Here’s how Ontarians on ODSP are trying to make ends meet

Posted on May 19, 2024 in Inclusion Delivery System

Source: — Authors: – Article
May 16, 2024.   Written by Brennan Doherty

Precarious work. Restricted food. Homelessness. There’s now a bit more money from government — but for ODSP recipients, it’s not nearly enough.

Sahib Teymurov, a 54-year-old Barrie resident, was a children’s-rights advocate and the head of a local NGO in his homeland of Azerbaijan. This put him at odds with Azerbaijan’s government, one described by PEN International and other human-rights organizations as authoritarian and opposed to dissent.

In 2007, Teymurov, who is described by various human-rights’ organizations as a defender of children’s rights, was arrested on what he says were false charges. He was severely tortured while in custody, he says, and was released thanks to the pressure of international human-rights organizations. Teymurov and his family managed to flee and obtain asylum in Canada in 2017. But the 54-year-old is now disabled and must support himself, his wife, and his three children on monthly payments of $2,100 from the Ontario Disability Support Program.

Beyond polite greetings, Teymurov does not speak English. Albina Teymurova, his wife, who translated for him in an interview from their Barrie home, says he would not be able to work at a factory or take another menial job in Canada: he is missing his right hand and suffers chronic pain, as well as depression. His inability to support his family has taken its toll on his mental health.

“He’s sad all day,” says Teymurova, who does housework and takes their nine-year-old daughter to school. “He looks really sad because he can’t do anything for his family right now. I don’t know how I can help him.”

Paying all of life’s expenses on just $2,100 a month was impossible. So, last April, he decided to work as an Uber driver to make extra money. Disabled Ontarians are legally allowed to work on the program, but if they earn more than $1,000 a month, 75 per cent of anything above that is clawed back from their benefits. And for most of the roughly 500,000 disabled Ontarians and their families who depend on ODSP to survive, working consistently simply isn’t an option.

But the low social-assistance rates in Ontario, which amount to a maximum of $1,308 per month for a single person on ODSP, or $733 a month for a single person on Ontario Works, are forcing recipients to earn money however they can. Living in what disability activists frequently refer to as “legislated poverty,” these recipients often drain their savings, borrow money from friends and family, or even consider taking their own lives.

Programs like the recently unveiled Canada Disability Benefit, or even the Ontario government’s decision to index ODSP to inflation, not only don’t keep pace with the past few years of inflation — they barely address decades of stagnant earnings.

Costs keep rising

For the Ontario government, helping financially stressed Ontarians in their latest budget involved freezing renewal fees for driver’s licences, removing certain mandatory auto-insurance requirements, and extending a 2019 freeze on tuition fee increases for at least the next three years. Trevor Manson, a disability-benefits recipient and co-chair of the ODSP Action Committee, pointed out that this budget basically ignored the plight of some of Ontario’s poorest people.

Inflation may be slowing down, but prices haven’t meaningfully dropped on basic expenses. In March alone, rents rose by 8.5 per cent across Canada compared to 2023, according to data. Food costs rose by 1.9 per centthe Canada Food Price Report, an academic study published annually by four leading Canadian universities, notes that roughly 2 million Canadians used food banks in 2023 alone. Transportation costs, which include public transit, rose by 3 per cent year over year. Gasoline costs were up 4.5 per cent.

Cutting back on some of these expenses can condemn disabled people to a cruel spiral of worsening symptoms. Bob Murphy, a 66-year-old disability advocate and past ODSP recipient, explains that he and others rely on “belly fillers” such as cheap potatoes, rice, and processed food to stay fed. But paying the rent is the single biggest priority, and a renter can’t just cut back on their rent as they may be able to with a grocery bill. “When all of your money goes toward housing, your nutrition suffers,” he says. “When your nutrition suffers, you suffer mentally and physically.”

Manson says low social-assistance rates are contributing to Ontario’s homelessness crisis. “People that are in houses are just praying that they don’t get evicted, because it’s so hard to find anywhere to live for $1,300,” Manson says. In fact, he points out, the ODSP shelter allowance, which covers rent and other living expenses, is just $556 for a single recipient. “Even the dingiest rooming houses on the outskirts of Scarborough — for a shared room, you’re talking $600.”

In Barrie, Teymurov pays about $2,700 in rent. He also pays $650 a month in utilities. “Since the social situation of our family was difficult, I could not buy food to feed my children properly,” he wrote in an email using Google Translate. His family receives the Canada Child Benefit on top of his ODSP payments, but all of these sources combined aren’t enough to cover his living expenses. “I was very upset that the amount paid to us by the authorities did not allow our family to live at an average level,” he wrote. In order to buy a car to drive for Uber, Teymurov had to borrow money from friends.

The constant threat of homelessness has been a problem for disability-benefits recipients for a very long time. As far back as 2006, a social-service agency in Toronto found that all of the 85 homeless clients they surveyed met the criteria for ODSP or OW, although they were not capable of applying for the program due to their disabilities or structural issues with the application process itself. Five of those clients died before they were able to get the benefits they needed.

Not much has changed. In fact, as former social-assistance worker John Stapleton noted in Toronto Star column in January, the average ODSP or OW earner brings in $200 less every month in real dollars than they did in the late 1990s, when then-Ontario premier Mike Harris slashed social-assistance rates by 21 per cent.

While the Ontario government did hike ODSP rates last July by 6.5 per cent in response to inflation and quadrupled the earnings exemption for ODSP recipients, it is not nearly enough to make a difference. “When you consider that the amount it’s based on is already well below the poverty line,” Manson says, “that means any inflationary increases going forward are still going to leave people in legislated poverty.”

