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A good time to focus on the poor

Toronto Star - September 5, 2003
by Tanya Gulliver

On the first day of school, the City of Toronto released its 2003 Housing and Homelessness Report Card reporting on the changes and progress since the Mayor's Homelessness Action Task Force produced its initial report in 1999. At almost the same moment, the Premier of Ontario called a provincial election for October 2.

Given the state of the homelessness disaster in Toronto and the growing problems of income security, housing and homelessness across Ontario, it is only logical that this issue should receive significant attention in the upcoming month of election debate.

Yet, issues that affect poor and marginalized communities in Ontario rarely receive the attention they deserve from voters and political candidates who prefer to focus on the economy, employment and tax cuts.

The report card found that a quarter of Toronto's population live in poverty despite strong economic gains, rents have risen 31 per cent between 1997 and 2002 and the waiting list for social housing stands at 71,000 households.

All levels of government need to take action in order for change to occur.

The city's report card suggests that the province act in six areas:

  • Cost-share the federal affordable housing program with real provincial dollars.

    In 1995, the Harris-Eves government cancelled 17,000 units of affordable housing approved for development, which would have housed 40,000 people (31,985 different people stayed in Toronto's shelters last year, including 4,779 children). Only $20 million is pledged over the next five years for new housing despite a promise from the province to match federal funds of $245 million. This is only 8 per cent of Ontario's share.

  • Help low-income households pay the rent through a program of new rent supplements.

    Rent supplements allow low-income individuals to receive financial assistance, preventing them from becoming homeless due to eviction for non-payment of rent. Rent supplements are cheaper than paying for stays in emergency shelters, and an individual's dignity is maintained.

  • Increase the shelter benefit for people receiving social assistance.

    A single mom of two children receives only $554 toward shelter from Ontario Works (welfare). This is a little more than half of the average rent in Toronto of $1,055 for a two-bedroom apartment. While she receives an additional $532 for living expenses, the low shelter benefit means that she must use all but $31 to meet the rent payment. How can she afford to pay the rent and feed the kids?

  • Help people to pay their housing costs by raising the minimum wage.

    People receiving social assistance are often told to "get a job." With the minimum wage frozen at $6.85 for the past eight years, the single mom in the scenario above ends up further behind with the added costs of work clothes, transit and child care. Minimum wage must be raised to $10 an hour to help people survive.

  • Fund new supportive housing for tenants with special and supportive needs.

    Increased income and affordable housing aren't enough for some people who have additional support needs. This includes those with serious mental health or addiction issues, young parents, women fleeing abusive relationships, people who have been homeless for many years and people living with HIV/AIDS.

    Only 1,000 supportive housing units have been funded in the province over the past three years, despite a recommendation from the Mayor's Homelessness Action Task Force that recommended 1,000 units per year.

  • Provide capital funding for social housing repair and revitalization.

    The province downloaded responsibility for social housing onto the city without giving it the means to pay for the costs of maintaining and repairing housing stock, which is often old and in vital need of repairs.

    The residents of Regent Park recently completed a lengthy research process, which has created a plan for moving ahead with the revitalization of the housing. Home to nearly 7,500 people and more than 2,000 units of housing, this project will require investment from all levels of government to successfully redevelop the community. Other areas of the city are also in desperate need of repair.

As the candidates in your riding come knocking on your door, ask them what they plan to do to help improve the lives of the homeless, people receiving welfare and the working poor. Read, listen and learn about the issues and the stances of various parties — and then get out and vote.

Tanya Gulliver is a past member of the Star's community editorial board.

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