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Archive for August, 2011

How to improve Ontario’s social assistance system

In Greater Sudbury, the community came together to discuss the questions posed by the Commissioners.  A robust conversation that included recipients of social assistance, those who deliver the benefits and community agency staff who work supporting those who try to live on social assistance resulted in several recommendations to the commission.  Organizers speak with CBC staff. Click the link below to hear the interview:


Many faces of the homeless

CORNWALL – The definition of homelessness has changed – just ask Tim.

He has a roof over his head most nights, and a post office box for mail. But it’s been nearly a year since the 36-year-old Cornwall man had permanent shelter to call his own.

“I’m a couch surfer,” he says. “With social assistance, I can’t afford to have an apartment and eat.”

Tim, who didn’t want his last name published, receives under $600 a month from Ontario Works, or less when he collects a paycheque from odd jobs.

“I haven’t been working for two and a half weeks,” says Tim, a construction worker with more than two decades of experience.

The lack of steady income is the main reason he’s unable to get back on his feet, but it’s only one factor that led him to the streets in the first place.

His mother — “my best friend,” he says — died three years ago. He began drinking heavily, and dabbled in drugs. Last fall, he split with his common-law wife of 15 years. The company he started a few years ago faltered, thanks to the economic downturn.

For more than two weeks last winter, he slept in the Cornwall Square parking garage. Then he found shelter in cars and trailers. Now, he stays in the homes of friends he met over lunch at the Agape’s soup kitchen.

He’s not the only one.

“I know 150 people who are homeless or couch surfers,” Tim says.

The numbers aren’t disputed, and agencies are worried about the growing number of those living in poverty.

“I think the issue of homelessness is growing,” says Alyssa Blais, executive director of the Agape Centre. “But poverty in general is growing, the working poor (population) is growing.”

“It’s not as obvious as it is in other communities,” adds Michelle Gratton, head of the Social Development Council. “People say quickly we don’t have homelessness.”

But Gratton says she knows many young people who identify in the same group as Tim: without their own home and just scraping by, often because of broken relationships.

“It’s not easy to be a single-parent family,” says Blais. “It really is a two-person economy. Living together makes it a lot easier, but there’s a high percentage of single mothers.”

Assistance is available through Ontario Works and Cornwall’s housing agency, but it’s not always enough to allow people to get ahead. Many aren’t even aware of the resources.

“There’s a lot of programs, a lot of assistance in the community, a lot of places people can go,” says Gratton. “For them it’s a lack of information… They don’t know where to go.”

She says the gaping hole in city services is an emergency shelter, especially for men, so they don’t fall into a cycle of sleeping on the street or friends’ sofas.

Tim doesn’t hesitate to agree with Gratton; he even plans to sleep outside city hall later this fall as a way to raise awareness of the need for a shelter.

There’s a man from Montreal who might appreciate it as well — he’s been spending many of his nights outside the Agape Centre.

“We do have a homeless man living underneath our stairs,” says Blais. “We’ve been telling him to leave and he still comes back.”

Mayor Bob Kilger says he would need to see data and research before supporting any new initiatives targeting homelessness in the city; for now he’s satisfied with the current slate of services.

“I know that we have very quick response and a lot of co-operation between stakeholders,” he says. “We’re able to respond 24/7 in a very timely fashion, and work with people on a case-by-case basis.”

Though Kilger acknowledges the problem, he says homelessness isn’t a major topic of discussion at city hall.

“It’s not brought to our attention that alarm bells are going off,” says Kilger. “That’s not to diminish anyone’s situation…but I’m satisfied right now that we’re being very responsive on the issue.”

For short term help, the homeless can find emergency assistance through Cornwall’s social housing agency.

Melissa Morgan, program supervisor, says a 24-hour phone line, plus partnerships with the police and other groups ensure anyone who asks for shelter will have it. It fills in much the same way Baldwin House helps out women who need immediate care.

“We do everything we can,” says Morgan. “No individual should be without housing overnight.”

The domiciliary hostel program also doles out cash to those who need temporary help finding a place to live. It’s designed to fill the gap left by Cornwall’s housing corporation, which has a lengthy waiting list for subsidized units.

“People often come and they need shelter immediately,” explains Anne-Marie Fobert-Poirier, program co-ordinator for the city’s housing department. “But we don’t have any emergency units.”

There are several programs in place to assist with rent payments or energy bills for people struggling to cover their costs. For those who do snag one of nearly 2,000 subsidized apartments throughout the counties, rent is steady at one-third of their income.

The waiting list has around 750 names, says social and housing services manager Debora Daigle, a slight increase from previous years. Singles have to be patient longer than most, since most units are designed for families or seniors.

