Cayman families have been seeking support from the Needs Assessment Unit in record numbers as the impact of the coronavirus crisis has taken its toll on the community.

The NAU – government’s social assistance agency – provided support to more than 5,000 people across 2,500 families in 2020 – a significant jump from the previous year.

According to statistics provided by the unit, 648 additional families sought and received support compared with 2019.

Director Tamara Hurlston acknowledged concerns in the community – highlighted in previous Compass reporting – that support had not been provided swiftly enough or in sufficient amounts to those suffering the economic impact of the virus.

But she said the unit had provided significant help to the community, despite staff shortages and resource constraints.

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Hurlston said her team had done “excellent work” to ensure the needs of the most vulnerable were prioritised and had been recognised within government for working with “vigour and determination… [despite] many limitations and challenges”.

At the outset of the pandemic, she said services to existing clients had been automatically extended and requirements for new applicants relaxed.

The NAU was bolstered by a complement of an additional 20 staff at the height of the crisis, but most of them had returned to their regular roles by May. Since July, the NAU has been operating with 32 staff, on a par with previous years but eight short of the optimum level recommended for the unit in normal circumstances.

Hurlston acknowledged that there had been concerns around wait times for support. She said the policy was to provide help to applicants within 10 days of being assessed, but she said information on the actual current wait times was not available, “due to the increased demand with COVID-19”.

Charities, including ARK, provided significant support to those who could not get the help they needed through the NAU.

Once someone is assessed, the NAU provides interim food services immediately, while the application for broader  assistance is reviewed.

“The NAU continues to struggle with lack of resources considering the number of clients the department serves annually,” she said.

“The challenges of social welfare is not unique to the Cayman Islands and has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the Needs Assessment Unit will continue to operate as efficiently and effectively as possible with the resources available.”

A monthly stipend for unemployed tourism workers and a policy of allowing residents access to a portion of their pension funds have helped reduce the burden on the NAU.

Hurlston confirmed that applicants for support are now being asked to demonstrate that they have exhausted their pension money.

“Persons that withdrew pension were expected to utilize their pension for their monthly expenses prior to seeking assistance from the NAU,” she said.

“However, elderly clients with a savings of $8,000 or less are still able to access NAU services.”

An auditor general’s report in 2015 recommended a complete overhaul of Cayman’s social services system. The audit found no overall strategy, no objectives, no priorities, no coordination and, ultimately, no accountability for how $50 million were spent that year on various forms of social assistance.

An update in 2017 suggested the Ministry of Community Affairs had started work on an overarching strategy, though no timelines had been set. A further update from the auditor general in 2018 indicated no additional progress had been made. There have been no substantive updates since that time.

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