is the increase?
KELLY REGAN: The funding for the Strait Area Women’s Centre is $206,000. It was advanced in March, and it is annualized now. It actually came in advance of the budget, but it is annualized on an ongoing basis.
SUSAN LEBLANC: I would like to talk about the Poverty Reduction Credit for a moment. This is a tax credit that the minister and the Premier often refer to when talking about issues around poverty. How many people qualify for the Poverty Reduction Credit in Nova Scotia?
KELLY REGAN: We have some of our folks in the back who will get that number for us. It’s not a tax credit, it’s a credit.
I should make the point that the Strait Area Women’s Centre will now be receiving the same money as the other women’s centres there.
SUSAN LEBLANC: The Poverty Reduction Credit - I have been helping a constituent in the last little while. The cut-off for it is $12,000 income. Firstly, I would just like to point out that when the Premier discusses this as a great thing that it was doubled - listen, any amount of money is better than no amount of money. However, it only applies to the poorest people in the province. I just want to point that out. My constituent, for instance, didn’t qualify for the Poverty Reduction Credit this past year because his income was $178 more than $12,000. When you are making that little income, it seems to me - I know you have to have a cut-off somewhere, but I just feel the $12,000 is too low.
The other thing that happened with him, as far as we can tell, is that he had a bill for Nova Scotia Power that was like $700, and DCS paid that arrears and then put him into an overpayment situation. As far as we can tell, that $700 to Nova Scotia Power was counted as income when they calculated whether or not he was eligible for the Poverty Reduction Credit, putting him over, even though it was something he was paying back. I’m just wondering if you can confirm if that is a policy of the department or if there has been some mistake that we need to get figured out.
KELLY REGAN: Actually, when you note that the Poverty Reduction Credit goes to the poorest of the poor, that’s exactly why we doubled it, because often it’s singles or couples who don’t have children. They’re not eligible to get a lot of the larger investments that we have made and that other governments have made, for example. That’s exactly why we doubled it, because of our concern for those who are living on the absolute lowest of incomes.
In terms of your constituent, please refer that to me because we want to take a look at that.
I would just make the point that 13,500 people get the Poverty Reduction Credit. That’s $500 per year.
SUSAN LEBLANC: Can the minister provide the number of people eligible in each of the last five years?
KELLY REGAN: We will have to get back to you on that.
SUSAN LEBLANC: Continuing this conversation a little bit, I just want to refer to these excellent information bulletins that the department put out about what would be happening in transformation.
The minister yesterday made some comments to the member for Cole Harbour-Eastern Passage about how some of the steps being taken to alleviate poverty in the province don’t show up in terms of dollar amounts. For instance, a rent supplement won’t show up as income. Free tampons at your local library is not going to show up as income, that kind of thing.
In the reverse way, the same is kind of true with these scenarios. The fact is that all of the steps being taken to alleviate poverty are not going to apply to all of the people. If all of them applied to all of the people, then we might be getting somewhere.
The single parents with one child in my riding, you have calculated them with wages here. Most of them aren’t working right now because they’re taking care of their kids, and the cost of daycare is too much, even with the subsidy. Or they can only work a few hours because they’re on income assistance - to make it worthwhile - and they can’t get a part-time daycare space. There are all kinds of scenarios which these papers don’t incorporate.
I just want to clarify, though. A single person with a disability and no children, after transformation, is going to make $939 or thereabouts. That is still less than $12,000 a year, which we know is not enough.
The other scenario I wanted to ask about is the single person with no children. In the breakdown of money, there is a tax credit estimated of $153. We know that can’t be a child tax credit because they have no children in this scenario. They’re going to be making $1,305, but that will disqualify them from the low income tax credit. In fact, we should take off $153 from there because they won’t be eligible, which puts them back below. It’s kind of a chicken and egg thing. I just want to point out that some of the calculations don’t work.
When the budget was released, the department put out these family composition changes. The market basket measure, which we know doesn’t incorporate all income, is a measure of low income based on the costs specified for basket goods and services representing a modest basic standard of living. I’ll reiterate: a modest basic standard of living. Taken into consideration are the costs for food, clothing, footwear, transportation, shelter, and other expenses. In Halifax, the market basket measure for a family of four is $37,449. The only one that I can see of those scenarios that gets close to that is the two parents and two children scenario. For each of the scenarios, I’m wondering how many would be living at or above the market basket measure?
KELLY REGAN: I want to be really clear with folks that these particular scenarios are, in fact, most common scenarios among our clients. Everybody’s individual situation is slightly different, and there are all kinds of combinations and permutations across our clientele. It’s a rich tapestry.
These are not only the most common, we also were very conservative in these estimates because we knew that people were going to look at them, and they were going to critique them. We wanted to make sure that we were very conservative. In fact, there are many people who are receiving more than what you’re seeing here. I should point out that the tax credits are not just the one you mentioned but include the Affordable Living Tax Credit, and federal tax credits. There is an asterisk there that says that on each page, tax credit amounts include both provincial and federal credits as applicable. I want to be very clear on that.
I don’t think that we were under the impression that we were going to solve the historic, deep, decades-old poverty problem in Nova Scotia in two years. What we were going to do is begin taking some significant steps towards combatting this insidious problem. I don’t think that anyone should be under any illusion that we are going to be able to do this overnight. This is a long-standing problem that has existed, for many reasons, in many areas of this province. That’s why we’re looking at significant investments that can help certain populations.
When you look at the child maintenance exemption, that brings in an extra $275, on average. Yes, there are some who are getting more, and there are some who are getting less. That exemption makes a huge difference in households. When you consider that before the standard household rate came in, the biggest increase we had ever been able to give in this province was $20 a month; an additional $275 for single-parent families that were receiving child maintenance is a big thing. You may say that isn’t spread across everywhere. The problem is, every time we spread across everywhere, the amount gets thinner and thinner. The thing is to work with populations that are disadvantaged the most and work on those and do a number of things that will make things better.
There’s no government that has been able to put the kind of investments in that would see income increase $200 per family in this province. The federal government has come the closest to making massive investments under the Canada Child Benefit, but that benefits families with children.
It is not an overnight problem, and quite simply put, nobody has been able to make these kinds of investments. We were very open about what we were doing. You will recall that these sheets are from last year. I had those out. We went out to stakeholders. They have known for some time that these are the investments that we were going to make. They were, in the main - not all - supportive of the work we’re doing. I can tell you that even with what some people are saying, they are still encouraging us on. This is a quote from one of them: there has been more work done in two years on this issue than there was in the previous 20. I understand that people want us to do more. We want to do more. We will continue on that path.
SUSAN LEBLANC: Listen, I agree that it’s a complicated problem. But I will just flag that - and perhaps this is the voice of the detractors - for several years, people have been told to wait for transformation. For the first couple of years that transformation was happening, there was not much transparency. People were just being told to wait. I acknowledge that was probably before your time, minister. Yes, you did release these documents. The fact is that the people I have heard from who have been told to wait for the glorious transformation are really only going to see a 2 per cent to 5 per cent increase in their household rate. I know that doesn’t include all of the other non-measurable parts.
Poverty is an issue, and the minister said that no government has been able to do more than a $20 increase. I acknowledge that, but I would also play devil’s advocate and say no government chose to make an investment of more than $20, because budgets are choices. Every time you make a budget - and I made them for years and years for my own company - you choose where you’re going to spend your money, and you choose how you’re going to get your money. So I would suggest that those are choices.
At the end of the day, after those changes happen in January, there are going to be many people in Nova Scotia who are still going to need to use food banks, who are still not going to be able to afford the rising costs of rents. In my riding, people are getting evicted right now out of $550 and $600 apartments. They’re getting evicted, those apartments are being renovated, and the new rents are $850. No one can pay those, so where are those people going to go? The shelters are full. There is no place for them to go.
Speaking of that, a household is considered to be in core housing need when it cannot access housing in its local market that is adequate and suitable, in good enough repair, and with enough space unless it spends more than 30 per cent of its pre-tax income on shelter costs. For each of the scenarios included in the department’s examples, how many would be considered in core housing need?
KELLY REGAN: We’re going to have to get back to you in terms of the numbers in core housing need.
To a point that the member made earlier, child welfare referrals are actually down in 2018-19, and so are the number of investigations. I did want to share that with her.
In terms of making budgets and priorities, this is a priority. This is the biggest investment that we have seen in anti-poverty measures in some time. I would also remind the honourable member that we have the poverty reduction blueprint work that is under way as well. We have more than 100 different projects under way throughout the province, looking at a variety of different issues - everything from children to transportation and beyond.
Those are also providing valuable information to us so that we have a better idea how to make investments in various areas in the future. We want to make sure that when we are making investments, we are doing things that actually help people, particularly the people who need it the most.
SUSAN LEBLANC: While you’re getting that information about core housing need, I was going to ask a question, but I’m assuming it will be the same answer. Energy poverty is defined as households that spend more than 10 per cent of their income on household energy. For each of the scenarios, can you provide how many would be considered to be living in energy poverty?
If it’s okay, Mr. Chair, I’ll move on to a different question. Last year, the department announced that they would be developing online services for people receiving income, employment, and disability supports. How much is included in this budget for that initiative? Is there any money in the budget allocated to enable access to Internet services in public housing?
KELLY REGAN: In 2019-20, we’re going to spend a little more than $2 million on digital services in this current budget. That’s a mixture of capital and operating. I think the member will remember that we have had conversations about this before. This is one of the things that we did hear loud and clear when we did our consultations, that folks wanted to be able to do things digitally. In addition to the issue of telephones, which we’ll be continuing to work on, we know that online and mobile service will be important to folks. We expect that digital online will happen in early winter 2020.
SUSAN LEBLANC: Because I only have 10 minutes right now, I’m going to go on a different tack for a second. I recently met with people who are supporting women who are incarcerated. Of course, Burnside jail is in my riding. We talked about the issue with the sort of revolving door around women in particular on remand or on short sentences who go to Burnside. The scenario is essentially this: if a woman is on income assistance and something happens where she’s arrested - I’ll flag the remand situation - she goes to Burnside on remand, has not been convicted of a crime, automatically, her income assistance is cut off. Shortly after that, if she’s in there for any length of time, she will lose her housing because she’s not paying any rent.