Our greatest need would be for one-bedroom units for non-seniors,” says Fobert-Poirier.

With a lower turnover than usual — attributed to a shaky economy — people have a long time to wait for vacancies.

In the meantime, around 100 people on the waiting list are currently receiving help through other initiatives, like the so-called “eviction avoidance” program. Daigle says the city received $23.5 million from the provincial and federal governments this year to pay for the services, in addition to $9 million earmarked for housing.

Tim, however, has little faith in government initiatives, so he’s finding help elsewhere. He took a withdrawal management program to end his drug and alcohol use; he’s handing out resumes to find work; he found a basement to rent from a friend for $400 a month — he moves in next month.

“I’m tired of the way I’m living,” he says.

The turning point for him came last December, when he tried to overdose on drugs. Now he carries around a picture of his 10-year-old daughter Samantha in his shirt pocket as a reminder of why he’s still here, and as motivation to stay on the straight-and-narrow.

“I found a cause: helping others,” he says.

He has company in Gary Samler, a semi-retired poverty activist who ran for Cornwall city council last fall. He took his campaign to the streets this summer to improve his understanding of the issue.

“That is my number one goal, is to raise community awareness and the change the way we think about homelessness in Cornwall,” he says.

Under his street name Reggie Walker, Samler eats at the Agape and wanders downtown with other homeless. He says a one-stop drop-in centre would make a huge difference for those struggling to find work, fill their stomachs and access resources.

“There’s nothing for them to do other than walk around,” he says.

Tim knows what that’s like. He’s desperate for a job, knowing a steady paycheque is the only obstacle between his current lifestyle and a home of his own.

“I have a good reputation,” he says. “I’m always on time. When I have work, I’m a workaholic.”

For those that might need a little more help, Blais says solutions should come from all city stakeholders.

“It takes a concerted effort from the community, municipality and the clients themselves,” she says. “I would like to see a poverty reduction plan for Cornwall.”

She’s already working toward that goal, alongside Gratton and others, and they have a Poverty Free Ontario rally planned for next month.

“The most important thing is to bring the issue out and let people realize it isn’t an epidemic, but it is a problem,” says Samler. “It’s something that should be looked in to.”



Guelph residents weigh in on welfare reform

GUELPH — At a time when conservative politicians from London to Washington, D.C., are slashing social services to address spiralling debt and unemployment, Ontario is looking at ways to strengthen social assistance.

About 100 local recipients and providers of social services packed a church gymnasium in Guelph on Tuesday to imagine a better, more efficient welfare system.

Event host Daniel Moore, executive director of Family and Children’s Services of Guelph and Wellington, was impressed to see people who receive welfare mingling with those who administer it. “It’s pretty amazing, actually,” he said.

There were short speeches from three Guelph residents including a mother and daughter who have relied on welfare.

Tina Brophy said she was a child of privilege before drugs and an early pregnancy ruined her prospects. “It’s a quick and slippery slope down to the bottom, and I landed with a thud,” she said. “I became a hunter-gatherer.”

Brophy said an immediate $100 supplement for healthy food would help “make hunting and gathering a thing of the past” in the province. As of late last year, more than 830,000 Ontarians were receiving social assistance through either Ontario Works or the Ontario Disability Support Program.

Most of the Tuesday forum was devoted to roundtable discussions on four aspects of welfare reform: rules; assets and benefits; education, employment services and training; and the future of social assistance.

At one table, volunteer facilitator Lisa Needham led a discussion of assets and benefits while Cynthia Bragg, a teacher, social worker and disability support recipient, took point-form notes on a flip chart.

“I’m hoping they can make a more efficient, comprehensive system, and to help people get off of it,” Bragg said.

The group, which included housing activist Alan Pickersgill, artist James Gordon, veteran Onward Willow volunteer Wanda Lucier and Salvation Army caseworker Lloyd Hetherington, came up with three key suggestions: reduce the demoralizing clawback of benefits that kicks in when welfare recipients start working; stop making people drain their bank accounts in order to get assistance; and raise the assistance rates “to give people a level of dignity beyond the barest level of survival.”

They also took exception to a solution proposed by the provincial commissioners where social assistance rates would be kept low “to ensure that people are better off working.”

“The optics of that are awful,” Gordon said. “Let’s make it worse for you, so that a job seems better. That’s insulting.”

At another table, participants discussed ways to improve provincial employment services. Marian Garner, who helps people transition into the workplace with Royal City Christian Life Centre in downtown Guelph, suggested case workers get a bonus for keeping people employed. Deb Cripps of the Guelph Food Bank said employers need incentives to hire people on disability, since they are viewed as costly and risky.

