When his DJing business closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Robert Freeman applied for the Canada emergency response benefit (CERB) to help him get by.
But despite receiving payments, the Ottawa senior didn't actually qualify for it.
Now, after receiving an unexpected letter for the Canadian Revenue Agency (CRA), not only does Freeman need to pay back nearly $15,000 but — since those payments were considered taxable income — his Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS) was clawed back as well.
"It was supposed to help, but it's really like a punishment," Freeman said on Monday, calling his outlook "horrible."
The GIS is an additional payment for low-income seniors that Freeman relied on. It will be re-adjusted this coming summer.
Until then, the Beacon Hill resident lives off just $1,100 a month, now that he's lost out on the $600 in supplements he'd receive monthly. He's also had to borrow money to pay back what he owes because of what he believes was unclear government messaging.
"So I have to survive another eight months, you know, borrowing a thousand a month," Freeman said.
Orléans resident Robert Brown is in a similar situation.
While he was eligible for CERB after losing his job as a carpenter due to COVID-19, it still means he's no longer able to collect his GIS payments of $760.
"So that leaves me a little bit over $1,000 a month to live," he said. "And with rent in Ottawa, it's impossible."
Recently Brown has also suffered from strokes, leaving him with lingering physical and mental damage and making his living situation even more tenuous.
He thinks the government needs to reverse course because "in my understanding, there's lots and lots of seniors that are being hit with this."
"They never said that they would cut me off [from] one of my benefits that lets me live."
GIS meant for 'most vulnerable seniors'
According to a statement from Employment and Social Development Canada, every year in July, thousands of seniors have their GIS adjusted, "ensuring the benefits go to the most vulnerable seniors."
Likewise, the CRA says the CERB application process was attestation-based, with Canadians only needing to claim they were eligible for the benefit under the knowledge they would potentially verify that information later.
In late 2020, letters were sent to recipients the agency couldn't verify actually qualified.
"The CRA is sympathetic to the fact that, for some individuals, repayment of these amounts may have financial implications," a spokesperson said in an email.
"For this reason, payment arrangement parameters have been expanded to give Canadians more time and flexibility to repay based on their ability to pay."
CanAge's Laura Tamblyn Watts says dozens of Canadians have reached out to her senior advocacy organization after their GIS was clawed back.
Thousands more could find themselves in similar predicaments, she said, noting that CanAge has been calling for the government to ignore 2020 and use pre-CERB incomes to assess their GIS payments.
"Right now, as we're coming into the winter and times are getting cold, not qualifying for the guaranteed income supplement means our poorest seniors are not going to be able to necessarily feed themselves, have heat or pay rent," she said.
"So this isn't a matter of 'nice to have.' This is a matter of life and death."