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‘Our community is dying’: Advocates condemn Ontario’s failure to boost Ontario Works, disability support

Advocates and people on social assistance programs are decrying another provincial budget without any extra increases to Ontario Works (OW) and Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) rates.

Toronto resident Al Draghici is one of them.

They’ve been living off $343 a month for the past year on OW — they said they didn’t qualify for the $390 shelter allowance because they were homeless. And while hundreds more in support is expected to come once their transition to ODSP is finalized, they said that isn’t nearly enough to make ends meet.

“It’s impossible,” said Al, who’s also on the board of an advocacy group, Toronto Underhoused and Homeless Union. “It’s like they’re trying to wait you out until you give up, or you die on the street, penniless.”

Despite situations like Al’s, the Ontario budget tabled last week doesn’t include any changes to either program.

LISTEN | What it’s like to get by on $1,002 per month on Ontario Works:

London Morning7:02Trying to make ends meet on an Ontario Works income

Most people cannot get by on what they get from Ontario Works, and the local United Way is calling for social assistance rates to double. CBC reporter Kate Dubinski spoke with a single mom, Tia, about what it’s like to get by on $1002 per month.

OW has been stuck at the same rates since 2018, when Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives formed government. And while ODSP is set to gain its second inflationary increase since being indexed last summer, advocates say it’s still behind the rising cost of living, as the maximum amount a single person can receive is capped at $1,308.

The latest budget doesn’t come as a surprise to recipients and advocates, but they warn that rates need to increase or the consequences will become increasingly dire. 

“It’s going to cost our health-care system and our legal system a whole lot more money,” said John Stapleton, a member of advocacy group Defend Disability and a former Ontario government worker in the social services department. 

“We’re going to see more people homeless, and homelessness costs the government a whole lot more than it does to keep people barely surviving,” Stapleton said.

Province points to more overall funding

In response to the criticism, the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services says it raised funding in social services to $19.9 billion in its latest budget, signifying a $600 million increase. A ministry spokesperson said some $280 million is dedicated to increases for ODSP and assistance for children with severe disabilities.

The government has increased ODSP rates by almost 12 per cent since September 2022, the spokesperson said, noting the next inflationary increase is set for July. The ministry also changed the rules to allow recipients to earn up to $1,000 a month without any impact on their supports or eligibility.

However, the ministry didn’t explain why it it hasn’t increased OW rates, or whether it might increase them in the future.

“Ontario Works is intended to be a short-term support for people who are temporarily out of work,” the spokesperson said. “Recipients are supported by caseworkers focused on helping them get back on track to full-time, meaningful employment and financial independence.”

Stapleton said the discrepancy between rates is particularly worrying, since many on OW should be on disability benefits but face barriers to accessing the health-care system where they can receive the right referrals. Stapleton pointed to Ford’s comments last summer about those on OW.

At a conference, Ford said, “If someone is on ODSP, I’ll support them for life.”

As for Ontario Works, he said, “It really bothers me that we have healthy people sitting at home, collecting your hard-earned dollars.”

That isn’t what’s happening on the ground, says Gillian Reiss, a barrister and solicitor for Willowdale Community Legal Services who works with recipients on both programs.

Rates are so low that people are unable to climb out of poverty, she said, facing stigma against them needing help in the first place that exacerbates the problem.

“It’s not that people don’t want to work … They don’t have the ability to find jobs given how deep their poverty is, or they have disabilities and the health-care system is inadequately providing them with resources,” she said.

“Clients are coming in … It’s tears. It’s ‘How am I gonna survive?'”

The 2024 budget accounts for possible increases in OW and ODSP caseloads that could set the province back almost $100 million. According to the latest figures, over 427,000 people are on OW and almost 500,000 people on ODSP. 

Index OW and raise the rates: income advocacy centre

The reason why people are in need of assistance matters less than the province keeping rates “horrifically low” for both programs, said Claudia Calabro, an organizer with the Income Security Advocacy Centre. 

“They are happy to exploit the idea of deserving versus undeserving poor, especially in the current moment where the cost of living crisis is hitting more and more Ontarians,” said Calabro in an email statement.

“The province could immediately index OW rates to inflation, and raise them to a level that accounts for the real costs of groceries, housing, and transportation, among other necessities of life.” she said.

In response, the ministry said it’s “lifting people out of poverty.”

Toronto resident Sarah Colero, 28, disagrees. She’s been on ODSP for a decade, but she said at one point she was in school and on the path to employment.

Her disabilities have worsened over the years, and she says she’s had to forgo medication and therapy to survive. Today, she said she’s left choosing between being “enforced destitute” or a medically-assisted death.

“Our community is dying,” she said. 

“We need this prioritized … We need to show disabled people that we will not leave them behind.”

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