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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One woman named Sharon, who asked that her last name not be published, told the crowd that as an ODSP recipient who works within the social assistance system, she believes current practices dehumanize applicants.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.”




One Response to “Packed forum tackles social assistance overhaul”

  1. Being on OW for the last 2 months have been very stressful for me. The program is built on not having your basic needs met. I am a nobody a lazy bum when i go to their office rather than a human being who needs help at the moment

    Posted by susan bourque | August 28, 2011, 5:29 pm

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