If individuals with significant cognitive and mental health impairments were moved from welfare to the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP), the city of Toronto could save over $100 million per year, according to a local advocacy group.

As Mayor Ford and the city administration looks for ways to save money, the City Service Review Group has been doing some work over the last year looking at where people go who are homeless or coming out of correctional facilities.

“We’re proposing an alternative to that current pathway,” said Victor Willis, Executive Director, Parkdale Activity-Recreation Centre.

City Service Review Group believes at least 30 per cent of the city’s welfare recipients, described as “high needs” and “hard to serve” and who have been on welfare for 10 years or more, should be on ODSP.

“My clients average 7 years homelessness before we meet them which means they’ve been warehoused in Seaton House and all the other shelters which are essentially horrible barracks,” said Sarah Shartal, a lawyer with Roach, Schwartz & Associates.

A single ODSP recipient receives $1053 per month, making it possible to rent a private sector housing unit while the cost per night in a shelter is $73.23 per night or almost $2200 per month.

A single person on welfare receives only $592 per month.

“So for the individuals we see who are on welfare, the options for them in terms of housing are severely limited,” said Harvey Stein, Manager of Homelessness and Housing Help Services at Woodgreen.

And there is no emergency housing in Toronto. People who don’t have a place to live have two options: shelters or rooming houses. A “decent” rooming house rents for around $430 per month, leaving someone with only $5.50 per day for food, transportation and other personal items.

Given a choice, most prefer the streets.

But a person receiving ODSP could rent an affordable housing unit and have more money left over for other expenses.

Stable housing, said the group, improves the lives and health of individuals with severe disabilities and makes it easier for them to remain stable. The more stable people are the less likely they are to get into conflict with others or the police.

“I hope that we all remember the moral responsibility and the moral savings that we have with the folks we’re talking about,” said Greg Rogers, Executive Director, John Howard Society of Toronto.

“Homeless folks aren’t gravy.”

City Service Review Group proposed that the city expand its Homeless to ODSP Project Engagement (HOPE) to individuals who are living in shelters or rooming houses. Right now, HOPE workers cannot help people with disabilities that are living in shelters to apply for ODSP.

They also want the city to expand the Streets to Homes Program to include people living in shelters. People who sleep in shelters are currently deemed to be “housed” and therefore ineligible for assistance through Streets to Homes.

The cost savings and health improvements associated with moving people from welfare to ODSP cannot be kept up without long-term community supports, warned the group. This means they’ll need continuing access to social workers who will be there to provide daily support and crisis resolution.

The group estimated that the city would need to reinvest approximately $32 million for additional case managers and supports in existing outreach programs.

“If somebody is on welfare for over a year this is not because they’re between jobs,” said Willis.

“This person needs a safety net so we can address some of the other issues that they’ve been confronting throughout their life.”

But it’s still not enough. ODSP only gives a person 60 per cent of the low income cutoff. And yet that’s much better than welfare which was only meant to be a short-term gap between jobs.

John Bonnar

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