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Women and trans groups call for the Ontario government to cancel cuts to Community Start-up benefit

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Anti-poverty and anti-violence against women groups plus their allies rallied outside the Ontario Women’s Directorate offices on Friday, demanding the government reverse the proposed cuts to the Community Start-up and Maintenance Benefit (CSUMB) and raise social assistance rates. 

“The cut to the Community Start-up and Maintenance Benefit has a particular impact on people on Ontario Works (OW) and the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) who are trying to access much needed housing,” said Anna Willats, one of the organizers of Friday’s rally.

“This benefit was something to help people pay first and last month’s rent, get furniture and change the locks if they need to. All sorts of stuff.”

They came to the corner of Bay and College Streets because it’s the home of the Ontario Women’s Directorate offices and they expect the Minister Responsible for Women’s Issues, Laurel Broten, “to stand up for the rights of vulnerable women, trans people and children in Ontario.”

The rally was purposely sandwiched in between National Housing Day and the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.

In Ontario, November has been proclaimed Woman Abuse Prevention Month. And for women experiencing violence, securing safe, affordable housing helps them break the cycle.

“We will not accept their cuts to funding and benefits that women and their kids rely on to be able to escape violence,” said Willats.

On January 1, 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.

“We’re pretty concerned about these cuts and what they’re doing to women who’ve experienced violence,” said Susan Young, Director, Ontario Association of Interval and Transition Houses.

Cuts of $67 million to the CSUMB.

“If women have to choose between going homeless or going back to a violent situation, that choice is not fair.”

The CSUMB provides $799 for a single person and $1500 for an adult with children. It’s available every two years, sooner in “exceptional” circumstances.

“It’s supposed to be a cushion in the event of an emergency,” said Norma Jean, and OCAP member who lives in the east end of downtown Toronto. 

“Mind you, when a woman is struggling to survive on the miserable rates OW and ODSP dole out, pretty much everything is an emergency.”

But at least the CSUMB gives women some hope of beginning a new life or not falling deeper between the cracks.

Years ago, Angela Nolan had a promising and extremely lucrative career as a financial analyst with a Bay Street firm. Never in a million years did she think she’d end up on social assistance.

But that was before she suffered a severe stroke. After months of rehabilitation, she recovered but never to the point that she was able to resume her career.

Forced into “retirement” at 41-years-old, she was in desperate need of financial support and applied for ODSP. 

Then in 2007 at age 50, she fell into arrears for non-payment of hydro bills. Owing $475 for the last three months, her hydro service was cut off in February. 

With no savings, no line of credit and no one to borrow from, she “agonized over her situation for a week in a cold, dark apartment.”

A friend suggested she get in touch with her ODSP worker about obtaining some money from the CSUMB.

“I practically had to give her a drop of my blood to prove who I was,” said Nolan. 

Nolan was finally approved for the CSUMB, but the payment went directly to Toronto Hydro.

Similarly, when Silke Haller lost her job two years ago after the agency she worked for suffered funding cuts, she was forced back on to ODSP.

Moving to a smaller apartment, the CSUMB gave her the much needed money for a last month’s rent, without which she would have probably ended up on the street.

For women coming out of prison, said Haller, things can be even tougher.

Without money or community supports and being further marginalized because they were in jail, Haller said, “People leaving jail will just end up back in jail because they have no hope and what else are they going to do.”

Before marching from 777 Bay Street to the Ontario government buildings at 900 Bay Street to deliver a letter demanding Ministers Broten, Milloy, Chiarelli and Duncan reinstate the $67 million in cuts to the CSUMB, ensure a mandatory appeal process is included for those denied and build an accountability framework that includes recognition of First Nations, CUPE local 4308 president Kelly O’Sullivan stepped up to the microphone to share her personal story.

During the Harris years, O’Sullivan was a single mother on welfare.

“We were demonized in the media,” said O’Sullivan.

“I used to hang my head in shame because I was a welfare mum. Because they made us feel that way. They targeted us.”

O’Sullivan said, “Anyone who is poor or working class is a target of the austerity agenda. Somehow this is all our fault. Somehow they tend to blame us for this deficit and austerity.”

The problem, said O’Sullivan, is with corporations that make billions in profits and aren’t paying their fair share of taxes.

And CEO’s that are making almost 200 times more than the typical Canadian worker.

