Tara Crosby worked two and a half years longer than she should have just to avoid the welfare office.
Her doctor advised her in 2008 that her body wouldn’t hold up to the strenuous job of housecleaning, but the alternatives were bleak.
Then, in 2010, Crosby’s fibromyalgia took hold and, with her doctor’s insistence, she applied for Employment Insurance (EI). What Crosby didn’t know then was that she was about to be met with more trials than ever before.
Fibromyalgia is a disease characterized by chronic, widespread pain. Sufferers often experience sensitivity to pressure, debilitating fatigue and arthritic-like joint stiffness. For Crosby, all of this was met with increasing depression and anxiety, common co-conditions of her disease.
“You almost have to go through a grieving process for the person you once were,” says Crosby. “But the people in the welfare office don’t know that; they can’t see what’s going on inside you.”
While it can take months to be approved for Disability Insurance, Crosby’s family doctor helped her get approved almost as soon as her EI ran out.
Yet now, Crosby would be filtered through the same service location that all welfare recipients used, and obtaining cheques would mean regular visits to the Ministry of Social Development and Social Innovation Gateway office on Pandora Street. The scene was a wake-up call for Crosby.
“It’s unreal – you could slip in the kitchen and hurt your back, and suddenly, ‘Welcome to Pandora!’ You’re there with all the people on welfare who haven’t got a cent, and you’re treated the same way; whether you have a disability or not.”
The problems for Crosby started in February.
After two years of standing in painful lines, being pushed through by security guards and having to re-explain her story to every intake worker, Crosby had had enough. She wanted help, so she started asking questions: What resources were out there for people like her? Where could she start looking for a more appropriate job? Where could she access a counsellor? Who was there to help?
She was met with few answers.
“I might have a disability, but I know the difference between right and wrong,” Crosby says. “I told them, you’re here to help me – how could you not know these things? Who does?”
In three letters dated March 6, 7 and 8, Crosby was written up as “verbally aggressive” to the intake workers and, on March 11, was banned from all income assistance offices in the province, their phone lines and the minister’s office.
With no way to appeal, Crosby was told police would be contacted should she ever return, and was sent to a third-party liaison: Beacon Community Services.
“I was shocked. I’m a 50-year-old arthritic grandmother, and all I did was tell these people I didn’t get a federal guidelines book put in my basinet,” she says.
“Then, when I go to this new office I get the biggest shock of all: it’s one small lady, working there by herself, with no security or anyone to help her. This is where they send ‘aggressive’ people?”
Kelly Newhook, executive director of Together Against Poverty Society (TAPS) sees cases like Crosby’s every day. She says the ministry’s move away from case workers has been detrimental and that the environment, hours of waiting in line, and having to ask security guards permission to go to the bathroom causes a lot of stress – especially for people with disabilities.
“The [assistance] rates are so low, and there are so many barriers that it’s becoming hard to get even the money you are entitled to as a client – let alone any additional help,” says Newhook.
“The workers have to say ‘no’ all the time. It’s a very antagonistic relationship, and it’s a set-up for a lot of negativity.”
Crosby finally found help through TAPS and her new liaison. She began two new programs to re-start her life – Camosun College’s Certificate in Building Employment Success for Tomorrow (BEST) program, and InFocus Rehabilitation Services, a vocational assistance and counselling organization through WorkBC that offers resume, interview, wardrobe and even bus pass support. Crosby is considering opening her own gardening company and writing a book.
Now, however, Crosby says her life has taken on a new goal.
“I want to be a voice for the people who got lost in the system and tell them: don’t be afraid, don’t let them make you feel inadequate and don’t hesitate to investigate,” she says. “When life kicks you down, you have choices — to roll up in that little ball and disappear, or kick the blankets off, dust yourself off and get up.”
What you should know …
Aggression: According to the Ministry of Social Development and Social Innovation, “aggressive behaviour” that would lead to an office ban includes “inappropriate behaviour, verbal and physical threats or intimidation and violence toward staff and other people being served in an office.” The ministry could not comment directly on how Tara Crosby’s case was defined.
Appeals: The office supervisor is the one who determines if an individual will be sent to a third-party administrator, and individuals are given a “warning” in writing. The only way to appeal this ministry decision is to speak to the office supervisor, or the regional community relations and service quality manager. Individual files are reviewed annually.
Security: Third-party liaisons are selected based on an ability to deliver services to “individuals who have demonstrated disruptive behaviour, such as intimidating staff, being aggressive when asked to verify information, or who have had police called to deal with their behaviour.” The presence of security is left up to the individual administrator.