Very often, people in these situations that the person I was talking to deals with are very often on some kind of medication, often for mental health or addiction issues. What happens is, four months in Burnside, and then boom, either she doesn’t get convicted or she does her sentence, and she’s out with a bus ticket to go, in some cases, nowhere. These women have lost their income assistance. They have lost their housing. Their Pharmacare has been cut off because they have been receiving their medications in jail, maybe not even the right medications. They get released to go nowhere basically.
It takes a while to get their income assistance going, and it takes a while for Pharmacare to kick back in. In many cases, they’re homeless and couch-surfing, and possibly in dangerous situations that are going to get them back into the same trouble as what got them into jail in the first place.
I mentioned this to the Minister of Health and Wellness in Estimates, and the deputy minister. The minister recognized that this is a serious issue, one that not only causes significant personal human pain, but also one that costs the province loads of money. I’m wondering if the minister will commit to sitting down with the Department of Health and Wellness and the Department of Justice to figure out some very simple solutions to this issue. Number one, I would say if there’s a way to press pause on the income assistance as opposed to cutting it off and if there’s a way to assist a person in remand or in jail to figure out their housing need and the same thing - pressing pause on Pharmacare instead of cutting it off.
KELLY REGAN: We do continue to provide rent when there are shorter stays. We can’t hold a rental unit for 10 months. This is something that we are actually in conversation with the Department of Justice about and also the Department of Health and Wellness, because of the Pharmacare side of it. I know my CEO of Housing is in conversation with service providers about having a place for women to go when they come out because, as you say, they’re given a bus ticket and then whatever. That is something that we’re in conversations with them about at this particular time.
SUSAN LEBLANC: May I ask if the minister will commit to sitting down with not only those two departments but also with the service organizations like Elizabeth Fry Society and other organizations that are working with women who are at risk for incarceration? I know that people who are on the ground working with women who are at risk have a lot of good ideas which would probably be useful. I would like to ask the minister if she will commit to sitting with the departments and those groups to figure out some seemingly doable solutions.
KELLY REGAN: I did want to share with the honourable member that we have been in contact and in conversation with Elizabeth Fry Society on a number of issues. We have begun funding them for part of the ED salary, which did not happen in the past. I’m more than happy to have staff sit down with the Elizabeth Fry Society and continue the conversation to see what it is they need to support the women they serve. I have to say that I’m a big fan of the Elizabeth Fry Society and the work they do. I think they do good work.
SUSAN LEBLANC: In the remaining time I have left, I’ll ask this. Again this year, the government has budgeted $5 million for grants for community projects as part of the poverty reduction blueprint. The minister has talked a lot about the period poverty program, PPP. I have to say that in this sitting of the House, we have heard the words “menstruation,” “period,” “tampon,” and “pad” more often than I thought we would. I think it’s a testament to the fact that we have 17 women sitting in the Legislature, so bring it on. I’m wondering if you can explain how the government is measuring the impact of those programs right now.
KELLY REGAN: We have an evaluation strategy, and we are measuring each year against outcomes that we have designed. We’re happy to share the evaluation documents with you so that you can see how we’re evaluating them. We’re looking for projects that can be scaled up or out but that address the root causes of poverty. I think when we focus solely on rates, we don’t always look at how people ended up here and what the causes are. So we’re trying to look to things.
For example, that period poverty one addresses the fact that sometimes women don’t go to work because they don’t have access to sanitary products. As I have said before, all of us have been caught without them. That’s why I stock the washrooms here for the women: because nobody likes that. We can afford it. For us, it’s just time. For the people that we serve, it’s money. Whether it’s a change in IA or whether it’s just having them freely available . . .
THE CHAIR: Order. The time has elapsed for the NDP. We’ll now go to the Progressive Conservative caucus for one hour. Ms. Paon.
ALANA PAON: I would just like to clarify. I know that the Strait Area Women’s Place has received an increase, which I think is officially for this fiscal year. From what I heard in the previous comments when my NDP counterpart was talking, the money was advanced in March, but that money is for this fiscal year of 2019-20. Could you just confirm that? Also that $206,000 that has been advanced in March, could you break down where that’s going? Is it going to employees? Is it going into the Leeside Transition House? Is it going into programming? Can you give me a breakdown of where those increases will be seen within the Strait Area Women’s Place?
KELLY REGAN: The $206,000 was advanced in March. What I can confirm is that in the future they will be receiving it on an annual basis. In terms of the money that we advance to our women’s centres, we do not dictate how they spend it. We give no direction. It’s for a mixture of operations and programming. If I could just give a shout-out to the women’s centres. I have always found that they can take a dime and turn it into a dollar and make a quilt out of that dollar and away they go. I just want to give a shout-out to them and the work that they do.
ALANA PAON: I would agree that the women’s shelters, from what I’ve seen - especially the one at the Strait Area Women’s Place - know how to stretch a penny four ways, I think is the term.
The $206,000 that’s going to the women’s centre - Leeside Transition House doesn’t receive in particular an increase of its own. I just want a clarification of that. There is such need in the community as far as being able to have emergency shelter for women who are in very difficult circumstances.
KELLY REGAN: Leeside is funded separately from the women’s centre. They would have received an increase for cost of living for their staff.
ALANA PAON: Perhaps I could just ask the minister to clarify again. Leeside is funded separately, and it has received an increase in their budget this year - of how much and for what exactly?
KELLY REGAN: To clarify, when I mentioned an increase, that is for their staff, which is a 2 per cent cost of living increase.
ALANA PAON: So the entire budget for Leeside Transition House for this year would be how much?
KELLY REGAN: It’s about $530,000, so just over half a million dollars.
ALANA PAON: Minister, it’s extremely important to continue the services that we have in the Strait Area, which covers all quad counties. I know that they have a very close working relationship with the Women’s Centre in Antigonish as well, of which I’m intimately aware. I have been there quite a few times myself and also, since I have been elected, to the Strait Area Women’s Centre as well. Both facilities do incredible work, and we should be very proud. I’m extremely pleased to see that there’s an increase at the Strait Area Women’s Centre. It’s long overdue. Thank you very much for that.
I wanted to ask if the minister believes that there is as much of a need or if there is a need for a men’s shelter in the area. I know that we have a men’s shelter up in Sydney, but I’m oftentimes in my constituency office told that there are men in crisis in my community as well. I have nowhere to direct them to go at the moment, other than sending them far away - two hours away - to Sydney or sending them to other parts of the province. Can the minister give me some advice as to how I could perhaps facilitate accommodating these men who are finding themselves in crisis situations?
KELLY REGAN: Before I move on to your question, the question you asked me in the House today, I did want to clarify that yesterday when I was talking about a statistical outlier, I was talking about the Province of Nova Scotia, not Cape Breton, in terms of the poverty numbers because the Canada Child Benefit had such an impact all across the country. Just to confirm, we have reached out to Statistics Canada because at this point, they can’t explain why Nova Scotia is the statistical outlier and what is causing that. We don’t even know if it’s actually our clients where this is happening because, in fact, as I was indicating, we don’t have a lot of two-parent families on our caseload. Just to confirm, the statistical outlier comment was in fact about Nova Scotia, not Cape Breton. Further work is being done by Statistics Canada and by our own economists to model that and try to figure out what’s going on. We have to figure out what the cause is before we can figure out the cure.
In terms of the issue of homelessness, I have actually directed staff to look at the issue of homelessness around the province because it looks different from community to community. I don’t think we have the ability to build a shelter in every community. Different communities are coming up with different options on their own. We are certainly engaged in this process right now, trying to figure out what the causes of homelessness are in various places.
To that end, in public housing, we can provide priority access to men who are in crisis if it’s health related, substandard housing, et cetera. If you refer your clients to Housing Nova Scotia, we can assist with that.
ALANA PAON: I appreciate that there is the possibility of priority housing under public housing, but that’s only good if you actually have public housing available to be accessed. I would like to state that in Cape Breton-Richmond in particular, which is of course my constituency, we have a very difficult time finding housing for people.
I just had a very heart-wrenching case recently where a family was losing their home because they were in a time of crisis financially. The spouse had fourth stage cancer - a really horrible situation, just coming back from the hospital and they’re losing their home. The locks are literally going on the door by the bank. I called to try to get priority housing within public housing. It’s very frustrating for them because there are houses available in the community, but the maintenance hasn’t been done on them from the previous client leaving. They don’t have the money in their coffers. The money is not in the budget to be able to actually do the work to fix whatever needs to be fixed after the previous clients have been there.
In my constituency during that time, I had asked for priority housing for those clients who were in desperate need. There were three houses available, I believe, at that time, but none of them could be accessed because maintenance needed to be done on the homes. It was devastating for me to have to give that news to these people. Thankfully, we were able to find them alternative accommodations. Waiting months and months for homes to be renovated or just the basic of maintenance to be done before another client can utilize that space is unbelievable. We should be fixing them in a timely manner, and we should be getting people into those homes.
KELLY REGAN: That’s another thing we are actually working on right now. I would just say that sometimes social housing isn’t available, but that’s why we have rent supplements. I recognize that that’s not always a perfect solution, but there are rent supplements available. There are some that are targeted specifically towards the issue of homelessness or for people who are about to become homeless, so I wanted to mention that.
In terms of the maintenance piece, we actually have an initiative under way to decrease the turnover time that it takes when people move out of public housing because we know that’s downtime for that unit. We want to make sure that people can get into these quicker. We have been spending more money on upkeep of our social housing. I did want to share that with the honourable member that over the last several years, we have been increasing the money available for that particular thing.
We also have the home repair program. If those houses are privately owned, we also do have the Residential Rehabilitation Assistance Program, RRAP. It can assist to make sure that units are available quicker.
In terms of our social housing, it’s a 14 per cent turnover rate in public housing, and so we’re trying to turn these over within a month. About 1,600 units become available each year. We know that if we decrease our turnover time, then we have units available quicker.
