Anti-poverty activists fight to save housing benefit
By Carol Goar, Toronto Star, October 9, 2012
Every couple of years, governments are seized by an urge to tidy things up.
Anti-poverty activists dread these binges. Experience has taught them that consolidating, rationalizing and reorganizing are usually code words for cost-cutting. When the whirlwind ends, low-income people are invariably worse off.
Dwight Duncan went on one of these housecleaning sprees in his March budget. He swept up all the government’s housing support programs and rolled them into one Homelessness Prevention Initiative.
Initially most social agencies were too overwhelmed by Duncan’s cutback-laden budget – or too confused by his rhetoric – to sound the alarm. But by midsummer, they were picking up distress signals. Their clients told them the community start-up and maintenance benefit (CSUMB) would be cut off at the end of 2012.
For 20 years, this program has served as a lifeline for people at risk of homelessness. It’s an emergency allowance, available every two years, worth a maximum of $799. It enables the homeless to move into an apartment. It helps low-income tenants who can’t pay their utility bill keep the lights on; job applicants buy suitable clothes; families fumigate bedbug-infested apartments; and people facing eviction pay their rent arrears.
According to Naomi Berlyne of Houselink, it keeps a roof over hundreds of heads every year. “Without it, we’re going to have a disaster on our hands.”
She and Helen Armstrong of St. Stephen’s Community House persuaded a few of their clients to talk about the benefit.
Johnny Smash — who uses a pseudonym because of his criminal record — spent most of his life bouncing between jail and the streets. “The first thing you do when you get out is find a 24-hour bus and sleep on it,” he said.
The second thing he did was seek help. A worker at a drop-in centre showed him how to apply for CSUMB. “It helped me tremendously. I had a no shelter, no money, no credit rating. But when I could present a landlord with my first and last month’s rent, I had enough leverage to get an apartment.”
Five years later, he’s still in that apartment. He is now a certified commercial glazier. He has a fixed address, a few pieces of furniture and most importantly, the stability to keep his life on track.
“I come from a criminal background. How would I ever have reintegrated into society without the community start-up benefit?”
Smash is helping to spearhead a campaign, initiated by people on social assistance at the Corner Drop-in at St. Stephen’s, to save the benefit.
Ken MacLeod tells his story more quietly. He has a painful form of diabetes that makes it feel as if pins and needles are shooting up his legs all the time. He lived with his parents until they could no longer take care of him.
Houselink found him an apartment, but he couldn’t afford to move and his elderly parents couldn’t help.
Berlyne helped him apply for CSUMB. “Otherwise, I would have been trapped,” he said.
Esther Mwangi has used the benefit twice. The first time she applied she was moving from a furnished unit in supportive community housing into a bachelor apartment in a co-op. She had nothing but her monthly disability cheque. The $799 allowed her to rent a van, buy a bed and dishes and clothes for the job she’d just gotten. The second time, she moved into a one-bedroom apartment in the same building. The benefit allowed her to buy a table and a sofa.
“Without it, I wouldn’t have been able to move beyond my problems.”
Across the province, low-income people are organizing. The St. Stephen’s group has collected 1,200 names on a petition to reverse the elimination of the benefit. Signatures are still pouring in from drop-in centres in Sudbury, Hamilton, Kitchener, North Bay and other communities.
Churches are speaking out. The New Democratic Party has taken up the cause. Municipalities are warning they can’t replicate the benefit with half the money the program had in the past.
Anti-poverty activists know they don’t have much time. They hope the province’s Commission for the Review of Social Assistance will side with them next week in its final report. Whatever happens, they vow to fight right up to the deadline.