The provincial government is planning to reduce amounts paid through a housing benefit designed to help people with mental-health issues, a move one critic likened to "nickel and diming" the poorest of the poor.
Up to 550 Manitobans will be affected by changes to the Portable Housing Benefit, a supplement to Rent Assist the government first began offering in 2009.
After the provincial election in September, recipients began getting notices from the Manitoba Housing and Renewal Corporation stating their benefits would either be reduced or cancelled as of Feb. 1, as changes are made to the benefit program.
While recipients used to be guaranteed $200 per month to help cover rent, the province is now going to pursue a different formula in which it deducts a recipient's rent cost from their Rent Assist money, then offers a Portable Housing Benefit based on how much more money is outstanding for rent. Recipients could still receive up to $200 per month, if that's how much is required to pay their rent.
Josh Brandon, a community worker with the Social Planning Council of Winnipeg, said it is wrong to take any part of the allowance away from people who are among Manitoba's most vulnerable.
"The problem with it is that the people who are receiving this benefit are all very poor. They’re all relying on social assistance and even if they have a little bit of extra money for their rent, they’re still struggling with every other line item in their budget," he said, noting transportation, food and communication costs among other basic needs.
"This (benefit) is for people who are on social assistance with mental-health disabilities and that kind of strain wears on peoples’ mental health. So any extra support we can give people to help them meet their basic needs is really critical to their mental health and their recovery. This isn’t a good time to be cutting any kinds of benefits (or) nickel-and-diming people."
Families Minister Heather Stefanson was adamant that the changes government is pursuing will make housing allowances more equitable for all. The province is also pursuing an alternative income program for people with disabilities; public consultations are underway now.
Stefanson emphasized 3,000 more Manitobans are being covered under Rent Assist since the Tories took office in 2016.
"There is not less funding going towards Portable Housing Benefits for Manitobans who need it. There's actually more Manitobans who are benefiting from the programs that we have put in place," she said, adding later:
"The point is that there were some that were getting more than the rent that they were paying. And that money has been freed up to offer more assistance to more Manitobans."
NDP critic Bernadette Smith said she's heard from constituents that they need flexibility to use the Portable Housing Benefit as they see fit, which may go beyond paying for rent.
"These are people who are dealing with mental-health issues that may need to take a bus or a cab to get some support. That may need to have internet or a cellphone to be able to get the supports that they need in their homes," she said.
"And at a time when we're dealing with a mental-health crisis in our province, this isn't the time to be cutting."
Smith accused the Tory government of putting "money over people, time and time again."
Jessica Botelho-Urbanski covers the Manitoba Legislature for the Winnipeg Free Press.
Updated on Tuesday, November 26, 2019 at 8:10 AM CST: Fixes cutline