ALANA PAON: You stated previously that in Cape Breton there are 193 families waiting for public housing, and then I think it was 461 seniors that are on a waiting list as well. That is a huge number. If there are only 1,600 units that come available per year - and that’s across Nova Scotia - that is a huge concern. I do understand that there are rental supplements. There’s the home renovation program that’s available, but we’re obviously not filling the need within the scope of what’s needed with people getting older. Some people might be able to do the home renovations for them, but they simply can’t stay in their homes anymore and want a smaller unit.
One of the things that I will mention as well is that there are many people who are needing to go into public housing. We have discussed quite a bit the idea of social isolation. In rural Nova Scotia, it is a very real issue. It is an issue that affects obviously the mental health of many people when they are by themselves at home. I found it really quite unfortunate how many times I was contacted by someone who wanted to apply for public housing, but there are very few units that are available that will permit companion animals.
I know that there’s risk obviously involved with allowing pets onsite. Some of these people, although their pet wasn’t seen as an official animal that would assist with a mental health issue and so forth, the pet was part of their family. Can the minister please comment on whether or not there’s any movement, knowing full well how important it is to try and combat social isolation, especially in the rural countryside? Can the minister comment on whether or not there’s any initiative to move forward to permit more household pets, small pets, to move into public housing?
KELLY REGAN: I think social isolation is a very real thing. It’s not lost on me that Britain has a minister responsible for loneliness. Quite frankly, that’s why we’re doing some of the things we’re doing around transportation. That’s why to me, the bus pass in Halifax and - cross your fingers - could be CBRM. As I indicated the other day, we will be doing a reach out. We have done some preliminary work on possibly extending this to CBRM if it works for them financially and they actually have the capacity to do that. That will be, I think, the big question there. Getting people out in the community is a huge deal. That’s why we’re doing some of the work around transportation.
I will say that we have - I believe it was nine - different projects that were rolled out under our Poverty Reduction Blueprint. A lot of them are focused on things like medical appointments and work and things like that. Actually, there’s probably 10, because we also have the worker transport one up in Cape Breton. That’s focused on getting people to work. What I love about the Halifax bus pass is that it gets people out in the community, fully aware that this does not assist people in smaller communities outside HRM. That’s part of our challenge of having a rural population.
What I will say about housing is that we also have people who have allergies. We have a mix of buildings. Some do allow pets and some do not. The ones that do not, we have a contract with people not to bring in pets because there are people who are severely allergic to certain things. As a person who suffers from that, I can attest that for some of us, it’s annoying, and for some people it’s life-threatening. There’s a mix.
ALANA PAON: As much as I can appreciate that the bus passes are available obviously within the urban context, you’re very correct that it doesn’t do much good to assist the rural population. Of course, again, my constituency is in rural Nova Scotia. We do have a fantastic public transportation system in the Strait Area Transit. Is there any possibility moving forward? This is a very real problem. There are people who are not getting to their doctor’s appointments. People really struggle to be able to get to the grocery store. There are others who struggle just to get their children where they need to go, if they have children who are living with them. Is there any possibility moving forward that bus passes could actually be made available for alternative transportation programs that are available in rural Nova Scotia such as Strait Area Transit?
KELLY REGAN: It started off with HRM, and it will now go to the next biggest one, which is CBRM, but we’re open to approaches on any of them. I went through the list the other day of the various projects. Central Highlands Association of the Disabled has one in Pictou County. It provides a subsidy to residents of Pictou County who wouldn’t be able to afford the transportation they need. That wasn’t focused on medical ones, although obviously there are people who have to go into Halifax, for example, for medical problems. The Cumberland County Transportation Services Society - an affordable and reliable service to all residents of Cumberland County facing transportation barriers - assist clients with rides to medical appointments and day trips, and works with VON providing weekly transportation to senior day programs.
Those are just a couple. There’s actually a bunch of them. We had organizations from all across the province to do this kind of work to see what the possibilities were. From there, we’re going to take the evidence that comes out of that and figure out what the best practices are, see what we can scale up, scale out, and provide needed transportation to people across the province - not just in the urban areas. We want to make sure that residents who live in rural areas and enjoy rural areas will have the opportunity to have their transportation needs addressed as well.
ALANA PAON: I’ll be switching over to my colleague Allan MacMaster.
KELLY REGAN: Could I have a short recess?
THE CHAIR: We will take a short recess.
[12:53 p.m. The subcommittee recessed.]
[12:58 p.m. The subcommittee reconvened.]
THE CHAIR: Order, please. I now call the committee back to order. I will turn it over to Mr. MacMaster. You have 39 minutes.
ALLAN MACMASTER: Minister, I have a question around housing in the area that I represent, the community of Inverness. You may remember there was a question asked during Question Period. Anyway, I want to report some good news. The woman in question - and I don’t know if it had to do with a question or Edgar - who I think is on your staff, approached me, which I appreciate. I don’t know what happened, but she did get a place to stay recently. That’s great news for her because she had a job, single mom, and lived in Inverness all her life. She would have had to leave her home community because she couldn’t find affordable housing.
Inverness is unique because - maybe years ago it was not so much of an issue, but now because it’s a tourism hotspot - you have people renting out their places in the summertime, and what used to be affordable accommodation is no longer on the market.
My question is, with this budget, I know there are applications for a place in Port Hawkesbury and an application - I don’t know if it has been made yet - in Mabou. I’ll say Mabou is another desirable community that people want to live in. I want to make special mention of Inverness because of the changes in the last 10 years there. We’re constantly hearing of people who are waiting for housing. I would like to know if there are efforts in this budget that are going to be made for those communities, especially Inverness. I realize there are incentives in place, sometimes for private individuals. I think we almost have to go beyond that to ensure that there is affordable housing getting built in Inverness. I would like to hear your thoughts on that and if there are any funds in this budget that will help with that.
KELLY REGAN: I’m so pleased to hear that the woman was able to find housing. I think that was on International Women’s Day. I was out, and the Premier answered on my behalf. I can assure you, he follows up to make sure the issues that he got asked about were dealt with. I’m very pleased to hear that there was a positive outcome on that particular case. I think that in hotspots like Inverness, Mabou, and Port Hawkesbury, we’re seeing a disruption with the advent of Airbnb, when you combine Airbnb with the fact that this has now become a destination. Those are the places where we look to make sure that we can make investments because we know we don’t want to force out the locals.
Also, to the point that you brought up originally, which was that you had a mom who had a job there and needed a place to live. When you have success, often that can crowd out the local population. We don’t want that. What I will say is that the National Housing Strategy is all part and parcel, and I have indicated this previously - we’re still negotiating our bilateral. Other provinces did their bilateral, and then they put together their plan. We’re doing it all at once. That will have money that will be available to us under that particular strategy to help in situations like this.
I would just say, when we become aware of a place where there is, because conditions change, then we focus efforts in there. What I would just say is, if you become aware of a builder or someone who has land and they want to do something like this with us, please contact Housing Nova Scotia because we purchase doors, we say. We assist in the building of affordable housing in a variety of places throughout the province. If there’s something like that, someone that you know who might be interested in that, who has land and wants to develop something, have them contact or you contact Housing Nova Scotia for them, and then we can work through what the possibilities are there.
ALLAN MACMASTER: I appreciate that. There were three projects I can think of that I have brought. I know you can’t fund them all all the time, but one was in Port Hawkesbury and one in Mabou, and there was an individual who owns a business in Inverness who was interested in taking advantage of programs.
I’m going to leave on this note. In Inverness, one of the benefits of a community becoming a destination, as you say, is more people are coming there. When they’re coming there, they’re spending money. The businesses need people working there to be able to serve the increased interest in visiting the community.
I know you’re doing all you can, and I just want to end on a positive note just to say, remember Inverness. There are businesses there that really need to have people. Employers - in more than one case - have actually come to me and said, I have people working for me, but they have nowhere to live here. If they’re working in positions where the wages may not be super high, maybe they could increase the wages. But if their business is running on a certain model, they can’t, and those wages can’t really sustain somebody to own a car to drive in from a distance. So I say keep an eye on Inverness, and remember Inverness when you’re making decisions around housing.
If the minister wants to comment, then I’ll turn it over to my colleague.
KELLY REGAN: I don’t think the member was in the room when I was commenting on the Cape Breton worker transportation lab that we have. This is one of our innovation labs that’s part of the Poverty Reduction Blueprint.
There were 1,000 jobs that were going empty with no staff to fill them in Cape Breton because we couldn’t get people to work, so we have been doing a transportation lab. Common Good Solutions was the organization that was facilitating it. The cool thing about this is it brought together workers and providers of transportation. They worked out a plan that gets people to work where they need to be for far less than they would normally be paying.
In the beginning, I think there was some skepticism on the part of some of the participants, but it has actually been quite successful. That’s another possibility around that too, that we look at the learnings from that particular lab. Can we, in fact, take that and apply it in other places - perhaps delivered slightly differently - bearing in mind we want to tailor things to each community, and see if we can do that.
As I indicated previously, we also have nine transportation-related projects that were piloted, rolled out, tested, during the poverty reduction blueprint in the first year to see about different ways of providing transportation for people. It wasn’t always to work. Sometimes it was to medical appointments, and sometimes it was for social reasons. We’re trying a bunch of different things in different places. The housing issue can be dealt with in a number of different ways, whether it’s providing transportation or providing a place to live.
THE CHAIR: We will now turn it over to Mr. Halman with 28 minutes left.
TIM HALMAN: Good afternoon, minister and staff. I want to thank you for the work that you’re doing on behalf of the province. It’s very important work, certainly to Dartmouth, in particular to my area of Dartmouth East. Affordable housing is critical. It’s often a discussion I have with the residents that I have the privilege of representing. As a topic, I think it is of national importance as well.
The few questions that I have are more or less questions of clarification. I hope you can talk me through some of these issues that I’ll raise with you. It is my understanding that the bilateral agreement on housing has been signed between the federal government and Ontario, B.C., the Northwest Territories, P.E.I., Alberta, and the Yukon. I’m curious as to why Canada and Nova Scotia haven’t, at this stage, signed the bilateral agreement on housing. I was wondering if you could give us an update on that.
