People forced to stand in cold and wet outside Abbotsford welfare office waiting room

On a rainy, chilly spring day in Abbotsford, B.C., a lineup of soaked people are steaming mad.

They want to know why the local welfare office — the Abbotsford branch of the B.C. Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction — is making their poverty feel worse.

They say they’re regularly denied access to the centre’s near-empty waiting room and told they have to stand outside instead.

In January and February, many waited more than two hours in the snow. Now, they’re facing the same kind of delays in heavy downpours on a 9 C day, with no shelter and no seating.

“I’m cold. It’s freezing right now,” says George Sather. “They just let you in a couple at a time … and everybody else waits outside in the elements.”

Chairs sit empty in the waiting room of the Abbotsford welfare office on a recent busy afternoon. (Eric Rankin, CBC)

Most in the lineup are here to deal with issues involving their provincial welfare eligibility or disability assistance, or are filing requests for a crisis grant — an extra $40 a month when they find themselves running out of cash.

“Alice”, 63, won’t give her real name, because she feels standing outside the office is embarrassing.

She’s holding her 19-month-old grandson, Mantis, who’s just as wet as she is.

“It was really, really hard for him because I’ve had to tell people I don’t want to lose my place in line, and then he gets restless.”

‘Alice’, 63, says she’s had to stand outside for hours before being allowed into the Abbotsford welfare waiting room. (Mael Thebault, CBC)

She says she’s waited as long as 2½ hours to get inside the office.

“That needs to change,” she says.

‘Disappointing, appalling and … shamelessly classist’

As someone exits through the centre’s mirrored doors, about a dozen chairs can be seen inside the waiting room —nearly all of them empty.

An open door provides a glimpse into the near-empty waiting area of the Abbotsford welfare office. (Jesse Wegenast)

Staff are sealed behind walls of glass and reinforced doors.

A sign reads: “This office is committed to a workplace where everyone is safe and is treated with courtesy, dignity and respect.”

A local pastor says that same courtesy, dignity and respect doesn’t seem to extend to the office’s clients.

Jesse Wegenast of The 5 and 2 Ministries says he was “flabbergasted” when he recently spotted the line-ups.

“It is unbelievably disappointing, appalling and it is shamelessly classist in my opinion,” he said.

Pastor Jesse Wegenast says he was ‘flabbergasted’ when he recently saw people forced to stand for hours outside the Abbotsford welfare office. (Mael Thebault, CBC)

Wegenast says it’s not unusual to come by on a weekday afternoon and see up to 15 people standing outside, waiting to access services.

“Were it happening at a drivers’ licensing office or at Services Canada, it would not last because the people who access those services … feel like they ought to be treated a certain way,” says Wegenast.

But he says people who come to the Abbotsford welfare office fear if they complain, they might not be able to access financial services that pay for their rent, prescriptions and groceries.

When CBC News attempted to talk to the centre supervisor, we were asked to leave.

Wegenast says he spoke to the supervisor, who told him there were two reasons for the restrictions on waiting room access: The office’s occupational health and safety committee wanted to reduce security concerns; and staff wanted more people to access online services.

Wegenast says that’s ludicrous.

“These are disadvantaged people who are vulnerable, who are being told ‘too bad, so sad’. You have to wait outside because we don’t trust you because of safety concerns and you should be doing stuff online.”

He says he knows one woman who has a brain injury and can’t use the internet.

Alice, too, says going online isn’t an option for her.

“I don’t put anything private online,” she says. “I like to do everything in person.”

Another client in the lineup, Tim Felger, 62, agrees.

“Most of the people [here] don’t have computers, or phones. So that doesn’t really work,” he says.

‘There will be a conversation’: minister

Contacted by CBC News, Shane Simpson, B.C.’s minister of social development and poverty reduction says the policy at the Abbotsford office is “unfortunate.”

Shane Simpson, B.C.’s minister of social development and poverty reduction, oversees the provincial welfare system and says his Abbotsford office will be getting a call. (Mike McArthur, CBC)

“It’s not a practice that I think is helpful. It’s not a practice that I’m supportive of,” Simpson says.

“I assure you there will be a conversation about how operating procedures work.”

Wegenast says that’s good news.

“I’m very happy to hear that people are now going to be allowed the dignity of not standing outside in the wind and the cold as they wait to access services,” he says.

“And frankly I’m happy at how quickly it happened.”

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