For more than two months, Laura Bardeau and her two sons struggled to receive emergency housing funds from the City of Toronto’s Housing Stabilization Fund after losing their furniture to bedbugs. They were twice turned away, simply told that Bardeau had “excess income.”
Only after the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty stepped in did the city eventually release the $1,500 that Bardeau, whose sole income comes from the Ontario Disability Support Program and Child Tax Benefits, had requested back in March.
The municipal Housing Stabilization Fund is supposed to help people who receive social assistance when they face emergency needs related to housing. But OCAP has argued that Bardeau's experience is not an isolated one, as the eligibility policies are “discriminatory” against people with a disability or with children.
Legal clinics paint a “picture of a wide-ranging problem,” said Yogi Acharya, an OCAP organizer who helped Bardeau. “Her case is not an exception because that discrimination is built into the policy.”
One example provided by Acharya is that “excess income” includes 10 social assistance benefits and programs.
“The city expects people to use money that is allotted to buy food or to raise children toward emergency housing needs,” said Acharya, “which is especially egregious when there exists a fund specifically to deal with housing emergencies.”
Policy for the Housing Stabilization Fund also states that all applicants have “a maximum asset level of $2,500 … regardless of family size.” Anything higher will decrease the amount of emergency funding received.
The asset limit “is discriminatory toward people with bigger families,” said Acharya.
A 'pathetic patchwork of local programs'
Toronto introduced the Housing Stabilization Fund in 2013, after the Liberals scrapped a provincial program to help people receiving social assistance who faced serious or unexpected housing-related costs.
Despite warnings about the impacts of losing the Community Start-Up and Maintenance Benefit, which had helped approximately 200,000 people across Ontario to access emergency housing funds annually, the provincial government slashed funding for the program in half.
In addition, the provincial government downloaded responsibilities onto municipalities, which are expected to implement their own programs using funding from a new Community Homelessness Prevention Initiative.
The result has been a “pathetic patchwork of local programs,” as one OCAP member bluntly put it at a community meeting in late July.
Jessica Sikora, who works for the Ontario Disability Support Program and is president of Local 586 of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, was also present at the meeting. She agreed the changes have been disastrous.
“Unequivocally, the changes have made it harder to serve our clients,” she said in a phone interview after the meeting, stressing she was speaking in her role as OPSEU president. “And if ODSP is supposed to be a support program, the actions we're seeing don't match that rhetoric.”
Municipalities are not required to produce any housing programs to replace the CSUMB until 2014. Consequently, in 2013, less than half of 47 municipal service areas had done so. Alongside a lack of communication and awareness about the program, these changes led to more than 4,700, or 11 per cent of applications, being ruled ineligible that year.
It isn't clear how many more municipalities have come on board. But according to an email from Ontario’s Ministry of Housing, “over half” of the 47 service areas offer housing stability programs today.
From mandatory to discretionary
But even where programs like Toronto's Housing Stabilization Fund exist, the impacts of eliminating the CSUMB have been “dramatic,” said Sikora.
“I have seen clients … already living in either very substandard housing, or living without housing at all, who cannot get (emergency funds). That means they may be staying in shelters or on the street. If that's not a dramatic impact, then I'm not sure what is.”
Unlike the CSUMB, which under provincial legislation was a mandatory benefit, the Housing Stabilization Fund is considered “discretionary.” This means that people can be arbitrarily turned away even when they are eligible, especially if the Housing Stabilization Fund’s limited budget is dwindling.
The program has been shrouded in secrecy and the application process made even more difficult, said Sikora, adding that ODSP caseworkers “are missing the information and resources necessary to meaningfully advocate for their clients to get this benefit.”
“They (the provincial government) have made it incredibly clear that their number one priority is balancing the budget,” she explained. “The only thing left for them to do is cut and reduce services … for people who are already living on next to nothing.”
Eligibility or exclusion
In June of this year, James Pasternak, who is a city councillor for Ward 10 and chair of the Community Development and Recreation Committee, asked Toronto Employment and Social Services, which administers the Housing Stabilization Fund, to conduct a review of the program.
While he insisted the “city should be proud” of the program, he conceded it needed fixing and “far more guidelines for eligibility” rather than exclusion.
“We need a more flexible implementation program. The program is good, but programs always have to be revisited and modernized and repaired,” he said in a phone interview, stressing the fact that caseworkers “should be able to explain this program” to clients.
When told that ODSP workers were allegedly discouraged from doing so, he responded he was unaware of that, and if true, it was “disturbing.”
“Caseworkers have a responsibility to explain to people in need what their options are. So I would find it surprising that they would be trying to keep that secret,” he said.
Nevertheless, critics argue the program is not only in need of repair but has actually been “designed” to further exclude the poor.
“It’s been designed in such a way that we spend so much time on administrative tasks that we can’t spend that time actually supporting our clients,” said Sikora.”We’re so overwhelmed by constant administrative, policy and political changes.”
The lack of clarity around the Housing Stabilization Fund also relates to the 1995 cuts to social assistance benefits by the Progressive Conservative government of Mike Harris, as well as the cuts that came with Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty’s 2012 budget. OCAP calls this “invisible austerity” and, along with other anti-poverty groups, is calling for a 55 per cent increase to social assistance rates.
“The conservative approach is usually an antagonistic one, where they make no pretense around the value of poor people,” said Acharya. “The Liberals care about their image a little more, so on the surface … (they) will provide a 1.5 per cent increase in social assistance. But that 1.5 per cent increase is actually below the cost of inflation, which means that it’s effectively a cut.”
The provincial Liberals have also made it harder to access benefits such as the Special Diet Allowance, which provides financial support for special dietary needs stemming from a medical condition, and for incontinence supplies such as adult diapers. They have also introduced a cost schedule that says only certain hearing devices can be approved. “That means the cheapest devices,” Sikora said.
“So these are not overt cuts to social assistance, but effectively they are (cuts),” Acharya added.
And according to Sikora, this is “only the very beginning,” as the Liberals are looking to go after mandatory special necessities and employment start-up benefits as well.
Raise the rates
OCAP has also questioned whether the figure of 30,000 applications per year would rise if more people knew about the Housing Stabilization Fund, particularly given the desperately low social assistance rates in the province. As experience has shown, when OCAP has held clinics to inform the community about new programs or benefits to which they may be entitled, application numbers have risen dramatically.
In 2004, for instance, less than 45,000 people were collecting the Special Diet Allowance; by 2014, with the help of OCAP’s direct action campaigns and clinics, the figure rose to more than 155,000 people. And in 2013, more than 100 applications for the Housing Stabilization Fund were completed and handed to the city on the spot, after the organization held a clinic to assist people.
While the organization will continue to help people access the Housing Stabilization Fund and deal with the confusing and limiting appeal process, it says the ultimate goal is to bring back the CSUMB and raise social assistance rates.
“At $110 million, it was a substantial benefit to the people who accessed it,” said Acharya. “So you go from this situation where close to 200,000 people are accessing a fund … to this patchwork of municipal funds where accessing emergency housing funds depends on where you live. The province needs to reinstate the CSUMB.”