KELLY REGAN: Some of the provinces actually signed quite quickly early on. They were going into elections, and those governments signed them with the federal government subsequently. Then those of us who hadn’t signed were coming up in behind, working on the language and the implications. In each case, there are certain requirements. They have been modelling the federal requirements and modelling our requirements. We’re working our way through issues, and we have had quite a bit of progress in recent weeks. We have a couple of outstanding issues that remain, so we continue to negotiate that portion of it. I have been pleased with the progress, but I would have been happier if it had been signed by the end of March.
TIM HALMAN: Would you be able to clarify the expected timelines, moving further into 2019, as to when Nova Scotians can perhaps expect an agreement? I’m curious as to whether you could clarify some of the outstanding issues that remain in these negotiations.
KELLY REGAN: Sorry, I didn’t catch that second question.
TIM HALMAN: Can you clarify the timelines moving forward into 2019? When can Nova Scotians expect an agreement? Second, you indicated that there are some outstanding issues that remain in the negotiations. Would you be able to elaborate on what some of those outstanding issues are?
KELLY REGAN: We expect that we should be able to have these cleared up by June. One of the things I should mention - and I have mentioned it previously in here, but I have to remember that we have a sort of revolving door here in terms of questioners. Most provinces signed their bilateral agreements and then worked on an action plan, a business plan that they got approved by the federal government. We have been doing this concurrently. We felt it was more appropriate, for our circumstances, to do it that way. We want to make sure that we know what we’re doing and how we’re going to do it, so we have done these concurrently. Other provinces and territories have opted to do it in a different way - do one and then the other - but we really felt that we needed to know where we were going with this before we signed on to the bilateral agreement.
In terms of the outstanding issues, I have never negotiated agreements with federal governments, no matter their stripe, in public. When I was Minister of Labour and Advanced Education, we developed the labour market agreements with the federal government. I was repeatedly asked to do interviews with media outlets. We had big problems with the then-Conservative government and the direction that they wanted to head on this. I think I did one interview on that the entire time. I did not negotiate in public, and I won’t be doing that here, either, so I won’t be able to share that with you at this time.
TIM HALMAN: I’m curious as to affordable housing with respect to non-profits. Just recently, and minister, I’m sure you’re aware, HRM just waived a number of fees for non-profits that are in the process of making investments in affordable housing. I think that was a very positive step.
I’m curious as to what relief the province would be prepared to extend to our non-profit housing sector. If HRM has waived some fees, are there ongoing discussions in the department for Housing Nova Scotia to perhaps waive some fees for non-profits to get more affordable housing?
KELLY REGAN: We actually do a lot with organizations that provide affordable housing, and it runs the gamut. Everything from purchasing actual doors - we would purchase one for $50,000, and that would become an affordable unit for 15 years. We do things like that.
The depth and breadth of the support that’s available or that we have contributed to through a variety of organizations is really quite broad - everything from helping them with studies when they’re looking at governance, repairs and things like that.
We would prefer that our community housing sector was much more robust than it is now. That will be something that we will need to focus on in the next, I would say, 10 years because it’s part of the National Housing Strategy. This is something that the federal government is particularly focused on, so there will be any number of ways that we can, and do, assist community housing organizations.
TIM HALMAN: Thank you, Mr. Chair. So I’m correct in saying that these are ongoing discussions to help facilitate and expedite more affordable housing for non-profits. Am I correct in saying that this is an ongoing discussion within the department?
KELLY REGAN: We’ve bought land. We’ve made capital contributions. It’s not just a discussion - it’s ongoing discussion and action. It takes a variety of different forms, depending on the needs of the particular organization.
TIM HALMAN: What plans does the province have for seniors housing? Could you sort of outline that for us? It’s a topic that’s raised with me in Dartmouth. With our aging population, it’s certainly a topic that’s brought up quite a bit, so I’m hoping the minister can sort of outline what the plans are for seniors housing.
KELLY REGAN: In fact, seniors are our largest constituent tenants of our public housing sector. Over the last number of years, we have been really targeting a lot of money toward capital repairs and renewal of public housing building systems and major components.
It’s not just the exteriors or anything like that, but it’s major systems in some of our buildings. The average building age is 40 years old, which I recognize in terms of our seniors seems young but, in fact, for a building, they’re getting older. In 2018-19, we allocated $24.7 million for public housing repair and renewal and we expect - I don’t have the final number - that it would be fully expended by the end of that fiscal year.
I don’t know what the particular case is in the member’s riding, but I can tell you that in my own personal riding, going to the residence in Bedford and coming up the road and just seeing the exterior of it is quite different, quite improved. Much better because we have to improve the exteriors before we can do the interiors, as I discovered when I put down new floors in my family room and then the roof leaked. We want to make sure the exteriors and the major systems are in good shape because we have to make sure that things like furnaces are in good shape. Otherwise, we have people who are displaced if we don’t have heat during that particular time.
I would further note that there is assistance targeted to low income seniors who live in their own homes and it’s for needed home adaptations. In some cases, you’re going to need a ramp or things like that in a house or the washroom may need to be redone because of someone’s mobility issues. We have a variety of programs. Loans range from $3,500 to $6,500. In fiscal 2018-19, there were 850 households that were helped to do this kind of work as well.
One of the things we do know is that when we help a senior who wants to stay in their own home - because not everybody does - the cost is about $84 a month for home repair programs. If we move them into a rent subsidy or social housing, the cost climbs considerably. It’s about $440 to move into a rent supplement and then about $512 to go into public housing.
Money spent on home repair programs is money well spent - not just for keeping people in their homes but also because often these are the surroundings that seniors are familiar with. Folks who have lived in a certain place for a long time often like to continue living there.
TIM HALMAN: I may come back with some questions, but I’m going to hand this over to my colleague for Cumberland North.
THE CHAIR: Ms. Smith-McCrossin.
ELIZABETH SMITH-MCCROSSIN: First of all, I want to echo some of the comments by my colleagues and say thank you to the staff and people who work within the Department of Community Services. It’s very valuable and important needed work throughout our province. Certainly, in my constituency office, some of the biggest needs that come across my assistant’s desk and through our doors are those who are living in poverty and those who are in need of the services of the Department of Community Services.
This is more of a macro question. When your department is looking towards the future over the next 5 to 10 years, do you see the budget of the Department of Community Services growing? If so, in what specific areas do you see the needs growing?
KELLY REGAN: I do see it growing. It has increased, I believe, every year since I have been the minister. I would say probably the area where we see a lot of growth is around disability support. There is additional money for that in the budget this year. We don’t cap that program, and it is an area where the need is great. Often the issues that people are dealing with, whether it’s children or adults, are very complicated, and people need a variety of different supports to live. That is the one area where I see a lot of budgetary increase.
Of course, employment support and income assistance is a big part of what we have been doing in terms of transformation. There is increasing funding there. When the standard household rate is fully annualized, the increase in that will be more than three times greater than the biggest increase we have ever given in income assistance. That’s just one piece of that anti-poverty puzzle, but that particular increase is more than three times.
ELIZABETH SMITH-MCCROSSIN: Do you see any movement towards a guaranteed basic income, whether under your government’s leadership or through the community?
KELLY REGAN: We looked at that particular issue and cost it out several years ago and in Nova Scotia, that cost would be $2 billion. For my department alone, the budget is just over $1 billion. What we do know is that some people would actually be worse off.
We’ve had some people say you could take the money from all of your programs and put it towards that, but if you did that, there are people who require support and they would actually be worse off under that. Where we’ve landed is the standard household rate. We need to make sure that our programs are, in fact, sustainable.
None of us would run our homes or our businesses constantly in the red. I always go back to what we pay every year in interest in this province on our debt. We pay about $1 billion, which is basically our DCS budget. About half of that is for capital. That’s like purchasing a house. It’s good debt, but when we use money that we don’t have to run the operations of the province, the problem is that it handcuffs future generations.
I can tell you that I could sure use that half a billion dollars that isn’t spent on servicing the capital debt. I could sure use that at DCS to make sure that we had augmented programs, to make sure that we could give people more money and to help more people. I know the Minister of Health and Wellness and the Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development could use it, and so-on down the road. I would love to have a program like that. At this point, it is not sustainable for Nova Scotia.
ELIZABETH SMITH-MCCROSSIN: If you could wave a magic wand, what do you think could be done that would make the biggest single difference in the lives of some of the people who are currently on income assistance? As a lead-in, I’ll just mention that mental health and addictions are a big part of why a lot of people are struggling and have trouble moving on with their lives and living a fulfilled life.
I’m wondering if that’s an area that, if you could wave a magic wand and get more funding to provide those kinds of supports, is that something you would do or is there something else that you see would be more valuable?
KELLY REGAN: Strictly speaking, mental health comes under the Department of Health and Wellness, but there are things that we can do in the Department of Community Services that can improve people’s mental health or at least not make it worse.
When we think about social isolation - and I feel like I’m repeating myself - we have a revolving door of folks coming in. When you’re living in a time where a big country like Britain actually has a Minister for Loneliness, it makes you think about the isolation of people’s lives they’re living. When we think of things like transportation - one of the things I love about the bus pass and some of our pilot projects that we have around the province in places like Pictou - we’ve been testing various ideas to help people get transportation.
Here in Halifax, what our workers heard - what they were heartened by - was people coming up and saying, now I can go to church and I don’t have to worry about how I get there and how I get home, or I don’t have to ask somebody else for a ride. I can just get there because I have this bus pass. We know that exists in rural areas as well. I think of something like that.
In Dartmouth North, the community kitchen and the food centre is a place where people gather, and they cook together. When I look at things like that, I think one of the things about living in poverty is that when you don’t have money, you don’t go out. You don’t do things and then you don’t meet people. We have things that help people interact with others, whether it’s community gardens or all of those things - giving people transportation to the library, for crying out loud. Those kinds of things, I think, can help a population that is often marginalized be part of the mainstream population.