“We are not the problem,” said O’Sullivan. 

“The system is the problem and we’re going to challenge that. Because the cuts can happen at the top. Not (for) those of us that are struggling to survive at the bottom.” 

At 900 Bay Street, a line of bike police blocked the entrance to the building, which was placed on lockdown. A delegation of women tried unsuccessfully to negotiate with security to allow them to go upstairs and present their demands to Minister Broten.

“We present no threat,” said Anna Willats. “The threat is on the t-shirts that you are carrying out here.”

Several women carried t-shirts hung on make-shift crosses bearing the names of women and children who’ve died as a result of violence. Each t-shirt had at least a dozen names printed on it for every year since 1993.

If the cut to the CSUMB isn’t reversed, they’re afraid one t-shirt won’t be enough for all the names in 2013.

“I’m deeply disappointed that a government that talks about the well-being of all Ontarians seems to find it so simple to cut those who are so vulnerable from their basic needs so they can end up on the street,” said Josephine Grey, human rights activist and educator.

“And then act as if it’s not happening. And not even have the guts to meet with the people affected.”

As it is, social assistance rates are pitifully low. This fall, social assistance rates rose by a meagre 1 per cent. 

Starting in December, a single person on OW will receive $606 per month. In November, ODSP recipients saw their benefits rise to $1075 per month.

Daniella Mergarten lost her home after 35 years of being safely housed. At 54 years old, she was given notice when a real estate agent bought the house where she was renting an apartment.

In the middle of winter, she was forced to find new accommodations. 

“And I am now living with silverfish, ants, spiders and mice,” said Mergarten, who pays $800 a month for a basement apartment with no windows.

That’s why women came to Minister Broten’s office on Friday. So she could listen to women’s concerns and receive a list of their demands.

“And what we’ve been told from the cops here today is that we’re not allowed to go inside this building,” said Liisa Schofield, an organizer with OCAP.

But a man clad in blue jeans and a short-sleeved golf shirt came down from the Ministry to receive the letter from Susan Young of the Ontario Association of Interval and Transition Houses.

“A delegation of women here are deeply concerned about the cuts that are being done to the CSUMB,” said Young, addressing her remarks to the Ministry representative.

Unfortunately, he wouldn’t stick around to listen to women speak about how the cut would affect them personally.

“So we’ve just seen evidence of our provincial government’s strategy to end poverty and to address violence against women,” said Anna Willats. 

“Are we impressed?”

“No,” shouted the protesters.

But there are other ways to reach out to John Milloy, Minister of Community and Social Services.

“You can call the Minister at 1-888-789-4199 to tell him that you’re against the cuts to CSUMB, Special Diet Allowance, OW and ODSP rates and to the Child Benefit, which was supposed to be increased in January and is going to be delayed for another year” said Willats. 

“These actions by the government are going to deepen women’s poverty and deepen women’s vulnerability to violence.”

Mary Milne and Emma Frees, from the Bread & Bricks Davenport West Social Justice Group, were part of the delegation that was supposed to go upstairs and meet with Minister Broten.

“There are many of us that are not here today due to the never-ending challenges of trying to stay alive,” said Frees.

“The cut to the CSUMB will affect their families and set them up for chaos.”

Bread and Bricks is a local group that brings together community members and agency partners to take action on issues of poverty and other social, political, environmental and economic injustices.

“We see people coming into our office all the time, suffering under horrific landlords,” said Milne, a founding member of Bread and Bricks.

“They desperately need to move but they can’t do it if they don’t get start-up.”

Others need to get new furniture because of a bed bug infestation. Or need new things for their children. 

But they can’t obtain them without the CSUMB. 

“It’s an absolute sin that they’re cutting it when there’s such a profound need for it,” said Milne.

Knowing what a lifeline the CSUMB has been for so many women, Cheryl Lindsay is astonished that the Liberal government would even think about making cuts to the benefit.

“We know it will have a devastating impact to women leaving prisons, leaving shelters, living in substandard and inadequate housing who can’t access the CSUMB for infestation and other kinds of emergencies,” said Lindsay, executive director, Sistering.

“How many more deaths will occur as a result of this?”

Women and trans groups made it clear on Friday that their action was only part of an Ontario wide campaign that will not cease until the cut to CSUMB is reversed.

Across Ontario, communities will be organizing a week of actions, starting December 7.

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