Feedback from the forum convened by the Guelph and Wellington Task Force for Poverty Elimination will be delivered on Sept. 1 to the Commission for the Review of Social Assistance in Ontario. Comments can also be provided through an online survey at www.gwpoverty.ca.

Next June, commissioners will publish recommendations based on their findings.

Poverty task force co-ordinator Randalin Ellery said she hopes the review will trigger meaningful reform. “I think there’s just widespread acknowledgement that the system isn’t working as it is, and we need to make it better,” she said.

Moore credited the task force with sparking dialogue on the plight of low-income people in the county. “It seems like there’s now a forum where we can talk about these types of complex issues,” he said.

Asked to reflect on the riots that erupted in England’s suburbs nearly two weeks ago following deep cuts to social services in the country, Moore said communication must have broken down.

If people don’t come together and speak with one voice about the challenges they face, and if governments don’t listen and respond, things fall apart, he said.



Packed forum tackles social assistance overhaul

SARNIA – Ontario’s social assistance programs are hurting the very people they are designed to help, local residents say.

Jocelyn Sawczuk, for one, told a social assistance review forum Friday she’s proof the system isn’t working. Forced to turn to Ontario Works because she can’t find full-time work, she was robbed and is now on the verge of being evicted.

“Ontario Works said they couldn’t help me,” the Sarnia woman said.

Sawczuk pays $552 a month for rent, which leaves her $42 a month to live on. She has a student debt, and that’s kept her from attending university to study sociology. She’s been accepted, but can’t afford to pay the bills to go, she said.

“If (the government) helped with student debt I’d be sitting in university, not on OW,” she said.

Dana Milne has heard many stories like Sawczuk’s. Milne, of the Income Security Advocacy Centre, co-facilitated the forum held at All Saints’ Anglican Church in Sarnia.

More than 80 people, many living in poverty, gathered to share their stories and suggestions about Ontario Works (OW) and the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP).

“These programs are not working for people,” said Milne, who added more is needed than just dumping additional money into the system.

“OW is set up to be a punitive and mean program,” she said.

The province has announced it intends to overhaul the social assistance system. A commission has been formed to gather input, and all of the stories heard at the Sarnia event will be forwarded to the government, Milne said.

The forum was organized by Community Legal Assistance Sarnia and the Sarnia-Lambton Poverty Reduction Strategy Committee.

One woman named Sharon, who asked that her last name not be published, told the crowd that as an ODSP recipient who works within the social assistance system, she believes current practices dehumanize applicants. Some ODSP applicants are rejected the first time they apply simply as a matter of policy, she said.

“We are not treated with any dignity or compassion.”

Co-facilitator Darren Nesbit said the government needs to tear down punitive barriers that keep people on social assistance from living regular lives.

Nesbit, who is on ODSP, said he’s been punished for living with a girlfriend who was working. The government claws back benefits from a recipient when someone considered to be a spouse is employed.

“She is trying to go out and make her life better and I’m penalized for that at the end of the day,” he said.

Milne said public pressure on the government is the only way to ensure poverty reduction is at the heart of the newly reconstituted social assistance system, she said.

“We’re going to need everyone to keep pushing with us. We’re going to need to make this an election issue.”



PFO Bulletin #5: What is This Election Going to be About?

Is it going to be about the leader of the governing party winning a third mandate?

Is it going to be about the leader of the opposition party claiming power with a tax-cutting agenda?

Is it going to be about the third party leader riding the momentum of her federal cousins to power or significant gains?

Is the election going to be all about the fortunes of political leaders and their respective parties?

Or, is it going to be about the people of Ontario and the issues that affect their quality of life? Education, health, the environment, jobs, living conditions.

We in the Poverty Free Ontario initiative and representing twenty communities across this province are concerned that 1.7 million children, parents, and individuals in Ontario are living in poverty, the highest poverty rate in the province in the last thirty years.

Only a few short years ago, many of these people never imagined that they would be unemployed, losing their homes, applying for social assistance, and visiting food banks.

What is this election going to be about?

We believe that some part of the election debate must be about the hunger and hardship that so many living in poverty experience daily, weekly, monthly.

And we believe that this discussion must happen during this election not only for their right to live with some measure of health and dignity but also because a poverty-free Ontario would:

  •   be a healthier community for all of us,
  •   make the economy work better for all of us
  •   help the political system better reflect the interests of all of us.

What is this election going to be about?

Poverty Free Ontario is not a political party and we will not be running candidates for elected office.

But, we are convinced of the decency and compassion of the Ontario electorate and that Ontarians will support policies that ensure no one is left behind.

If our politicians and parties will not talk about an agenda to end poverty in this province, then we will bring the question to Ontarians directly.

We will display our support for a Poverty Free Ontario in our election signs and campaign pamphlet during the campaign.