The other thing I will say is we have some programs for young people. It can be children from immigrant families. It can be children who have grown up in care. It can be children whose families have been on income assistance. We give them the opportunity, and that’s all they need. They just need an opportunity - these kids are fantastic. When we give them that opportunity to have leadership training, to have a job, to earn money, in some cases to get a bursary, and have ongoing contact, you see these kids blossom.
Some of the happiest and most joyous days that I have had in this job have been around the announcements we have done after we have these pilots up and running. The one down in Kentville was partially designed with young people who told us what they wanted in a place and what they wanted in a program. Often young people who have been a little marginalized come together with folks who have been through experiences not unlike theirs. Watching them blossom and grow has been quite joyful for me.
ELIZABETH SMITH-MCCROSSIN: The work that your department does makes such a difference in people’s lives. As a nurse, I have seen a lot in my days, but in this job I have seen things at another level - some of the living conditions that people are living in.
In line with some of your last comments, but moving into the workforce, can you share some of the initiatives your department has in progress, maybe through your transformation of the department, to reduce the generational families that have been on income assistance? In my first couple of months after being elected, a 40-some-year-old mother brought in her 18-year-old daughter with her baby and asked, how do we get my daughter signed up? I asked what about school? What are your dreams and aspirations? What do you want to achieve? I think we’re able to get her on the path of going to community college and setting some goals for her life. Can you share with me some of the initiatives through your department?
KELLY REGAN: I am happy to. Career Rising - in the summer of 2018, we expanded our partnership with the Nova Scotia Co-operative Council to provide skills development camps; they were leadership training, work experience within the agricultural sector, and a post-secondary grant to dependants of ESIA clients and youth in care. We delivered it in four sites across the province: Truro, Kentville, Bridgewater, and North Sydney.
Last summer, 30 young people completed the program, and four are now in receipt of the post-secondary grants. They’re on their way in post-secondary. That’s a $400,000 investment annually. The Minister of Environment and I were actually at an event for that particular program last Summer and the employers were telling us that they were able to leave the kids in charge and just go off for the day. In the agricultural sector, that’s pretty amazing. That doesn’t happen a whole lot.
The young people were really quite proud of themselves, and you could see it. The way they spoke - they were very articulate, and they were really quite proud of themselves, and they should have been. I would just note that the Career Rising program was actually recognized as a best practice by the OECD’s Observatory for Public Sector Innovation. It’s up on their website and countries from all over the world can access information on Career Rising and learn more about it. Maybe we’ll see that in other countries as well.
We also have the Youth Development Initiative. YDI provides career-focused, project-based programming and wage subsidies for work experience for dependants of ESIA clients, as well as youth in care. They would be ages 12 to 20. About 300 youth participated in 2018-19 and we invest about $530,000 in that annually.
As well, we have employment supports within residential facilities for youth in care. Employment services have been designed for facilities that support young people who are in care, and they would be aged 15 and up. In 2018-19, they expanded to actually include services specific to sexually exploited youth. Approximately 40 participants are involved each year. We invest about $400,000.
EDGE was new . . .
THE CHAIR: Order, please. Time for the Progressive Conservative Party has elapsed. We’re now on to the NDP and Ms. Leblanc for one hour.
SUSAN LEBLANC: I want to pick up and talk a little bit about annual reviews in the ESIA program.
The ESIA policy manual states that, “In order to determine ongoing eligibility for ESIA, a comprehensive review of a recipient’s eligibility must be conducted once a year for all cases. Recipients are required to report any changes at the time of occurrence or in advance, if known. During the review, a caseworker meets with a recipient to review their circumstances and to assess ongoing eligibility. When a recipient, and/or student family member do not provide the required information and/or documentation, assistance is discontinued.”
Is it still the policy of the department that individuals receiving income assistance participate in annual reviews?
KELLY REGAN: When people apply for income assistance, they provide information about their financial situation and that determines their eligibility for assistance. As part of an ongoing relationship with the department, clients are required to advise their caseworker of any change in circumstances that can impact their eligibility for assistance and meet with their caseworker on an annual basis to review their situation to ensure they’re receiving the right benefits.
At any time, a client can have a change in their circumstances and that could impact their assistance: if they had a new baby, or there’s a change in their marital status, moving to a new apartment, or becoming employed. Changes can result in both increases and decreases to assistance, but the annual review process is meant to ensure a thorough review of the circumstances of an individual or family, to make sure they’re receiving the right benefits.
This is part of our start with Yes Initiative where we’re trying to change the tone of the way that we interact with our clients. What we do know is that sometimes our clients aren’t aware of all the things that they could possibly be receiving, so in addition to the annual review, we’ll also be providing that kind of information online because there is money available for things that sometimes people don’t know about. That’s not meant to be a punitive thing; it is meant to make sure that people are receiving the right amount of assistance to the maximum that they can get.
SUSAN LEBLANC: I get that. I’m just wondering if, for people who have been on the system for a long time and possibly - we know that there’s a certain population who are not going to come off of income assistance for a variety of reasons, and most of the time, it’s to do with a disability of some kind.
If the policy is that the recipients are required to report any changes at the time they occur or in advance, then why does the department feel that the annual reviews are necessary? I just want to flag that special group where, in terms of disability for instance - unless a department is providing new types of income - why would people with disability supports have to do an annual review?
KELLY REGAN: What we do find with our annual reviews is that often we see that the condition of people - particularly people with disabilities - has actually deteriorated and they may be eligible for further assistance. It’s not because we’re trying to police people and we don’t think people should have to prove over and over again that they have disability-X. What we want to know is: is it getting worse? Is there something else they’re entitled to?
For example, we know that most families aren’t aware of the Canada Learning Bond and it’s free money from the federal government. That’s why I did the Government Notice of Motion on it earlier this week - I think it was this week. I spoke about that because for families that want to send their child on to further education, it’s free money from the federal government. They just have to sign up for it. They don’t have to contribute to it.
It’s about finding things like that that people don’t always know about. We know it happens all the time and that’s part of what the change will be in terms of when people are just logging on. They will be able to see that information there. On top of which, I spoke earlier - it might have been last night - about the relationship between a caseworker and their clients and that’s key. It’s hard to have a positive relationship when you don’t have any contact. I would just say that it is an important part and it’s only once a year.
SUSAN LEBLANC: What I’ve been hearing from many people - especially people with disabilities - is that they are being required to prove their disability over and over again. Perhaps that is something that the department could take a look at because it does feel to many people that it is a gatekeeping or a policing of their disability, which is not going to change. I do appreciate doing a check and making sure that people are getting what they need.
I want to move on to collections. I’m wondering how many individuals on the ESIA caseload have been referred to Service Nova Scotia’s Corporate Collection program because of overpayments?
KELLY REGAN: Sorry, could you just repeat that last question?
SUSAN LEBLANC: How many individuals on the ESIA caseload have been referred to Service Nova Scotia’s Corporate Collection program because of overpayment?
KELLY REGAN: I don’t have that number here, but we can find out for you.
SUSAN LEBLANC: Thank you, and I’d also like to know the total amount of money collected from income assistance recipients. If you can get that, too, that would be great.
I’m going to move on to the Disability Support Program now. How many individuals are currently on the waiting list for supportive housing in Nova Scotia? I’ll break that down. How many are currently living in institutions, how many are living with family caregivers, and how many are living on their own with the need for supports, but don’t have them?
KELLY REGAN: I can give you the rough numbers right now or we can get you the exact, but there are about 1,500 who are on the wait-list. About 1,000 of those would be receiving some form of assistance from us and then approximately 500 would be in facilities at this time. The vast majority of our DSP supports would be receiving assistance at this time.
In terms of people who are waiting for places to live, about 500 would be in facilities. About 1,000 would be receiving some form of support from us but would be on the wait-list because they would like to change their living facilities.
I should just mention while we’re discussing this, your point about people with disabilities being required to prove over and over again that they do have the same disability that they had last year. If any of those cases come to your attention, would you please refer them to us because we want to make sure that is not what’s going on.
In terms of the ESIA overpayments, they’re only ever referred to Service Nova Scotia once they’re no longer on IA.
SUSAN LEBLANC: I just want to clarify the numbers you just gave me. There are approximately 1,500 people on the wait-list waiting for supportive housing - 500 of those are currently in institutions or facilities, and 1,000 are in institutions? Minister, would you be able to clarify those numbers again? I was confused. The clarification I want is: Are the others - not the institutionalized people, but the other people - folks who would be living in their families’ homes, for instance, with aging parents or siblings?
KELLY REGAN: We have a number of different charts with different breakouts in different ways. The wait-list for DSP: 1,713 are on the wait-list and 1,176 are receiving support now, 537 are receiving no support from DSP, but they could be on income assistance. That was as of December 2018. We may be talking apples and oranges here. You may be talking about people who are living in our facilities versus small options homes. I’m just not sure what the member is looking for here.
SUSAN LEBLANC: This is the beginning of my line of questioning on small options homes and community housing. That’s who I’m talking about right now, but I do recognize that there is a population of people who are living independently on income assistance who need disability supports.
I have constituents who have applied and I’ve been told, for instance, that they need homecare workers to come in and help them do their dishes and figure out their budgets and that kind of thing. My understanding is that it’s a massive wait-list. I just want to separate those folks out and, if I have time, I’ll talk about those folks. For now, I’m going to go down the small options homes road.
The roadmap for transforming the Nova Scotia Disability Support Program provided a five-year implementation plan, which we know was accepted by the government and turned into a 10-year plan. Can the minister provide us with an up-to-date work plan on where the department is in addressing those recommendations?
I know about the eight homes that we’ve been hearing about quite a lot lately, but I’m just wondering, aside from that, do you have an up-to-date work plan on where the government is in addressing all the recommendations of the roadmap?
KELLY REGAN: The workplan is in various places. There’s not one sole document that has all of that in that, but I will do my best right now to bring you some of the things that we are doing right now.
In terms of 2018-19, funding was invested in the following areas: $3.1 million for new small options homes; $4 million to enhance supports for youth transitioning from school to community, to support children with disabilities and their families at home, and to provide funding for additional individuals to receive support in flex independent alternative family support or independent living support programs; $500,000 to enhance independent living support funding for individuals who may need increased supports; and $250,000 to enhance respite supports.