“I didn’t have a choice”

Amid low rates, those disabled Ontarians on social assistance who are able to often turn to other ways of earning money. After suffering a traumatic brain injury in 2011, Murphy was could barely string a sentence together in the beginning, he says. He was eventually forced to quit his 20-year career as a courier and a union representative. To this day, he struggles with numbness in his hands and feet from nerve damage, as well as headaches and fatigue.

While receiving ODSP, Murphy ended up working part-time at a farmers’ market and as an outreach worker to supplement his meager income. He also volunteered at a food bank, a position that gave him free meals depending on the shift he worked. The reason he doesn’t work either job today is that his pension kicked in when he turned 65. “I was forced to do it because I didn’t have a choice,” Murphy says, adding that even if he risked injury by falling, a major issue thanks to his brain injury, the risk was necessary.

Manson estimates that around 10 per cent of all ODSP recipients earn employment income, a figure confirmed in an email by the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services. That takes all kinds of forms: for someone with an unpredictable physical disability like multiple sclerosis, a good day might allow them to drive a moving truck for some additional cash. Others might work in the gig economy, as Teymurov does, or even run a side hustle of their own.

Many of these jobs are, quite simply, worse than those held by non-disabled workers.

According to the Institute for Work & Health, Canadians with disabilities are two and a half times more likely than non-disabled workers to be precariously employed. The Institute also found that temporary and part-time employment, job insecurity, gig work, and wage theft are also more prevalent among disabled workers. These jobs can also exacerbate a disabled worker’s existing physical or mental-health conditions. “A lot of individuals with disabilities are working jobs that they should never be doing,” Murphy says. “But they have to because they have to eat.”

The details on exactly how many ODSP recipients work are fuzzy, Manson admits, because ODSP recipients are wary of drawing too much attention to their finances. “They just want to keep their heads down and hope they don’t get singled out for an audit or medical review,” he says. The results of either one could lead to a benefits administrator kicking someone off the program, even if they still need support.

Stapleton points out that Ontarians unable to work have access to other programs besides ODSP and OW, including EI sickness benefits, CPP disability benefits, workers compensation, benefits programs for Canadian Forces members, and myriad private workplace-disability programs Stapleton describes as “quite significant.”

The trouble, Stapleton says, is that none of these programs was designed to work together. “They all confiscate from each other; they all offset each other,” he says. “If one pays, the other one’s going to try to figure out a way to not pay.”

Disabled advocates have long pushed for a more comprehensive benefit that would get rid of the bureaucratic quagmire of Canada’s various social-assistance programs. In September 2020, the federal government announced it would launch a Canada Disability Benefit to do just that.

Michelle Hewitt, chair of Disability Without Poverty, in 2021 put out a list of boxes such a benefit should check. Among them: no clawbacks from other social-assistance programs, an easy-to-access application progress, and generous earnings exemption to allow disabled people to keep the money they earn. Above all, it should provide disabled people with an annual income that actually cleared Canada’s official poverty line.

In conversation with National Chair Michelle Hewitt at Disability Without Poverty

Disability advocates have largely panned the benefit included in the federal government’s April 2024 budget: through a $6.1 billion commitment over its first five years, the Canada Disability Benefit provides, at most, $200 a month per person, starting in July 2025. “Some Canadians with disabilities will be able to access a bit more money,” Hewitt said in an April statement, “but they will not find themselves to the poverty line.”

Precarious income

For many disabled Ontarians, the inadequacy of social assistance and the difficulties they face in holding a good job makes it difficult to live decently — and some are considering ending their lives. The federal government’s Medical Assistance in Dying program is an increasingly common topic of conversation. “Many people have given up because they’ve deteriorated so much, because they’re just not able to take care of themselves,” Murphy says.

Others are trying to earn money however they can. Teymurov drove for Uber throughout last year, completing close to 2,000 rides. However, he constantly fought against what he and his wife described as discrimination. Passengers interpreted his relative silence as rudeness. Some would ask about his prosthetic arm, a topic of conversation that made him uncomfortable. Others would demand he drive faster. When he refused, or simply didn’t reply in English, Teymurov says passengers yelled at him, slammed his car’s doors, and left bad reviews.

Agenda segment, September 23, 2022: Getting by on social assistance in Ontario

Teymurov’s daughter, Chelsea Teymurova, called Uber and told them about this behaviour, but he continued to face bad reviews. In February, Teymurov says, he received another bad review from a couple who insisted on drinking in his car. They complained to Uber, and he told the company about the issue. Within a few hours, Uber deactivated his account. In response to questions from TVO Today, an Uber Canada spokesperson claimed Teymurov’s account was deactivated after several safety reports, including “verbal altercations” and “dangerous driving.” Teymurov described these claims as false.

Since then, Teymurov has languished at home. He’s considering suing Uber for removing him from the platform. To him, the situation is nonsensical. “How could a human rights defender, who arrested and tortured by a dictatorial regime because I and my family defended the rights of children, become rude to two young children who were passengers on the Uber platform,” he wrote in a text via Google Translate.

He wants to be able to work again and provide for his family. At the moment, he is unable to pay the $400 a month for the car insurance he bought with the help of his friends to earn extra income, and he isn’t sure how he’ll cover his other expenses. “I am very worried that if I cannot pay rent and utilities, the owner will evict me from the apartment,” he wrote. “And my family is very worried about buying food to feed my children.”

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