Hot! Decrying social assistance cuts

TheWhig.com – news/local
October 12, 2012.   By Michael Lea, Kingston Whig-Standard

Representatives from three local legal clinics are hoping they have found a sympathetic ear in local MPP and Attorney General John Gerretsen as they try to have cuts to social assistance programs for the homeless repealed.

Staff from the Kingston Community Legal Clinic, Queen’s Legal Aid and Rural Legal Services spent an hour talking lawyer-to-lawyer with the attorney general Friday morning, hoping he will agree that cuts to the community start-up and maintenance benefit and the necessary home repairs benefit should be cancelled.

The programs help low-income people on Ontario Works and the Ontario Disability Support Program get into housing by providing their first- and last-month rents, help cover hydro arrears or pay for needed repairs and other costs that could allow them to stay in their homes.

William Florence, staff lawyer at the Kingston Community Legal Clinic, said the clinics took up the cause because they are “the strongest voice” of the homeless or those facing homelessness.

“When you are homeless or have low income, you tend to have multiple legal problems at once,” he said. “They are frequently related to housing or social assistance or the interaction between those two.”

For example, if you are cut off social assistance you may get behind in your rent or be unable to pay your hydro bill.

That’s where the legal clinics can help out, he said.

“We can help people with their interaction with social assistance to get back on or to help them find information they need,” he said. “We can do legal appeals of decisions.”

The home repairs benefit ended in June and the community start-up benefit is to wrap up at the end of the year, leaving the available assistance cut in half.

Florence said the “significant cuts” to what are essentially “homelessness prevention programs,” which help those with low income either get into or stay in their homes, could have a major effect.

“They will be more likely to lose their home because they get in arrears, they get evicted. There is no extra help when they get further behind.”

He said the assistance would be half what it is now, it would no longer be mandatory but would be discretionary and would be spaced out over a longer period of time.

The municipalities would have to bear the cost of replacing the missing provincial money.

“These funds are going towards the most vulnerable people in our city and in our province,” said Florence. Often many financial problems occur at the same time and the community start-up program was invaluable in helping low income people weather financial storms.

He felt Gerretsen was “very receptive” to their concerns.

“It was a very good meeting. I was quite happy about it.”

Gerretsen said “a substantial amount” of the money that had been in the programs has been transferred to the municipalities “to give the municipalities greater latitude in the way this money should be dealt with.”

It would remain as discretionary funding to help people pay their rent or pay for needed repairs, he said.

“I understand that there obviously are concerns that the money has been halved from what it used to be. That may very well have something to do with the fact we are $13 billion in the hole.”

“On the other hand, I have always said we should not be trying to balance the budget of the province of Ontario on the backs of the most vulnerable people in our society.”

He promised to take the legal clinics’ concerns back to the minister of community services and the minister of municipal affairs and housing and let them know “the changes we have made to these programs are going to affect a significant number of people that have relied on them.”

He said he realized these were emergency situations which people faced.

“I think one of the problems that you have as a politician that sits in the cabinet of the government is when a new policy initiative comes forward you have a tendency to look at it from the crow’s-nest view. But we really don’t know how it’s going to affect or be implemented at the local level. And the thing that I am always trying to encourage my own colleagues to think about is when we come up with new policy ideas, look at it from the point of view of the recipient. Look at it from the point of view of the client, look at it from the point of view of the student, or the patient or whatever. That’s where we should be looking at all these problems from and then work our way up. Unfortunately that doesn’t always happen when you are dealing with province-wide issues like this.”

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