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She called it the darkest period in her life.
A series of traumatic events that left Zoe Dodd unemployed, precariously housed and without savings.
As the situation became more desperate, Dodd had lingering thoughts about suicide until she applied for social assistance benefits.
“Going on social assistance saved my life,” she said. “Though trying to survive on $500 (a month) was incredibly hard.”
Most of the money went towards paying her rent. By the end of the first week of the month she was penniless.
She’d go days without food, unable to afford public transit. She felt isolated and depressed, unable to find a job.
“I needed help but there was nowhere to turn to,” she said. “Living in poverty was taking a serious toll on my mental health and my overall well-being.”
Luckily, she gained access to a fund that helped her get out from under, helped her get her life back on track.
“And one that I’m still living, thankfully,” said Dodd, now a frontline worker in the Downtown Eastside for nearly a decade.
The Community Start Up and Maintenance Benefit (CSUMB) helps 16,000 social assistance recipients a month across Ontario pay first and last month’s rent, replace beg bug infested furniture, escape domestic violence situations or catch up on overdue hydro bills.
The CSUMB currently provides $799 for a single person and $1500 for an adult with children. It’s available every two years, sooner in “exceptional” circumstances.
But on January 1, the provincial Liberal government is cutting $67 million from the CSUMB.
Under the proposed changes, half of the CSUMB will go to municipal housing and homelessness programs that serve an even larger pool of low income people. The other half has been eliminated from the budget.
On Thursday evening, Dodd joined the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) and their allies to camp overnight outside Glen Murray’s constituency office on Parliament Street just north of Carlton.
Murray is the Liberal MPP for Toronto Centre which includes the Downtown Eastside, one of the poorest neighborhoods in Canada with a high concentration of homelessness.
(Midway through the rally speeches Murray appeared at the rally and is the only Liberal MPP to openly declare his support for continued funding for the CSUMB.)
Shortly after 6 pm, thirty people had already gathered in front of Murray’s constituency office, nestled in between an LCBO outlet and the upscale St. Jamestown Steak and Chops shop in Old Cabbagetown.
A relatively mild evening for almost mid-December, pedestrians weaved their through the crowded sidewalk at the corner of Parliament and Winchester, making their way home from work.
Because they’re blessed with a safe, permanent home to go to, they have no idea what devastating effects the cuts to the CSUMB will have on poor and homeless people.
The crowd, now spilling over into the curbside lane going south on Parliament Street, had a clear message: Stop the CSUMB cut and raise social assistance rates.
Prior to the start of the rally, protesters feasted upon homemade chili and freshly baked bread.
The rally and sleep out was part of an entire week of actions across Ontario against the cut to the CSUMB.
On Thursday, other actions took place in Windsor, Kingston, Ottawa, Peel Region, Sault Ste Marie and Toronto.
“This fight against the cut to Community Start Up is not some symbolic gesture,” said John Clarke, an OCAP organizer.
“We are not trying to raise a moral protest against something that is inevitable and can’t be stopped. If they proceed with the cut, it will be a signal to increase the level of mobilization and fight them harder.”
Because if the cut to CSUMB happens, said Clarke, “In this very neighbourhood, little children will have to sleep on bare floors because they don’t have beds and bedding. They will lock women in domestic violence situations that they cannot escape from.”
Clarke promised to mobilize large numbers of people across Ontario who are affected by the cut and confront the government, beginning at the Liberal leadership convention taking place in Toronto at the end of January.
On Thursday evening, nearly 50 people used the sidewalk in front of Murray’s constituency office for a mattress, including Sid Ryan, the president of the Ontario Federation of Labour.
“Poverty is increasing at a massive level in this province when compared to other provinces,” said Ryan.
“We were the gold standard in this province only 15 years ago and today we are rock bottom when it comes to the per capita spending on social programs, on social housing, on education, on health care and poverty issues. And this didn’t just happen by chance.”
All part of a carefully orchestrated plan to eliminate the provincial deficit.
“Well we do have other choices,” said Ryan.
Such as collecting $1.4 billion in uncollected corporate taxes.
“Because we’re sick and tired of the excesses taking place in this province. Billions of dollars being shoveled into corporations.”
While asking the poor and homeless to shoulder cuts in social programs.
For two years, Eva Scott, now a community peer support worker at Sistering, was homeless and living on the streets.
“It was scary at some points,” said Scott. “Who’s going to watch you sleep while you’re by yourself in one spot?”
Scott has been living in a market rent apartment for the last three years, waiting for an affordable housing unit to become available.
But that’s not likely to come any time soon.
In November, the affordable housing wait list jumped again to 87,638 households.
“The November numbers are up a staggering 27% in one year from 2011 and up 69% since the start of the recession in September of 2008,” said Michael Shapcott, Director, Housing and Innovation at the Wellesley Institute in Toronto, in his December 12 article posted online.
“Toronto Housing Connections reports that the number of households with urgent housing needs (such as women seeking to flee violence and people who are homeless) has jumped by 17% over the past year from 228 in November 2011 to 267 in November of 2012.
“The number of seniors’ households on the list grew by 24% over the past year to 25,591 in November of 2012.”