A spokesperson for the Minister of Community and Social Services said there is no timeline right now for these offices to re-open, and FCSS offices are wondering when they will relaunch.
FCSS offices around the Lakeland are looking for answers from the province as they struggle to meet the needs of people unable to reach Alberta Supports because their doors are shut.
Alberta Supports is meant to help people access programs related to disabilities, job seekers, parents and families, homelessness, financial assistance, abuse, and family violence prevention.
Janice Fodchuk is the Director of County of St. Paul and Elk Point FCSS. She said she’s been getting calls and visits regularly from people in crisis.
“A fifty-seven year old man, developmentally delayed, can’t read or write, came to my office two weeks ago. He has no food. He’s been going to his neighbours to eat every day since May. Mom and Dad took care of him his whole life, they died two years ago. So his sister had been sending him money for food, she lives in Calgary. But she got laid off so she couldn’t send any more money. And that guy doesn’t even have the capability to dial a 1-800 number to get help,” said Fodchuk.
Before the pandemic, a local FCSS office was often the first point of contact for people in need of assistance. But the FCSS mandate is to provide preventative programs and services, not to intervene. When intervention is needed, they’ve always directed people to Alberta Supports.
“Because they see walk-ins. And they’ll help you with your AISH application, or they’ll help you get emergency food or they’ll help you with your utilities. Well, they’re not even open,” said Fodchuk.
According to the provincial website, in-person services at Alberta Supports are suspended until further notice because of the COVID-19 pandemic. People in need of assistance are directed to apply online or call 1-877-644-9992.
“But the issue with that is that out of all of these people I’ve dealt with, one per cent of them had a computer and internet. The rest have pay-as-you-go on their phone. And the waits that I get as a service provider on the 1-800 number are over an hour,” said Fodchuk.
Town of St. Paul FCSS director Lynn Smid said they’re also seeing increases in people needing help to access Alberta Supports. She echoed Fodchuk’s frustrations, and explained how providing service over the phone and online creates significant barriers.
“With hearing issues, they may not be able to understand the person on the other side of the line, or the connection could be bad on their end as well,” said Smid.
“It’s frustrating for those trying to access help at this point. It’s one thing if you can call or you can go online to source stuff. But if you can’t, you’re very limited in what you can do. So we’ve definitely been the go-to when it comes to accessing support at this point,” said Smid.
Smid said she and her staff are doing the best they can to help people submit their applications electronically and to make the phone calls, but a lot of the time it’s forms or documents they’re after that they can’t access.
She said part of the challenge is that Alberta Supports programs are just not their area of expertise.
“So it’s going to take up more time because you’re having to research those things yourself and try to get the best information you can for those clients that come to the door,” said Smid.
She said part of their mandate is to be an advocate for community needs and “right now the need is for those doors to be open so people can access services appropriately.”
Bonnyville and District FCSS director David Beale said he’s also raised concerns about Alberta Supports offices being closed a number of times over the past several months. He noted the province has had very strong messaging about Alberta being open for business and branding the Alberta relaunch program.
“And almost every business is back in business. We take whatever precautions and there are still a few things that are not yet running. But for the most part, if you go around, you can go to almost anything except a provincial government office,” said Beale.
Smid, Fodchuk and Beale all said they’ve reached out to Bonnyville-Cold Lake-St. Paul MLA David Hanson about the issue.
“But what we’re not hearing from is the actual ministries themselves, reporting back and giving us some assurance that something’s being done or a timeline at least as to when those doors will be open again,” said Smid.
In an e-mailed response to questions on the issue, Jerry Bellikka, Press Secretary for the Minister of Community and Social Services said protecting Albertans from COVID-19 remains their top priority and there is “no timeline” for these offices to re-open.
“That is why we have implemented remote services, which allow Alberta Supports to quickly serve more Albertans by processing benefits faster and maintaining safe physical distancing. Remote service delivery also gives Albertans quick and effective access to staff regardless of where they live in the province.”
He said, “people who do not have access to a phone or computer can contact local community social agencies, such as FCSS, which can help them connect directly with CSS staff in local offices.”
“These agencies have access to emergency phone lines not available to the general public to enable them to reach the Alberta Supports Contact Center to have any immediate needs addressed,” said Bellikka.
He directed Albertans to call the government’s toll free number 310-0000 if they are concerned about long distance charges.
When asked for comment, MLA David Hanson said he is “aware of the issue and working with the Ministry to come to a resolution on it.”