How the mayor could save $100 million

TheStar.com – opinion/editorialopinion
Published On Wed Aug 31 2011.   By Carol Goar, Editorial Board

If Mayor Rob Ford really wants to “find efficiencies, not cut services,” he’ll welcome a proposal put forward by the City Service Review Group. It would save the city $100 million and make it a more humane place.

If he is bent on slashing spending and getting rid of civic employees, he’ll dismiss it out of hand.

The scheme was drafted by a coalition of mental health activists. It was costed by Sarah Shartal, a lawyer at Roach Schwartz and Associates who has spent 15 years fighting for Torontonians with disabilities. It calls on the city to move people with mental illness and addiction problems out of its homeless shelters. Civic workers would help them to apply for provincial disability support ($1,053 a month). This income would allow them to rent a private apartment.

Many of these people now live on welfare ($592 a month). They qualify for disability support, but they aren’t able to fill out the complicated application form and they don’t have a family doctor. Since the late 1990s, Shartal has been doing it for them free of charge. It’s not just a matter of paperwork; she finds forgotten OHIP numbers, lost identification papers, and missing financial records, then hunts down the people themselves on the streets, in the ravines and in the drop-in centres.

But she can’t afford to do it full time. And the people who work at Toronto’s social agencies are already struggling to meet clients’ basic needs. So the coalition is asking the city to expand the mandate of its Streets to Homes program to allow its employees to help clients apply for disability support.

The beauty of this proposal is that the benefits outweigh the costs tenfold. Here’s why:

• Disability support funding comes out of the provincial treasury, whereas welfare is financed jointly by Queen’s Park and the city. By removing 30 per cent of the homeless from its welfare rolls, Toronto could save $67 million annually.

• Warehousing people in homeless shelters is extremely expensive. It costs $73.23 per night — the province pays $43 and the city pays $30.23 — to keep a person in a municipal shelter. If 1,500 people were taken out of the system, Toronto would save $16.4 million a year.

Policing, public health and weather emergency expenditures would go down if people with mental disabilities had a safe place to go at night.

Although the city would have to invest approximately $12 million to beef up its housing services, its economy would get an $18 million boost. The newly qualified disability support recipients would have enough income to buy groceries, use public transit, purchase household items and pay property taxes through their rent.

All told, Shartal estimates, the savings would be $101,894,750 a year.

But the real benefit is that the proposal would bring stability to Torontonians with debilitating mental conditions. Community agencies would know where to find them to ensure their rent was paid, they were eating properly, taking their medications and not sinking into isolation and despair.

To a right-wing ideologue any scheme that requires a small investment for a large saving is a non-starter. But if Ford is genuinely interested in innovative ideas — the kind he won’t hear from consultants or bureaucrats — he’ll at least get his budget advisers to check out this one.

Assuming Shartal’s estimate is in the right ballpark, it would move the mayor much closer to his goal of balancing next year’s city budget than closing libraries ($13 million), cancelling funding for AIDS prevention ($1.6 million) or eliminating student nutrition programs ($3.8 million). It would make more financial sense than selling off money-making assets such as parking lots. And it would demonstrate that Ford is smarter than his critics think.

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