Homelessness: Ontario’s $21 million cut likely to leave more people without a roof
TheStar.com – news/gta
October 18, 2012. Daniel Dale, Urban Affairs Reporter
A $21 million provincial cut to homelessness prevention funding in Toronto will make it harder for thousands of poor residents to stay out of shelters, residents and community advocates say.
The biggest chunk of the cut, $12.8 million, is from the province-wide elimination of a benefit program that gave up to $1,500 every two years to families that were facing eviction, in danger of having their utilities cut off, fleeing domestic violence, moving from shelters or unsafe housing, or unable to replace bedbug-infested furniture or broken appliances.
In 2013, Toronto will offer a similar benefit itself — but with far less provincial money available, the city will give priority to the people considered “most vulnerable.” Others may get less or nothing at all.
“The bottom line is that one of the primary tools people have had to help stabilize their tenancies and prevent eviction is gone. So we imagine people will be losing their housing,” said Linsey MacPhee, manager of the Toronto Drop-in Network.
The cut takes effect during a period of high local unemployment and high rents, and as “social assistance rates no longer reflect even the most basic costs of living,” the city says in a report. More than 160,000 people are on the waiting list for affordable housing.
About 70 people opposed to the cut gathered at the downtown St. Stephen’s Community House on Wednesday. Shineeca McLeod, 26, said she could not have left a shoddy basement apartment if the benefit had not covered moving costs and a rent deposit. Dave Cherkewski, 40, said he would have been forced to stay in a group house he shared with a drug dealer.
“Not unless I could find a place that didn’t require last month’s rent,” Cherkewski said. “Which landlord doesn’t require last month’s rent?”
The cut is part of a broader change to provincial homelessness funding that will give cities long-sought flexibility to spend the province’s money as they see fit. Community and Social Services Minister John Milloy said the province is taking a “whole new approach to dealing with housing” that frees municipalities from being “tied down to different rules.”
But he also said he refuses to “whitewash” the fact that the cut was prompted by the province’s “very serious fiscal crisis.” The Liberal minority government faces a deficit of $15 billion.
“Part of what was driving (the cut) — I’ve never hid that fact — was the fact that we simply have to find a way to balance things, particularly in a ministry like ours, where there’s huge pressure with a growing caseload. So it would have been nice not to have done this, but I think it can be explained very much in line with this broader vision,” Milloy said in an interview.
Housing expert and advocate Michael Shapcott, director of housing and innovation for the Wellesley Institute, said “any benefit that could be gained from flexibility is going to be lost because there’s less money.”
Toronto officials estimate that up to 49,000 households can receive some benefits under the new Housing Stabilization Fund next year — just 500 fewer than it expects to receive benefits under the province’s Community Start-Up and Maintenance Benefit (CSUMB) this year. Thousands of people will probably receive smaller payments than they would have under the current system.
“We think that in 2013, the way in which we’ve configured it, we should be able to provide the fund to last through the year. But that’s not certain. I can’t say that with certainty. We’ll have to get experience with it,” said Toronto Employment and Social Services general manager Heather MacVicar.
The province’s benefit has been provided to anyone on welfare or disability payments and who could demonstrate a valid need. Next year, the city will be forced to ration the $25.7 million available, and the city will take into account applicants’ income levels and assets. It will also put a $400-per-family cap on the amount of money available for furnishings.
The disappearance of the provincial benefit will force about 10,000 disability recipients to compete against about 40,000 welfare recipients for money that both groups were previously guaranteed. MacVicar said the city will “take an equitable approach” so that disabled people are not disproportionately disadvantaged.
The benefit cut is accompanied by a $5.5 million provincial cut to four housing programs. The province will no longer provide additional shelter money to the city in the event of an emergency like the 2010fire at 200 Wellesley St. E.
“Unanticipated needs may well arise, and then the city has to make one of two hard choices: pony up local property-tax dollars, which are of course already scarce and fully allocated elsewhere, or secondly, say to people, ‘Tough luck, can’t do anything, you’re on your own,’” Shapcott said.
The Housing Stabilization Fund is intended as a one-year temporary measure. The city will develop a long-term plan for 2014 and beyond, MacVicar said.
The city will get $96 million from the province for homelessness prevention in 2013. In total, according to city officials, the province is giving municipalities only half the money it used to allocate to the benefit program, cutting more than $60 million.
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