There are many unique principles, that specify how you can approach access to benefits services, regardless of the way you help clients access benefits. These principles can help you design your supports in a way that will meet client needs effectively.

The community members you serve may have experienced trauma in their lives and so a trauma-informed approach is important.

To counter trauma, it is important to work with clients in ways that:

  • Consider how past experiences can affect current reactions
  • Is strengths-based
  • Emphasises physical, psychological, and emotional safety
  • Creates opportunities for participants to feel a sense of control and empowerment
  • Avoids re-triggering and re-traumatizing

Often, this means focusing on building the following into your client services:

  • Safety
  • Trustworthiness
  • Transparency
  • Choice
  • Collaboration
  • Peer support
  • Empowerment

In practice, a trauma-informed approach may look like this:

Rasmus had just arrived for his first one-on-one meeting to discuss tax filing and finances. Since Rasmus was new to the Canadian tax system, he did not know that benefits were available to him. He also didn't consider his fibromyalgia a disability that could qualify for benefits. The frontline practitioner asked questions, presented information and options, and adjusted their approach based on Rasmus' input. When the frontline worker sensed that Rasmus was not comfortable with entering his personal information online, the frontline practitioner respected that and avoided using the questionnaire in the Benefits Wayfinder tool.

In this scenario, the frontline practitioner ensured:

  • The conversation took place in a one-on-one private setting.
  • The process provided Rasmus choice and control at every stage. For example, Rasmus was hesitant to share personal information online, so the frontline practitioner avoided using the questionnaire with him.
  • The process was collaborative. The frontline practitioner presented information and options. Rasmus' input informed next steps.
  • It empowered Rasmus by informing him of possible benefits he may be entitled to, including those related to his fibromyalgia

Talking about money can be very difficult, especially if a person has previously felt judged for their money situation or money choices. For example, budgeting tips that focus on ways to save money at the grocery store may not be appropriate for someone who needs a specialized diet or may feel patronizing and judgemental for someone who has already made several attempts to reduce their food costs.

Clients face a wide range of barriers to accessing benefits that may not be relatable for staff who don’t have their same experiences. When clients feel judged, it’s easy for them to shut down or disengage from the process. Instead, work with clients in a supportive and validating way, listening first and seeking to understand what might work best for them.

In practice, this can look like:

  • Validate client experiences and perspectives. Demonstrate to clients that their experiences are valid. For example, if a client hasn’t followed through on completing an application form acknowledge that the benefits application process can be overwhelming and offer support to continue the process if the client is willing.
  • Accept and support clients’ choices. A client may feel that it is not the right time to explore benefits, even if you believe it would be helpful to them. Respect their choice and encourage them to reconnect when they feel ready. Remember that they are experts in their own lives.

Effective access to benefits supports find ways to raise awareness and engage clients at key moments when they are open to the conversation, while respecting their right to choose not to proceed further.

Often people do not know about the supports available to them, so they don’t reach out to discuss benefits access. For example, people who are new to Canada or those without strong community networks, might not know about the social services and systems available to them.

In practice, this can look like:

  • Discussing access to benefits with a newcomer to Canada in a settlement conversation about housing. The additional money they may be eligible for could help them pay their rent.
  • Promoting access to benefits at a local foodbank to encourage community members to file their taxes to ensure they are receiving all the benefits they are entitled
  • Hosting a workshop at a local library or community centre to share information on access to benefits services.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to supporting benefits access since everyone has a unique relationship to money and benefits.

Seek to understand your community members’ unique perspectives, values, and relationships to benefits, and integrate those perspectives into how you deliver your services.

Consider the following:

What are your community member’s relationships with and trust for government and other institutions?

People who don’t trust government or institutions will likely be skeptical of tax filing and providing information on government forms and will benefit from supports that recognize and validate their concerns. For example, share how the government uses information on benefits forms, and how information-sharing within all levels of governments works.

What messages and themes appeal to your community members?

A person’s mindset and values will impact how they view benefits. Some people feel ashamed about receiving government benefits or feel they are designed for those who are even more vulnerable. Consider positioning benefits as ‘entitlements’ or as ‘supports,’ to address negative stigma towards receiving benefits.

Where are your community members typically reachable?

Effective access to benefits supports seek to engage community members where they are. For example, to reach people who are street-involved, street-outreach approaches may work best. For some, libraries are a neutral ground to find support, while others may see them as an untrustworthy, government institution. ‘Superclinic’ approaches (where multiple services are provided by multiple agencies in one location) are a great way to make multiple services available to clients in one place.

What family dynamics are at play?

You may need to adapt your approaches to enable multiple parties to participate. For example, sometimes spouses and partners need to be involved in the process. Culture may be a factor in family dynamics, so understanding how it may impact decision-making or who will be accessing the services, may be helpful. Consider engaging families at home to avoid barriers associated with childcare and to enable spouses to both be equally involved.

Clients may form expectations that differ from the ones that you and your staff hold. This can cause frustration and uncomfortable interactions with clients. Since clients are likely absorbing a lot of information all at once, reinforcing these expectations throughout the process is important.

In practice, this can look like:

  • Let clients know how much time to expect to spend in the process. Let clients know it can take about 30 minutes to go through the process of finding benefits that match their situation and make plans to apply. If clients don’t understand the time commitment in advance, this process can be frustrating, especially if they have other competing priorities.
  • Let clients know what you can and can’t help with. Be clear about what services you provide and the level of expertise you have to assist your clients. If you can help clients find the right benefits for them, but can’t help with the application process, it helps to let them know in advance. You may also want to refer them to places that can help with other parts of the process.
  • Let clients know what might go wrong. It helps to be upfront about some of the challenges clients may face along the benefits process to avoid getting discouraged or surprised when something goes wrong. For example, often disability benefits applicants get denied in their first application, but a first denial often doesn’t mean the person isn’t eligible, it usually means something needs to be changed in their application. Setting this expectation in advance will help a client know what to do if they get denied, rather than giving up on the process.
  • Let clients know what they need to do. It is important for clients to understand their role so they can decide whether to participate and can come prepared. For example, to file taxes, clients need their Social Insurance Number (SIN). Letting clients know this before booking an appointment will reduce frustration if they arrive without it and you are unable to help them without their SIN.

Your organization or team has certain strengths and a way of working with your specific population. You also have a unique position within the community, both in your physical location and in your relationship to other parts of the community.

When deciding how to best support your community members in accessing benefits, it is important to identify ways that you can help that play to the strengths of your team and your community. It is also helpful to do your research to identify what supports are already available in the community, so you are not duplicating services.

In practice, this can look like:

  • Amplify and enable others’ efforts. Rather than starting something new, your best way to support might be to amplify existing efforts to support access to benefits. For example, if your organization has laptops or other digital tools, sharing them with an organization that provides free tax filing services might help them reach more people.
  • Do your research. Ask clients and collaborators about supports that are available in the community, and what they see as missing or needed.
  • Base your supports upon your unique strengths and assets. Your assets are an important indicator of where you can make a unique contribution to benefits access. For example, if you have staff and volunteers who speak different languages, you could focus your efforts on providing translation supports as part of the benefits access process and training these staff to understand basic concepts of benefits. If your organization is well connected to and trusted by clients who are socially isolated, it could focus on awareness-building and promotions of benefits to these clients.