The letters in Todd Donohue's fat social assistance file look as though they were printed in the 1970s on an old dot-matrix printer. And there are a lot of them.
They detail an almost absurd battle last fall over his disability benefits that involved months of paperwork, phone calls, missing documents and appeals as Donohue tried to convince the province he still has Crohn's disease, a chronic gastrointestinal illness.
As a volunteer mentor at the West Broadway Community Ministry who helps other poor people navigate the social assistance system, Donohue has some advantages. But he counsels many people who aren't so lucky, who are intimidated by a system mired in red tape, confused by ever-changing rules and managed by overworked staff.
"When you go into your case co-ordinator's office, they come at you from a defensive position. It's very adversarial," said Donohue, who lived on about $8,000 last year. "The policy is, if you don't ask, you don't get."
Donohue is one of 62,028 Manitobans receiving social assistance -- most of them single parents, the disabled or their children. They could see the system improve once the province completes a long-awaited review of how welfare rates are set, whether they have kept pace with the cost of living, how they stack up to other provinces and how often Winnipeg's housing crisis forces welfare recipients to dip into their food budget to pay the rent.
The release of the review, in the works for three years, has been delayed again to allow new Jobs and the Economy Minister Theresa Oswald time to get up to speed on her portfolio.
In the meantime, the Free Press spoke to Donohue and two others about the holes in the province's social safety net.
AS reporters step out the door of her Transcona rental, Lynn shoves a one-page resumé into their hands, just in case they know anyone who's hiring.
Lynn, who doesn't want her full name published because she is trying to find a job and fears retaliation by welfare staff, has struggled to get back on track after a summer of temporary work that, ironically, threw her finances into disarray. After the end of her part-time job in a law office -- a job she loved and her first in years -- she is back on disability.
Her September welfare cheque stub shows she lived on about $650 that month, but it's hard to tell. The stub is a mystifying mess of line-item payments, deductions, overpayments, carry-forwards and exempt earnings. Some of it Lynn understands -- a $50 deduction for some old overpayments that include a "utility reconciliation." There may also be a clawback for some Ensure nutritional shakes social assistance paid for up front one month. Other entries are baffling, even for someone who keeps meticulous records.
"I'm a speller, not a math-er," Lynn jokes.
Lynn worked her whole life, largely in law or union offices doing administrative work. But in 2006, she was in a taxi that T-boned a truck on Portage Avenue. It took her years to recover from facial and jaw injuries.
Today, at 57, it's hard for Lynn to find office work, and her health and ongoing dental problems don't make it easier. She has asthma that's audible even when she's speaking, and lower dentures that don't fit, making it difficult to speak and eat. That's what the Ensure was for.
After her stint working in the summer, she is poorer than when she began, in part because social assistance is clawing back many of her benefits. And she borrowed hundreds of dollars from her mother for new work clothes -- nothing fancy, just some dress pants from Sirens, some sweaters on sale at Sears and a box of hair dye so she looked presentable at the reception desk.
It's another example of what Lynn calls the rigid rules and bureaucracy that make being on welfare a full-time job in itself. She needs to prove chronic health problems still exist, which means frequent trips to the doctor for notes, which cost her $20. But she doesn't go to the doctor often enough to qualify for a bus pass, so her mother drives her around to drop off resumés. And she needs new orthopedic shoes, but welfare only covers $50, or half of one shoe.
"I went for a flu shot and I hoped it was a lethal injection," said Lynn. "It's a good thing I still have a sense of humour or I'd beat myself with a rubber stick."
IT wouldn't take much to get Dorothy Thomas, a grandmother who is sleeping in her car, back on her feet.
First, she needs an apartment, at least a one-bedroom because her son, who has diabetes and back problems, will likely live with her temporarily. In the past month, Thomas has called more than 200 landlords and visited at least 30 apartments, including one basement suite that was so run-down the sink was black and the floor sagged.
"$1,075 a month. We told them no. Ash Street -- they told us no," says Thomas, reading through a list of crossed-off vacancies and rifling through spreadsheets of possible rentals. "Talbot -- they told us we'd need to make $3,000 a month."
One property-management firm was blunt. No one will rent to her with her low income and bad credit rating. From a combination of Canada Pension, old age security and her late husband's small CN Rail pension, she makes about $1,400 a month. Most of the rentals she's looked at would eat up more than half of that, if they would even take her.
Second, Thomas needs to get her jewelry back from the pawn shop. Out of desperation, she pawned her anniversary rings and her dead husband's wedding band and is paying an outrageous $330 a month in interest on them. To get them out of hock would take her entire monthly income, but the thought of letting them go makes her cry, which she does periodically over a cup of tea in the food court at Kildonan Place mall.
Thomas's income is too high to qualify for social assistance. But, the 65-year-old might qualify for RentAid, the new name for the old Manitoba shelter benefit, which gives eligible people such as seniors and the disabled up to $210 extra a month to pay rent. She just learned about that program after many calls and visits to various agencies and government offices, including Manitoba Housing. But before she can get RentAid, she needs to find an apartment. The prospect of that looks grim.
Thomas, who lost her husband two years ago and then struggled to recover from what she calls a breakdown, has worked since she was 13 -- in retail, as a restaurant manager and even in a chicken factory. Recently, a constellation of bad luck -- a car accident that damaged her back, her husband's death, suicide attempts, some old debts she can't get out from under -- conspired against her. After moving out of her daughter-in-law's home, Thomas spent the last of her savings staying in hotels for a couple of weeks while looking for an apartment with her son. When her savings ran out three weeks ago, she slept in her sedan.
Thomas and her son have eaten at Siloam Mission, but didn't feel comfortable staying overnight at the homeless shelter. She's got $12 left until her next CPP and OAS cheques arrive at the end of the month, not counting the $400 in cash she left with one landlord as a deposit several weeks ago. The landlord, who is in Nigeria, is waiting to see whether a friend wants the apartment first.
"It's just very frustrating," said Thomas. "I never dreamed I'd be doing this at this time of my life."