Fraudsters tap into covid19 grants

Hundreds of people who gathered outside the Living Water Community on Friday waiting for hampers had to be turned away by police as they breached social distancing regulations. - Ayanna Kinsale
Hundreds of people who gathered outside the Living Water Community on Friday waiting for hampers had to be turned away by police as they breached social distancing regulations. - Ayanna Kinsale

Fraudsters are attempting to steal food out of the mouth of needy people and defraud the state as government attempts to keep citizens of TT sheltered and fed.

Since official stay-at-home measures were enacted at midnight on Sunday March 29, there have been reports of people losing their sources of income – because they lost their jobs or self-employed people losing customers – suffering from a cut in salary, facing eviction, or not having food in their homes.

Since then the government instigated several covid19 social support measures to help with rent, food, and to supplement loss of salary.

However, at the virtual press conference on Saturday, Social Development and Family Services Minister Camille Robinson-Regis said people were trying to commit fraud. Previously it was stated one of the reasons the processing of the grants was slow was because the ministry was verifying information to prevent such activities. For example, she recalled two people trying to apply for assistance on the same ID card.

“In keeping with the need for accountability and to ensure the most judicious use of the state’s resources, at this time a mechanism will now be implemented from Monday 4th May to ensure that only valid claims are entertained and payments to such persons will therefore commence during next week. Persons who are found to be involved in fraudulent acts, will be immediately reported to the police.”

A release from the ministry stated that those caught declaring false information, both the employer and the employee, would face the “full penalty of the law” once charged. She said there were people who already had permanent food cards, which received a top up from the ministry, but still applied for a temporary card. She said the initial penalty was to extract the amount they used on the temporary food card from their existing card, and if possible, to take the temporary card from them. She also noted that with the temporary rental assistance, the payments would be made to the landlord and the applicant would be notified.

She appealed to those who did not qualify for assistance to refrain from crowding the system and delaying the processing of benefits for those in real need.

Covid support for several indigent groups

Robinson-Regis said as of May 1, more than 92,000 individuals and families benefited from the social protection measures at the cost of more than $85 m. She went on to further break down the grants and their costs.

She said so far 19,992 temporary food cards were delivered to MPs to distribute all to families whose children receive meals under the School Feeding Programme but who do not have a permanent food card. The support is $510 per month for a three-month period and the Ministry of Education to identified that 79,000 children from an estimated 20,500 families receive meals under the school feeding programme. It would cost the state $30,587,760.

A top-up for existing beneficiaries of Food Support for an initial period of three months cost $17,144,100.

Emergency food support to new beneficiaries was delivered in the form of food hampers. People who did not receive any welfare grants called in to a special call centre and explained their situation to determine if they were eligible for the relief. To date, 1,067 households have benefited from this initiative.

Launched on Friday was a new emergency food support to new beneficiaries in which 30,000 food baskets would be delivered to citizens over four months. Included in the basket would be a $250 supermarket voucher, two chickens, and locally grown fruits and vegetables sourced by Namdevco. It would cost government $15 m. Robinson-Regis said the ministry was trying to create a “mesh” to reach everyone and has expanded its operations.

She noted that it started with food cards for parents of children on the school feeding programme, distribution of 1,400 hampers to the 14 corporations, distribution of hampers through MPs and other organisations, topped-up food cards, and now through additional funding to the Ministry of Rural Development and Local Government so councillors could reach people and faith-based organisations.

Robinson-Regis said she spoke to the leaders of many of these organisations. They signed an agreement with the Office of the Prime Minister that before they get more money they had to bring the bills and receipts indicating the money was spent on food.

“There is also a document that registers each person that gets this food support. So we’ve tried to be as tight as possible to make sure the organisations do in face spend the money for the purpose to which the money is allocated.”

In a Twitter post yesterday Finance Minister Colm Imbert said, “Yesterday (Friday), I worked with the staff in the Budgets Division, Treasury and OPM (Office of the Prime Minister) to ensure that cheques were prepared to give to religious bodies money out of the first $10M allocated to them for feeding the poor and needy. The process was completed in one day. And they say we too slow!”

Robinson-Regis went on to say that to date, additional income support was provided for 37,090 existing recipients of Public Assistance and Disability Assistance Grants for a three-month period at the cost of $22,520,250.

People who were retrenched, fired, or had their income reduced could apply for Income and Food Support where they would receive $1,500 per month per family for three months. She said they received about 30,000 applications and 2,991 people were processed and sent to the bank for payment. She hoped from now on 4,000 payments could be made per week and listed the cost at $7,677,000.

Temporary rental assistance would also be provided to those who were retrenched, terminated or had their income reduced at $2,500 per month for an initial period of three months and no more than six months.

She echoed the plea of Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley for landlords to have a heart saying she was appealing to their “social conscience” to be patient as the ministry continued to process rental assistance.

For senior citizens and those with disabilities whose applications were already being processed and were awaiting home visits, she said, pending the finalisation of their applications, all applicants of the Senior Citizens Pension and Disability Assistance Grant would be provided with interim relief of $1,500 and $1,000 respectively for three months.

So far, government has spent $190,000 for renovation work at the Centre for the Socially Displaced Persons and meals for the socially displaced so they could have a safe space during the covid19 stay at home restrictions. Robinson-Regis said the facility at Town Council Street, East Dry River had the capacity for 50 men and ten women but at the moment 17 men and two women were housed there. She said homeless people could not be forced to use the facility but staff at the ministry, police and the Port of Spain City Corporation were encouraging them to use the facility.

In a release on Friday, the Ministry of Social Development said after weeks of verification, several families received grants for income and food support during the week of April 26. It highlighted several people grateful to the ministry including a self-employed caterer and single mother from Arouca who felt a huge relief when she received the grant after weeks of anxiety and depression.

Even as government has begun to distribute grants and hampers, hundreds of people are still desperate for food. This was evidenced by long lines for supplies when hampers are distributed by individuals, corporations and NGOs.

For example, on Friday at the Living Water Community on Frederick Street, Port of Spain, by 6 am when they opened, the line for food hampers stretched to Keate Street even though no one was practising social distancing. By 8.30 am police dispersed the crowd, which included pregnant women and the elderly for not following social distancing rules.

The situation was similar to another hamper collection on April 17 when police had to disperse a crowd of hundreds who gathered at the Barakah Grounds in Chaguanas for hampers donated by broadcaster Inshan Ishmael.


"Fraudsters tap into covid19 grants"

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