Two days after Dalton McGuinty resigned as leader of the Ontario Liberal party and suspended the legislature, the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) continued their campaign to stop the elimination of the Community Start-Up and Maintenance benefit (CSUMB).

“McGuinty has resigned, but make no mistake, the Liberal anti-poor policies continue,” said OCAP in a press release issued Tuesday. 

“This recent turn of events does not mean that the cut to Community Start-Up will be stopped. We have to continue our campaign under the assumption that the CSUMB cut will come in to effect this coming January which is why we need to keep up the pressure to stop this cut and to raise the rates.”

In the last provincial budget, the Liberals announced that effective January 1, 2013, the CSUMB would be terminated and removed from Ontario Works (OW) and the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP). 

CSUMB is currently a mandatory benefit issued to OW and ODSP clients to help with the costs of establishing a new principal residence, preventing eviction or discontinuance of utilities, or maintaining a new residence.

The maximum amount is $1500 for a benefit unit with one or more dependent children and $799 in all other cases (within a 24 month period) unless there are exceptional circumstances.

On Wednesday, OCAP members and supporters organized a walk-in clinic at the Church of the Holy Trinity to help people apply for the CSUMB so as many as possible could receive the benefit before the January 1 cutoff.

The clinic was also designed to help raise awareness of how vital the benefit is for those on social assistance.

“We’re talking about a benefit that’s already a meagre amount in comparison to what they need,” said Liisa Schofield, an organizer with OCAP.

The City of Toronto doesn’t have an application form for the CSUMB so OCAP created their own. Typically, social assistance recipients will approach their case workers and tell them they need the benefit.

OCAP’s application is based upon the existing legislation and attempts to make the process easier and more transparent. 

Social assistance recipients used to be able to apply every 12 months before the McGuinty Liberals increased that to two years. But if they didn’t get the full amount they can apply sooner for the remaining benefit.

Under exceptional circumstances, such as fleeing an abusive relationship, a situation that affects your health or personal safety or newly homeless again after a brief period of being housed, a person can also apply for the benefit sooner.

Yesterday, Schofield spoke to a woman on the telephone who recently moved to Toronto from British Columbia with her child in order to escape an abusive relationship.

“They had nothing but the clothes on their back,” said Schofield. “And she was having problems getting community start-up even though they were sleeping on blankets in a basement apartment.”

The OCAP clinic began at 10 am on Wednesday morning and lasted for two hours. The morning of The International Day for the Eradication of Poverty, which has been observed every year since 1993.

Inside the dimly lit church sanctuary, there were six tables with two applicants seated at each table directly across from a volunteer helping them fill out the OCAP CSUMB form.

Another dozen hopefuls sat in the pews waiting their turn.

Wednesday’s action wasn’t just about helping social assistance recipients apply for the CSUMB. OCAP renewed its call to raise social assistance rates by 60 per cent. When the Liberals came to power in 2003, OCAP was calling for an increase of 40 per cent.

But the government has done little to increase social assistance rates in the last nine years, making it next to impossible for people like Margarita Navarro to exist solely on monthly OW or ODSP benefits.

For Navarro, the CSUMB means she will be able to replace some of the bed bug infested furniture in her subsidized two-bedroom apartment she shares with her son. She received the benefit a few years ago but it wasn’t enough. 

Even now, the benefit won’t be enough to cover the cost of replacing everything.

OCAP organizer John Clarke predicted that the elimination of the CSUMB will push many people on the verge of being homeless into homelessness.

Others, he said, will live in households without the basic necessities, fall into rent arrears, or be forced to live in abusive relationships.

“People are going to die as a result of this cut,” he said. “Lives are going to be shortened and people’s health is going to be wrecked.”

Of all the social cutbacks OCAP had ever dealt with, Clarke said this one will be the most damaging to those in vulnerable situations.

But it’s also caused more people to stand up and challenge what the government’s doing.

“That’s the sense that we’re getting,” he said. “If the strategy was to sneak this through quietly, it’s not going to work.”

On July 24, the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing (MMAH) announced the The Community Homelessness Prevention Initiative (CHPI), a $246 million initiative that consolidates and replaces five provincial homelessness funding programs.

But the provincial investment in CHPI includes an amount which equals 50 per cent of the current provincial expenditure under CSUMB.

“Nobody knows exactly what the plans are,” said Clarke. “This money is supposed to be given down to municipalities to be used in a variety of ways.”

What concerns Clarke most though is that the CSUMB will no longer be an exclusively social assistance benefit.

“It’s going to be spread out on a wider basis to a greater number of people,” he said. 

Which means even less money for the neediest.

At noon, people gathered at City Hall for a rally (and a great meal prepared by a group of dedicated volunteers) before marching up Bay Street to deliver the completed applications for the CSUMB to the Ministry of Community and Social Services.

“In the Downtown East End there are more homeless than housed trying to survive,” said Norma Jean, a Downtown East End resident and OCAP member.

“Barely existing is more accurate. The allotment that OW and ODSP dole out, it’s closer to a death sentence. The Community Start-Up money is the only ray of hope there is.”

The only chance of obtaining housing that might bring some stability to an otherwise chaotic life.

“By stabilizing your life, you might have a fighting chance to get mentally and physically healthy,” she said. “And maybe live a better life than the one you had before you landed down there in the first place.”

But without the benefit, there won’t be any start. No money to replace bed-bug infested furniture. No money for last month’s rent.

“You’ll be forced to go scavenging in dumpsters for goods,” said Norma Jean. “And I see it every day.”

She also catches a glimpse of what those who don’t live or work in the community can’t recognize. The depression. The instability. The insanity.

Yet in spite of it all, she’s laid eyes on the strongest people she’s ever met in her life.

But to those sleeping in cozy beds inside comfortable homes, enjoying elegant meals, dressing in expensive clothes and conspicuously consuming on sudden whims and desires rather than real purpose, Norma Jean has a message.

“Switch places with one person in this community for one day,” she said. 

“And you would learn in a hurry that you can’t pay down a deficit off the backs of starving, homeless, disabled, indigenous, disadvantaged human beings.”

John Bonnar

John Bonnar is an independent journalist producing print, photo, video and audio stories about social justice issues in and around Toronto.