There has been steady progress on the roadmap because we understand people want quick results, but each participant’s unique needs, wants and hopes have to be accounted for and safely met. A number of things have happened in recent years. The moratorium on permanent placements in our larger institutions went into place in July 2015. We are actively working on the plan to close facilities that currently house our adult participants. The implementation of Flex independent has also rolled out under that particular piece.
I would just say that if you have people who say that there are really long wait-lists for somebody to come in a couple of hours a week, we actually fund community organizations to do that kind of work. If you’re finding that you’re being told that, please contact us because it just may be that in your particular area, there’s another organization that’s doing it or something like that. It doesn’t usually take a long time to get something like that.
SUSAN LEBLANC: The Community Homes Action Group has calculated that the province needs to create 25 new small options homes for the next three years in order to meet the need for community living options for people with disabilities.
The minister has often said - and I agree with you - that making sure the right things are in place for the right people and all of the hefty amount of work involved with those transitions is true, but that has been true forever - ever since small options homes were contemplated.
I’m wondering if the minister can explain why the department has only budgeted for the creation of eight small options homes, given the fact that the Liberal Government committed to the roadmap in 2013?
KELLY REGAN: What I can say is that we are building new small options homes and that while other governments ignored the segment of this population, we have not. I recognize that it’s not going as quickly as some people would like and I understand their frustration.
All of our participants who are living in our larger facilities have to have a plan in place for what they want when they leave that facility. I do have to say that for some people, this is where they’ve spent the great majority of their life and there are some people who don’t want to leave.
There are actually more people, who are family members, who are less keen about them leaving. They know where they are. They know they’re safe there. They don’t necessarily want them to leave. Nonetheless, this is the direction in which we are going.
Planning is under way to move people out into community, but it doesn’t exist in isolation and we’ve seen what happens in other provinces when facilities are closed on X date without people being in place - without supports being in place and without due consideration being given to what a participant needs to be set up for success.
For many people, if they’ve spent their entire life in one of these larger facilities, moving to a small options home will be very different for them and we need to make sure that they are, in fact, set up for success. I’ve talked about this before - where some of our residents have challenging behaviours and they need to be matched with people who won’t find that challenging behaviour so upsetting that it upsets them.
It’s a process of matching and then we also have to make sure that the supports are in place, and that could include staffing but other things as well, so that people can have a chance at success. Moving out of a facility into a community can be great when it works really well, but if somebody moves out and the placement fails, it’s really tough on that resident.
I hear what the advocates are saying. I understand. I was one of those people out protesting with them when the member’s government was in power. I’ve been aware of this issue for quite some time. What I can tell you is that we committed in 2017 to build eight small options homes. Two are up and running, two will be opening later this year and the other four are in various stages of planning with the families.
We are moving on that path. I accept that it is not fast enough for some people, but that is where we are in terms of small options homes.
SUSAN LEBLANC: Up to when you said you committed to eight small options homes, for the bulk of what you just said, I 100 per cent agree with you, but that is what the roadmap is and was. It was a way to make those transitions work for everybody over a long period of time - 10 years.
I have to take exception with the way that you word the commitment. I’ve heard several times this week that the government committed in 2017 to open eight small options homes, but in fact, the government committed in 2013 to accept the roadmap, which ultimately would be seeing 75 small options homes opened - or 75 take away eight - by 2023.
So I guess I want to ask the minister if she’s willing to sit down with the Community Homes Action Group and other organizations that support people with disabilities and figure out a way to redraw the road map so that we can get more action than eight in ten years.
Again, I want to reiterate that I agree with everything you’re saying about all of the concerns, but I also hear people like someone who sent me an email the other day saying that her parents had three adult children with disabilities living with them currently, and they’re in their 70s and 80s. Those parents don’t have an ability to age like their peers and to live out their retirement like their peers. They also spend most of their time worried about what’s going to happen with those children when they die.
For the bulk of the people that I talk to around this issue, it is that exact thing. They want to make sure that their loved ones have a place where they’re safe and where they’re happy in the community.
An independent board of inquiry ruled that the province had violated the human rights of Beth MacLean, Sheila Livingstone, and Joey Delaney by not providing access to housing options.
In a letter to the Premier, Barb Horner, on behalf of the Disability Rights Coalition, said that the province had a decision to make - that they could allow the 1,500 persons with disabilities in this province lacking necessary supports to languish while hundreds will seek to file their own human rights complaint, or it can do the right thing. Does the minister think that this budget honours the government’s responsibility under the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities?
KELLY REGAN: To backtrack to the member’s discussion about the number 25 - the number 25 that was put forward by the Community Homes Action Group isn’t wrong or anything like that, but not everybody wants to live in a small options home. We are trying to focus on the needs of individuals here.
Not all want a small options home. Some want, and can live, in an apartment. Some want to, and some can, live with their families. We are deep in planning with two facilities and that includes the participants and their families. We will not be moving people out before they’re ready. It’s going to be on their timelines and when supports are in place.
We have also been increasing funding for things like day programming. A lot of folks are focusing on where people lay their heads at night and that’s important. Equally important is what we do during the day and that’s why we’ve been investing in day programming for more people to be able to have meaningful lives.
In 2018-19, we committed an additional $7.6 million to community-based programs and that’s a $3.1 million incremental investment. That’s in addition to the $2.1 million investment in 2017-18. That was for a $5.2 million total investment for increased capacity through the creation of small options homes, including community placement of 16 participants temporarily placed in larger facilities.
There’s $1 million to invest in front end programming for people to receive the support option. They chose neither the Independent Living Support program, the Alternative Family Support Program or Flex Program. There was $3 million to enhance supports for young people transitioning from school to community and to support children with disabilities and their families at home. An additional $500,000, as well, to enhance Independent Living Support program funding for people who may need supports, or increased supports, to live independently in community.
I think I’ve mentioned this in an answer to a question but I’m not sure it has had a lot of focus. In this year’s budget, we have a $5.1 million investment in new small options homes for children with disabilities. That’s a constituency that has been largely ignored in the past. In some cases, we see children who, for various reasons, can’t live with their families anymore and they have significant needs.
We came to recognize that was a segment of our population that was not being served. So this is a significant investment in new small options homes for children with disabilities. We continue on the roadmap. In some cases, we’re doing things, I think, that are outside what was imagined in the roadmap because the situation in the province continues to evolve. Sometimes issues come up and we need to deal with them. We are dealing with those issues by the creation of these small options homes and some other facilities for children.
In some cases, we have children with us who are incredibly vulnerable, and they can’t be in homes with other children, so a new facility in Dayspring is opening soon to house those children. We’re developing programs and a facility for children who have been or are at risk of being sexually trafficked. There are always new things that come up that are important and that we need to deal with. We are also moving along the road map as we have indicated we would.
SUSAN LEBLANC: I’m going to change tack again for a little bit. This is a housing question. An issue that our caucus has raised in the House is that we have constituents with housing needs who have not been able to have their housing applications - MRHA, for the most part that we’re talking about - processed because they’re in arrears on payments from a previous period when they were a housing authority tenant. These can be really old arrears.
Arrears policies seem to be individually established by the different housing authorities. There is no provincial legislation or regulation governing arrears that exist at the time when someone applies for housing. Housing authority arrears policies have been unnecessarily punitive and have not taken into account the applicant’s current situation or the context and reason for the arrears. As a result, people who need housing are not getting housed.
Just to kind clarify that, there have been a couple of examples, even this year, where someone goes to apply for housing, they’re told that they have a debt from literally 20 or 30 years ago, and until they pay that debt or until they pay a chunk of the debt, their application just won’t be looked at. Lately, I’ve talked to people in Housing who have said that policy has changed, but then when my colleagues have talked to people in Housing, the policy is still there.
There’s some confusion about what exactly the policy is currently and I’m wondering if the minister will commit to establishing a single policy for housing authorities so that people are not refused housing because of arrears.
KELLY REGAN: There is no change in the policy. The policy is that as long as people contact us and make arrangement for the repayment, then they can get on the wait-list. We actually do better if they end up in social housing. We’re more likely to get our money back, to be quite honest.
I recognize that there are five different housing authorities and sometimes when we look at our records, there are zero that are deemed refused because of past debts. Whether people are being discouraged or something before they’re getting to the point of putting in an application, I can’t say. Our information is that zero have been refused because they owed back debt.
What I would say is if you are aware of people who are being turned away because of this, again, this is a case where we need to have a chat and we want to know about it.
SUSAN LEBLANC: Thank you for that. That’s really important because we all do have instances where people have not had their application able to go forward to get in line because of arrears.
My understanding is that they have to pay a certain percentage of the arrears and then work out a payment plan once they’re in housing, but that is very prohibitive for many people as well. For people who require housing and are living in poverty, even an extra $50 is often prohibitive.
Can the minister confirm that in order to get your application processed, no one would have to pay anything to be in the line-up for housing and that could be dealt with once they’re in - as an overpayment, for instance?
KELLY REGAN: I can confirm that they are not required to pay money up front and that once they’re in, they can start repaying that along the way. Honestly, if you’re having issues with that, I want to know.
THE CHAIR: I have a sneaking suspicion you’re going to get a lot of phone calls. (Laughter) You keep saying, just call me - and her cell number is . . .
SUSAN LEBLANC: I forgot to shout-out Edgar and Sarah, actually. Those are part of my shout-outs as well.
Back in December, I wrote the minister regarding a significant concern about the way in which ESIA policy definitions of renting and boarding are increasing the hardship experienced by clients staying housed.
Policy 5.4.5 very specifically defines renting and boarding so that an individual can only be considered a renter if their name is on the lease. Also, an individual must have their own bedroom to even be considered a boarder. We know that there are many barriers that prevent many individuals who are receiving ESIA to be able to have their name on a lease.
For one, the complete inadequacy of ESIA shelter rates. In some cases, the property owner has been given this reason to refuse to add people to the lease. Also, the low rates have forced people to move into smaller accommodations where they’re sharing a smaller situation and they’re forced to be roommates.
