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Poor using food money to pay rent

Ottawa Citizen - February 11, 2002
by David Reevely

The shelter allowance for welfare recipients is so low they often have to use food money to pay rent, the City of Ottawa's poverty advisory committee says.

The Ontario government hasn't raised social assistance rates since cutting them by nearly 22 per cent in 1995, although the cost of living has risen 13 per cent. The shelter allowance varies by the size of the household, but for a single person it's $325 a month.

"If your shelter costs are over the max, you're obviously dipping into the other side," Linda Lalonde, the co-chairwoman of the committee, said yesterday.

The "other side" is the province's basic-needs allowance, which is $195 a month for a single person.

She was talking to the city's health, recreation, and social services committee, whose members voted to have their staff collect evidence of the problem and submit it for the provincial government's budget consultations.

The average rent for a one-bedroom apartment is $762 a month, according to the city. A single parent with one child is entitled to a maximum of $511 for shelter each month.

Never having enough money to pay the rent puts Ontario Works recipients into a cycle of evictions and higher rents, several other poverty activists at the meeting said.

"I'm not going to be one to tell folks how to spend their welfare cheques," said Social Services Minister John Baird in an interview. "I wouldn't characterize the life as an easy one."

But, Mr. Baird said, the point of Ontario Works is to help people get jobs, not to support them indefinitely.

"And we have to be realistic as to what taxpayers can afford," he said.

People who get money from the Ontario Disability Support Program, whose payments also haven't risen since 1995, are having the same problem, councillors at the meeting heard.

According to the city's numbers from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, average rents have climbed 20 per cent since 1995.

"Things are worse than the CMHC would have us believe," said Lynn Hamilton, a woman with two university degrees who relies on provincial assistance because she suffers from manic depression.

The provincial government has deregulated the rents landlords can charge when apartments change tenants, but limits increases when they're continuously occupied. Ms. Hamilton said that means rents on available apartments are much higher than the average.

"If you've been in the hospital for an extended period, when you come out, you've probably lost your job and your housing," said Sonja Cronkhite, representing self-described "psychiatric survivors."

"Each time this happens to you, you have to find a new place to live," she said. "So you go through the cycle again."

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