Concerns expressed as province transforms social assistance program

The Ontario government is transforming social assistance programs in the province. Faiza Amin on the concerns that these changes will create more vulnerabilities for recipients of ODSP and OW.

By Faiza Amin

As the Ontario government works towards transforming social assistance, those on Ontario Works (OW) and the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSB) are calling on the province to pause and revaluate some of the proposed changes.

The government says its goal is to realign responsibilities and create a more responsive system that helps people get back on their feet, and into the workforce.

Advocates and recipients say it’s imperative the government addresses some of the challenges and barriers faced by ODSP and OW clients, adding the changes can’t be made without raising rates, investing in critical supports, and addressing individual barriers.

“They’re trying to frame it like this is great and we’re going to get people into jobs, and so forth,” says Trevor Manson, an ODSP recipient who also works with the action coalition. “But what they don’t acknowledge is that many people on ODSP are not able to work. The government doesn’t seem to want to acknowledge or address that fact.”

The province is taking a phased approach in implementing the changes, each step will be gradual, different regions will transition at different times, with a completion goal of 2024.

There are calls for the government to respond to the concerns expressed by the population and a number of interest groups, who say delivery models should provide dignity and financial stability to clients, including people living with disabilities.

However, some of these clients say they weren’t consulted and asked about these proposed changes, including Bee Lee Soh, an Ontario Works recipient who adds that she is concerned that the province’s plans don’t include critical voices and life experiences.

“It really doesn’t help the people,” she says. “without consulting us, it’ll have unintended consequences. So the plan will not work.”

Talia Bronstein, the vice-president of research and advocacy at the Daily Bread Food Bank, says the province’s vision has a lot of positive elements, including person-centred and wrap-around services that advocates and recipients have long- called for.

Though Bronstein says there are potential benefits, she says executing the plan may be challenging.

“It’s a really high stakes transformation,” she says. “One of the most challenging parts has been that recipients, people who receive OW or ODSP, have not been engaged in the process. That means their needs and their concerns aren’t being addressed, and there’s a lot of opportunities where this could go really wrong.”

An area of concern expressed by social assistance recipients and advocates is the proposed life stabilizing framework, which according to the province, is based on helping people achieve stability in their lives. Under this system, municipalities would deliver a number of supports to people on ODSP, with a number of goals, including; more people exiting employment, shorter stays on assistance.

The province says there will be a focus on helping clients to “achieve greater independence and long-term employability, and caseworkers will provide assistance in navigating which supports are needed, including mental health and addiction, financial literacy, housing, and child care.

“These services aren’t readily available, the waitlist for affordable housing and mental health services are extremely long,” Bronstein says. “I don’t know that there is any change that’s going to happen to make municipalities better able to provide those services. There doesn’t seem to be funding attached to expand access to these services.”

A release from the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services says there were 35,000 social assistance recipients transitioning to employment in 2019, and they’re hoping to increase that to 60,000 by 2024.

Advocacy groups are asking the government to clarify and ensure the life stabilization services, will not be a requirement to qualify for benefits.

The province says the new vision will help to address barriers faced by social recipients.

“In March the ministry began an extensive 12-18 month co-design process where we will engage with municipal service managers, staff, bargaining agents and our clients as we work together with municipalities to design the improved system,” writes Shanelle Kandiah, spokesperson for the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services. “This includes work on a funding approach that re-invests any administrative savings to enhance the system.”

Advocates say there can’t be any expectation of life stabilization, without raising rates for social assistance to make life more affordable for recipients, many of which have been living in poverty.

“There’s no recognition that income is actually the foundation to life stabilization, and the province has not put it on the table that they’re at all open to discussing raising social assistance rates,” Bronstein says.

Unaffordable living

Bee, who is on OW, receives $733 monthly. While Trevor, an ODSP recipient gets $1169. Both Toronto residents say they’re living below the poverty line, and at times, must make difficult decisions about which basic life essentials to pay for. They say it sometimes comes down to having to decide between paying rent or buying groceries.

“The rates have been frozen since 2018, and clearly since 2018 prices have increased,” Trevor says. “The government does not want to address the fact that benefit rates remain 50 to 60 percent below the poverty line.”

Kandiah, the ministry spokesperson, tells CityNews that the government raised OW and ODSP rates by 1.5% when the Ford government was voted into office in 2018.

“In response to the impact of COVID-19 we have made significant investments in social services, including more than $750 million dollars in social services relief funding, and expanding access to temporary emergency assistance for those in financial crisis,” Kandiah wrote. “OW and ODSP clients continue to have access to the government’s Discretionary Benefit program to assist with one-time exceptional expenses related to COVID-19.”

According to Bronstein, 65 per cent of food bank clients receive social assistance as their primary income source, which highlights a major gap the government has yet to address.

“This is purely because rates are too low to basically afford the basic cost of food, housing,” Bronstein says. “So people often have no choice but to turn to a food bank when they receive social assistance.”

Social assistance recipients like Bee, also want to hear more about how the province intends to measure and deliver life stabilizing services, many of which she says are already in short supply and in need of government investments, including housing.

Bee has been on Toronto’s affordable housing list for seven years now, and in just days, she says she’ll be homeless again. The 66-year-old was renting a room in a Toronto home for several years, up until her landlords notified her the property would be sold.

She says finding a new place to live has been impossible, because of the unaffordable rates of housing and supports from governments. She also adds that landlords have turned her away when they find out that she’s on social assistance.

“I’m in a state of homelessness,” she says. “With all this stigma put on you, you can’t find a place to rent.”

In the past, she slept inside coffee shops, but with the pandemic, some stores have been reducing their hours, which means, Bee no longer has that option.

“I’m looking at the options of shelters or motel shelters, but it’s not that easy to get in,” she says. “I’m mostly on the streets, when you think about it, it’s more safer on the streets than to go to a shelter.”

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