In one case in my constituency, two individuals were in a two-bedroom apartment, but one of them couldn’t get on the lease so that person’s shelter allowance was the boarder allowance - $235 or whatever it is. Those two incomes together could not make it work, so they moved to a one-bedroom and the boarder was then sleeping on the couch. When this came to light at the department, he almost lost his allowance. It was dealt with, thank goodness, by people in the department, but it is a real concern.
When that standard household rate comes into play, is it going to eliminate this altogether - because you’re an individual with no children, you get this much amount or is it still going to depend on what your housing situation is? That’s my first question.
KELLY REGAN: Under standard household rate, there will still be boarders and leaseholders, but our intent is not to require the name on the lease. For the issue of the bedroom, we don’t want to be in the business of policing who’s a couple and who’s not and all of that stuff. We will clarify that in advance of that rolling out.
SUSAN LEBLANC: To clarify, you are going to change the policy? I understand that there will still be a boarder amount and the other amount, but to clarify, you will no longer require people to be on a lease in order to receive the higher amount of the housing portion of the payment?
KELLY REGAN: We’re not going to be looking for the name on the lease. We will look for other indicators. If one person is paying all of the utilities, then that tells us that they’re the primary and the other person is the boarder.
SUSAN LEBLANC: I would have to disagree with that. If people have barriers associated with poverty, one of them is that you can’t get credit. If someone has had arrears with Nova Scotia Power, they’re not going to be able to get power in their name again. Nova Scotia Power - if there are two roommates - won’t halve the bill and put one half in each of the people’s names.
There needs to be a more solid way to figure these things out. The fact is that people become roommates because they’re encouraged to by their workers because they don’t have enough money to live on their own, especially in the city where the rents are so high. What can the minister do to ensure that people have the adequate amount that they need to pay for housing?
KELLY REGAN: We want the standard household rate to be as broadly applied as possible. Sometimes we have cases where, for example, you could have a young person living in their parents’ home, and they’re clearly not contributing to the running of the house - they’re a boarder. That’s what we’re talking about there. We want to make sure as many people as possible get the maximum.
SUSAN LEBLANC: I’ll leave it there and see what happens. I’ll keep tabs on it, and I’ll call you if there is an issue. How about that?
In the Fall, I wrote to the minister to follow up on concerns I raised in the Legislature regarding the use of the faulty Motherisk drug testing used in child protection cases. During Budget Estimates last year, the minister indicated a review of all cases was under way. Can the minister provide an update on the progress of that review, as well as any information you’re able to provide regarding the scope of the review and the processes being used to go through the files?
The secondary question is, will there be a public report of the findings of this review once it’s complete?
KELLY REGAN: I think the last time we spoke, I had indicated that the department has identified the child protection files where Motherisk was used and that, given the time range when these services were used, the number of files that had to be reviewed was extensive. We prioritized the review, and we started with the approximately 90 files where the child entered the permanent care of the minister. That’s what we started with. There were no cases where Motherisk was the deciding factor in these particular cases. We went through that.
From there, phase two of the review is under way now. In that review of the cases, we’re looking at where children were placed in the temporary care of the minister and then were returned back to their parents. That review is under way now. We expect to have it done by the end of the Summer, and we will make that information public.
SUSAN LEBLANC: For individuals who are not recipients of income assistance who need help accessing expensive mobility aids like wheelchairs or scooters, what is the process for applying for assistance from the department? How are the devices paid for? Is there a line in the DCS budget?
KELLY REGAN: Folks who are on IA would get that through IA. If they’re Disability Support Program eligible, they can get assistive devices through that. Otherwise, we do fund community-based programs, like Easter Seals, that provide things like wheelchairs.
I’m not 100 per cent, but I do believe that there is also money available through the Department of Labour and Advanced Education for assistive devices for people who need to work, if I remember correctly, but it has been a while. That could be another place where there are possibilities around that, I believe.
SUSAN LEBLANC: Can the minister provide us with the terms of agreement that the department has with Easter Seals? Also, what is the general time frame between applying for a wheelchair and getting one?
KELLY REGAN: We would have funding documents that we could share with you from Easter Seals. The time frame can vary, and it can often depend on the complexity of the particular wheelchair that’s needed, that kind of thing.
SUSAN LEBLANC: ESIA policy allows an applicant, a recipient, or a dependant child to receive emergency dental coverage based on a rate schedule included in the policy. When was the dental work pricing last updated?
KELLY REGAN: We’re not sure of the dates. I will endeavour to get back to you. I think we usually keep a list of the questions that you have here, and then we provide that to you in a document later.
SUSAN LEBLANC: My understanding, just for the record, is that it was 2014. At that time, the cost of a basic one-service filling was around $71. That was what Green Shield would pay.
I checked in with my friendly local Dartmouth North dentist the other day. That one-service filling at their office - and I don’t think it’s a high-end office or anything - costs $135. I’m wondering if the department has any policies to address situations where coverage provided by the department is not sufficient to cover the cost and the individual is not able to pay the difference.
KELLY REGAN: We have covered dental bills that are beyond the current rate. We can make exceptions. They should apply for that. We also work with some dentists who will discount the rates when they know they’re dealing with someone who is on income assistance. The other thing is that many of our clients do work with Dalhousie dental, where the rates are not as high.
SUSAN LEBLANC: Last year in Estimates, we talked about the issue around the transfer of the child benefit. When a child is removed from the home, the benefit goes with them. I talked about a couple of examples that I know of where the child or children are returned back to their home, but it takes several months for the benefit to catch up to them again, putting the family obviously in a very vulnerable situation and at risk for the child being removed again.
At the time, minister, I believe you said you were looking into it. I wanted to know what the progress is on that and to see if there is any policy now in place to prevent this from happening.
KELLY REGAN: I want to make sure that the honourable member knows that we have raised this with the federal government on numerous occasions. I would let her know that sometimes the delay is not us. Sometimes it’s them, and sometimes it’s the parents as well. There is a policy in existence. We don’t want people living in hardship. If this is delayed, we can assist. Again, call Edgar. (Laughter)
THE CHAIR: Poor Edgar.
SUSAN LEBLANC: The issue is that sometimes people don’t realize that it’s going to be an issue, so they’re not on top of it. All of a sudden when they have their kids back - the last time I had my kids, I got my cheque on the 18th or the 20th or whatever, and now it’s not happening.
Not that I’m a policy expert, but a suggestion that I believe I made or I have been thinking about is to have a little pot of money on the side that can somehow float the cheque until the transfer can be made. Maybe the money comes from the province for a month or two, and then it can be repaid. That’s just an idea.
Since we’re talking about children, I want to talk about child poverty again, just in the last couple of minutes I have. Last year, Nova Scotia was the only province in the country to see an increase in child poverty. We have talked about this a lot. More than 30 per cent of those who are supported by food banks in the province are children.
I know there’s lots of ways to look at these measures and all of that stuff, but after six years in government and millions of dollars spent on transformation, how can the minister explain that, somehow, we still have more children living in poverty than anywhere else in the country?
KELLY REGAN: We should of course recognize that these are numbers from 2017. We began rolling out investments in 2018, so they are not going to be reflected in the 2017 numbers - number one.
Number two, a lot of the work that we have done, not just as part of transformation, is not reflected in the market basket measure of poverty. Any measure of poverty takes certain things into consideration. In this particular case, it’s the ability to buy a basket of essentials, but it involves purchasing power, so if we provide something, that’s not reflected there. It’s a measure, but it’s not a perfect measure.
For example, if you’re living in social housing, you are not purchasing a unit at market rate. As I indicated yesterday, if you’re on income assistance, we are giving you not what it takes to buy a market basket but what you pay for your unit. That may well be below market, even though you may be in a unit. Similarly, a rent supplement does not increase your income. That particular unit is discounted, so it does not show up in that. There are all of those things.
In addition, I think I indicated last night that we went through the nearly $600 million that came to this province in that particular fiscal year from the federal government to families across this province. When we reached out to Statistics Canada, we said these don’t seem right to us. Unemployment continues to drop, is at historically low levels and continues to meet historically low levels month after month after month. It doesn’t make sense when you combine that with the fact that our ESIA caseload is dropping. It may not be our folks on income assistance who are being captured here.
We have asked Statistics Canada to go back and do some more work. Our understanding is that they are doing that. We also have our economists here for the province doing that as well. The reason for that is simple. Unless we understand what’s driving this, we can’t fix it. Is it people on income assistance? Is it people who are not? We don’t know.
The other thing is that we continue to see positive reduction . . .
THE CHAIR: Order. The time for NDP caucus has expired. Great job, everyone. There’s 28 minutes left - we’ll leave a minute for the minister to close up - for the Progressive Conservative Party. Ms. Paon.
ALANA PAON: It’s nice to see you again, minister, for almost half an hour to ask a few more questions. I wanted to move on to some housing questions, get a few more housing questions in.
I would like to know, moving forward, what the investment will be and if there is any increased investment in expanding public housing in Cape Breton. Specifically, obviously, I’m asking questions with regard to my own constituency of Cape Breton-Richmond.
KELLY REGAN: We are actually subbing in Ms. Lindsay Wadden who is the COO of Housing Nova Scotia.
THE CHAIR: Welcome.
KELLY REGAN: I can’t give you specifics for this coming year, but what I can tell you is that last year, we spent just under $3 million in renewal and new units in Cape Breton. We don’t have a riding-by-riding breakdown of what it is. A lot of what we’ll be doing will be predicated upon the signing of the National Housing Agreement, which as I mentioned earlier today, we are still working on - our bilateral agreement with the federal government. We’re not able to talk about individual investments at this time.
ALANA PAON: Minister, if I may, I understand that the numbers are from last fiscal year. Surely, your department must have a breakdown constituency by constituency as far as the investment that will be put into each constituency this upcoming fiscal year and numbers for last year, as well.
KELLY REGAN: We don’t have it by constituency. It’s not broken out that way. We do have it by community and municipality for last year. I’m not familiar with all the town and village names in your area, so it’s difficult for me to break it out.