We will encourage people to visit www.povertyfreeontario.ca and see how poverty in this province could be eradicated within this decade if our provincial government starts to act now.

We will ask our candidates in local debates, on our doorsteps, and through the media: “If elected what would you and your party do in the next four years to end poverty in Ontario?”

We will give our best efforts to make this election, not about the fortunes of political leaders and parties, but about the health and dignity of an Ontario where everyone belongs and all are included.

That’s what this election should be about.

Commissioners Consult with Poverty Free Ontario Cross-Community Leaders

On Friday morning, July 29 twenty-five leaders from seventeen communities across Ontario participated in a tele-conference call with Social Assistance Review Commissioners Frances Lankin and Munir Sheikh.

Peter Clutterbuck, Coordinator and Janet Gasparini, Chairperson of the Social Planning Network of Ontario (SPNO), opened the ‘tele-meeting’ and set the context with a review of the work that Poverty Free Ontario is doing across the province.

Marvyn Novick, Policy Contributor to SPNO, summarized several key messages that a larger group of PFO leaders had developed in a planning meeting for this call on July 27. These were:

  • Poverty in Ontario is a social and moral crisis with record numbers of people in deep poverty (below 80% of the poverty line) living in chronic cycles of hardship and hunger and contending with unfair and stigmatizing stereotypes.
  • Importance of the Commissioners supporting the mission of ending poverty via a two-track approach by recommending immediate action on benefit adequacy and proposing a comprehensive plan in their final report commitment to end deep poverty in the province by 2015.
  • Asking the Commissioners to report what they heard in their community consultations regardless of the interpretation of their mandate or terms of reference by their political masters (e.g. link between social assistance and labour market conditions – the poverty trap).
  • Request the Commissioners’ leadership in helping communities across the province make poverty eradication an election issue by releasing an interim report on what they were hearing from communities in early September.

Several PFO leaders followed to offer views from a variety of perspectives across the province:

  • Rev. Maggie Helwig of the Anglican Diocese of Toronto and also representing the Interfaith Social Assistance Reform Coalition (ISARC), SPNO’s partner in Poverty Free Ontario, pointed out that local faith groups see the “intolerable reality” of poverty everyday through their ministries and asserted that it is morally wrong to continue pitting working poor people and people on welfare against each other as “deserving” and “undeserving”.
  • Tami Boudreau, Poverty Reduction Network of the District of Parry Sound, spoke eloquently of her experience as a single mom forced onto the system through a marriage breakdown and encountering multiple barriers to her persistent efforts to improve her education and get work.
  • Lorena Shepley, Pathway to Potential in Windsor, offered several examples of barriers presented by ODSP to her attempts to get the kind of work that she could manage as a person with a disability.
  • Gracia Janes, Social Assistance Reform Network of Niagara, summarized the strong local level support for the $100 a month Healthy Food Supplement as evident by municipal council resolutions passed in more than ten local and regional municipalities and by multiple community and provincial resolutions such as the Provincial Council of Women of Ontario.
  • Linda Terry, Social Planning Council of Cambridge and North Dumfries and Roundtable for a Poverty Free Cambridge, provided a short summary of a community forum on social assistance held on July 19, in which one of the recommendations was that the Commissioners release an interim report to help communities across the province make poverty eradication an election issue.

Commissioners Lankin and Sheikh expressed appreciation for this input. They did express their understanding of the link between social assistance reform and labour market conditions and acknowledged that the two worlds could not be viewed in isolation of each other. They will comment on this reality, although recommendations on the labour market are not within the Commission’s mandate.

The Commissioners expressed interest in community views on extending coverage for certain health benefits now available only to social assistance recipients to low wage working people also.

There was a discussion on the fiscal climate for making reform in which the prevalent mood is for spending restraint and tax cutting. Commissioner Lankin found helpful Marvyn Novick’s suggestion that the issue could be re-framed as a “collective challenge” — ” How do we show prudent stewardship of our fiscal resources to help people earn their way out of poverty?” Poverty Free Ontario Bulletin #4 has outlined several fiscal options for serious social assistance reform.

Several participants in the tele-call pressed for the Commissioners to issue an interim report by September. Tom Pearson of the Poverty Action for Change Coalition in York Region especially appealed for a “sense of urgency” about moving on poverty in some concrete ways as another cold winter approaches.

The Commissioners asserted their independence from any political ties in their task and held fast to their current reporting schedule of presenting an Options Paper in November for further community comment and feedback and a final report in June 2012. They left open the possibility of making some recommendations that make sense in time for the Spring 2012 Ontario Budget.

Peter Clutterbuck thanked the Commissioners and all cross-community participants and indicated that Poverty Free Ontario will continue to press for the policy proposals necessary to end poverty in Ontario.

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