ALANA PAON: I’m not sure if it will help you at all if I name some of those areas: St. Peter’s, Isle Madame, Louisdale, Port Hawkesbury, Evanston, Johnstown, Fourchu, L’Ardoise, Grand River, Big Pond, West Bay, Whiteside - the major areas. I think I got them all.
KELLY REGAN: Perhaps what we could do is take away your list of communities and then provide that to you after. I’m sorry that the breakdown we have is a bit of a blunt instrument, here. If you would send that to us, then we could flesh it out for you.
ALANA PAON: Perhaps the minister could just provide me with what she does have available to her at some point. I’ll just take a look and if there’s any questions that I have with regard to the breakdown, then I can put that forward. It would be great to be able to get a copy of whatever it is that you have available as far as the different communities or municipalities or however it’s broken down.
Moving forward, I would like to go back to the maintenance of public housing units, especially in the Cape Breton Island Housing Authority. The minster had mentioned that there are initiatives in place moving forward that the department is working on for the betterment of getting people into the units more quickly. I had mentioned that timely maintenance is an issue because of budgetary constraints.
Perhaps the minister could explain to me what those initiatives are for this new fiscal year so that we can feel a little bit more of a guarantee that people will be able to access units in a much more timely manner. Right now, we’re seeing two- and three-month delays.
KELLY REGAN: Mr. Chairman, I don’t know what you’re doing to make that noise, but I can hear it. It sounds like a ping-pong noise in the audio from Legislative TV. If you’re able to hear it, it sounds like a really quiet game of Pong on our microphones - just passing that along.
The new standard is 30 days to turn around, but there are various factors that can influence that. If a unit is left with a lot of furniture or debris in it, or if there are substantial repairs that have to be made, that can extend it. Our goal is to have units up and ready. Of course, how much time is given in terms of notice to leave is also a factor that influences that.
ALANA PAON: I have a numerous amount of phone calls that come into the constituency office, as all MLAs do, with regard to needing assistance in some capacity or another. One which seems to be very challenging in my area is the fact that I have a very high percentage of seniors in my constituency, many of whom are getting to the age where they need assistance with having ramps installed or other improvements. I know that there are grant programs for that, but it pains me when I receive phone calls from seniors who have an issue with just being over the threshold of the amount of money.
I remember when I was campaigning - I will never forget this woman - being at her door. She was only a couple of hundred dollars over the threshold, and she needed a new roof for her bungalow. Her roof was leaking, and she just didn’t have the money to be able to repair it. It’s inevitable that is going to cause more damage to the home. She’s eventually not going to be able to stay within that home, and it’s going to end up costing more money at the end of the day because she’s not able to maintain it in a way that she needs. She really wants to stay in her home. I know the government is very much committed to trying to keep seniors in their homes for as long as possible.
I know there is a bit of wiggle room with regard to the first time that people apply for assistance in this regard. Minister, do you see the value in having more of a sliding scale approach to a program like this so that when people do apply, even if they’re over the threshold by a certain amount, they at least would receive some percentage of assistance, if not all the amount, to assist them in doing the repairs and maintenance or upgrades that they would need for their homes?
KELLY REGAN: I think we have all had that conversation on the doorstep with somebody that you know could really use the money. It would make a huge difference to them and the house. I think probably one of the most frustrating things in government is that we have things like thresholds, income limits, et cetera. Yet we do have them, and they exist for reasons.
What I can tell the honourable member is that we’re actually doing review on our housing programs this coming year. We’re looking at a number of issues, including thresholds and also what the options are, so something like a sliding scale, et cetera, where we would see it taper off at a certain point.
I expect that when we’re sitting here next year, if I’m fortunate enough to still be the Minister of Community Services, I’ll either have an update for you or I will have already announced it.
ALANA PAON: I would love to see that the program and the assistance is, in some way, opened up. I understand, obviously, there’s only so much money to go around, and we have our limits monetarily. If we do really want to see, and are committee to seeing, seniors staying in their homes, we need to come up with a solution to these hard and fast caps that we put on programs such as these.
Sometimes it’s just a matter of $500, and somebody’s not going to be able to pay for a $10,000 roof to maintain that house. It doesn’t only cause issues with that senior having to move out of their home. Then, of course, it becomes another type of issue for government to try and find that senior an affordable space in either public housing or some other affordable living situation. It also is a real problem especially within the rural countryside of having homes that are then somewhat abandoned and not properly maintained. We’re seeing all of these homes that are very poorly maintained simply because people have had to leave them under forced circumstances just because they’re aging. I have seen a lot of them that could have stayed in their homes had we just had more wiggle room with regard to these programs.
I’m very encouraged to hear that there is a review that will happen this year. I look forward to seeing what we can afford and what we can put forward to - the word in French would be amélioration - make this a better situation for everyone involved.
KELLY REGAN: I want to mention that we do have a project - I’m trying to remember which particular stream it’s under. I think it’s Building Vibrant Communities, but I’m not fast enough to pull it out. It’s being done in Yarmouth through the women’s centre there. It’s actually funding for a handyperson or two to do repairs to homes in that area.
It’s one of those interesting ideas that we’re actually trying out right now. That may not work for a roof. That’s a pretty complicated repair. It’s the kind of thing that is another possibility, particularly for seniors who may not have the ability to pay for all of their home repairs themselves.
ALANA PAON: We do have a program in our community that looks at a time bank model. Again, a roof is rather a more complicated situation and a large ticket item. It’s not like just giving someone a ride to go to a medical appointment. The idea behind the time bank is to have a shared system where services and skills can be shared and banked, basically. There’s no money that exchanges hands, just services and skills. If you need a drive to the doctor, then perhaps you’ll give two pies in return or whatever it is that the person would like to receive in compensation. It’s good to hear that they have a project down in the southern region of our province to look at building some vibrant communities through funding a handyperson.
I would like to try and move over now to the small options home. I’m not sure if we have the right people at the table. Did you need to switch up? Okay, thank you so much. I know the Department of Community Services has a program for building more small options homes. We have one that is being built in our community on Isle Madame. For the past two years, there has been about $5.2 million that has been committed to increasing the capacity of small options homes.
I would like to know where these new eight homes will be built other than Isle Madame. Have all the locations been determined?
KELLY REGAN: Two homes have opened; they’re in New Glasgow and Isle Madame. The others are Clare, New Minas, Liverpool, Yarmouth County, and Halifax Regional Municipality. The latter one has two.
ALANA PAON: May I ask how the funding model works for one of these small options homes? What I’m getting at here is that I have heard in my constituency that it was a little bit tough to get through the building and renovations process. In my constituency, the one on Isle Madame, it was a donated physical space that was already built, so it was a complete remodelling/renovation that was occurring. I believe a new extension was built on there as well. The funding model was such - as I understand - that the money needed to be spent in advance and then reimbursed back to the local association, that being the Hearts of Isle Madame. As a small association that’s trying to make these projects come to fruition, I can only imagine that it would be very difficult to finance the price tag of some of these renovations and then get reimbursed sometime in the future.
Could the minister please clarify for me how that funding model worked and how these projects were either reimbursed or financed in the first place by these organizations that would have put the applications into the department?
KELLY REGAN: The build in Isle Madame was a bit different. First of all, this is the first time that we have done a planned build-out of small options homes. It has usually been one at a time, one-offs here and there. For the rest of the committee, this is an old convent, and it was being renovated, which is not the model we use anywhere else.
I understand that a lot of the planning couldn’t take place until we knew who the clients were. That was sort of another wrinkle along the way. It is true that this was a spend, and then they were reimbursed. If an organization was not able to do that, we can advance money for parts of it, and then start that process so that they can do the build. Not all of the others are new, but most of the others are new builds. Most of them are new and purpose-built.
ALANA PAON: If I can just clarify, what was the amount of the project as a whole for the Hearts of Isle Madame project? Can you please tell me if they were completely under the “spend and then get reimbursed” model?
KELLY REGAN: I don’t have that detail here, but we can certainly get back to you on that.
ALANA PAON: Just to clarify, is it the amount that we don’t have available for us today or the spend and reimburse model as well?
KELLY REGAN: We will have to get back to you with those details on both sides. I think there was an advancement of some funds in the beginning, so there’s various places where that would be reflected. I think there was money spent to assess what would happen, do planning, et cetera, so that’s in various different places.
ALANA PAON: Just to make certain that I’m very clear, are all of the funds now reimbursed to the Hearts of Isle Madame? Is the project completely finished at this point, or will there be other phases?
KELLY REGAN: The home is open, so in that particular way, we consider the project done. Whether there are still some holdbacks or anything like that, we will have to check and get back to you on that. If the member has any concerns about money that you feel is outstanding, I would like to know about that. Because this is a facility that folks are running to house residents, we of course will be reaching out regularly to them to make sure that residents have what they want, et cetera. If the member has any concerns, we would of course want to hear about them.
ALANA PAON: Thank you, minister. I very much appreciate that and will very much appreciate receiving that information that you just mentioned.
I would like to go back for a moment and just ask about this hypothetical situation: a family of three - a mother, a father and a child - who are not receiving income assistance. The father works, and their household income is $39,000 a year, and they need a new roof on top of their home. Is there anything within your department that you can suggest would be able to assist because they cannot afford this?
I hear this over and over and over again. It’s so painful. I almost feel like we need a program just for roofs in this province because there’s many people who are struggling with putting a roof on their home, and there are many people who are struggling with putting fuel in their furnace. Those are the two major calls that I get with regard to needing assistance.
KELLY REGAN: There are home repair programs. There are any number of factors that would make one eligible or not eligible for a home repair program. As I indicated, this year we will be doing a review of those particular programs . . .
THE CHAIR: Time has elapsed for the Progressive Conservative Party. You have one minute for your closing.
KELLY REGAN: I am so appreciative of my colleagues who came today to ask questions of the Department of Community Services, Housing Nova Scotia, and the Status of Women.
THE CHAIR: Shall resolution E4 stand?
Resolution E4 stands.
That is the end of the Budget Estimates for 2019. Thank you, everyone.
[The subcommittee adjourned at 3:06 p.m.]