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Grim Days to Come for Seniors, Residents With Disabilities: York Region Legal Clinic

Community Legal Clinic of York Region executive director Jeff Schlemmer points a finger at the provincial and federal governments for not doing enough to ward off a worsening homelessness crisis Michele Weisz
December 23, 2021

Homelessness may be in the cards this holiday season for seniors and residents with disabilities, according to Community Legal Clinic of York Region.

“The federal government is making it pretty grim for seniors, while the provincial government is making it grim for disabled people,” the clinic’s executive director, Jeff Schlemmer, said.

Emergency pandemic relief received by seniors last year may actually be contributing to an increase in senior homelessness, Schlemmer said. If they knew what would happen, they wouldn’t have accepted the emergency relief funding, he added.

Guaranteed income supplement (GIS) is a monthly payment to low-income seniors who receive old age security pension (OAS). GIS is calculated by the previous year’s tax return, so seniors who accepted the $2,000 a month taxable Canada emergency response benefit (CERB) last year are seeing a reduction or complete loss of their GIS – which could be up to $950 – because they received too much income.

Tens of thousands Canadian seniors have found themselves in this predicament.

In past years, the income calculation isn’t an issue since seniors are on a fixed income that doesn’t vary much from year to year.

“The CERB threw a monkey wrench into that,” said Schlemmer. “It’s quite a hit when they’re living on not that much to start with.”

Seniors could fall into arrears and not be able to find a more affordable option, he said, which is one of the paths to homelessness.

After complaints from seniors and critics, the federal government announced Dec. 14 it would compensate those seniors affected by earmarking $742.4 million in 2022-23.

“Though no word on when it may come. In the meantime, (we) have to hope that landlords are willing to wait for it,” said Schlemmer.

“It would almost seem self-defeating but I’m not in the position to confirm whether that’s the case,” said Newmarket-Aurora MP Tony Van Bynen when asked if the one-time compensation to seniors for the loss of GIS would once again affect their income. “I think there were a lot of learnings throughout, one of which was what the effect would be on the GIS, so I’d be surprised if that wasn’t a consideration.”

Individuals on the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) aren’t dealing with a benefit oversight but with the high cost of housing, so the support they receive is no longer enough.

The monthly shelter and basic needs allowance provided by the ODSP is based on family size. If the family size is one individual, the maximum allowance is $1,169.

Of that amount, according to the ODSP website, individuals can put $497 toward shelter, including rent and utilities, while the remainder is to be used for basic needs like food, clothing and personal items.

Krystle Caputo, director of communications and media, Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services confirmed the lump sum figure of $1,169 and that $497 of that total is calculated for shelter costs, yet also said, “We do not direct individuals on how they allocate that money in their household budgets.”

Blue Door program manager Amanda Freer has dealt with many individuals on ODSP and said in an email the program may allow individuals to spend more than $497 for shelter.

“Usually up to $800 and this is still only going to allow someone to rent a room in a house. But this doesn’t amount to them receiving more money, it just means they have less to spend on their basic needs allowance.”

Regardless of the confusion over how the monthly sum is calculated or divided, with one bedroom rentals in Newmarket averaging more than $1,800 even if the shelter portion alone matched the current maximum total, it wouldn’t cover the cost of a month of rent.

That value, said Schlemmer, hasn’t changed in years and is not reflective of the cost of housing in York Region. The province is out of touch with current housing costs.

“When we formed government, we raised the social assistance rates by 1.5 per cent. . . . We are working across government to ensure that our most vulnerable have the supports they need. (Ontario Minister of Children, Community and Social Service Merrilee) Fullerton recently met with our federal counterparts and we look forward to them delivering on their campaign commitment to create the Canada Disability Benefit to increase the level of supports for those receiving the Ontario Disability Supports Program funding to more closely align with the Canadian Recovery Benefit levels,” said Caputo in an email.

In response, Van Bynen referred to the prime minister’s mandate letter, sent to ministers in January, requesting a review and implementation of the Canada Disability Benefit Act.

“I think it’s time. I quite agree that it is time,” said Van Bynen. “It’s very much on the radar . . . The added benefit is that I have the good fortune of being appointed to the Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities, so I’ll be able to be more actively engaged in advancing those initiatives. I’m quite positive with the direction we’re going into. ”

If someone is on ODSP and is forced to move, they won’t find a reasonable, comparable place. If they rent a room instead of an apartment, they will lose the protection of the residential tenancy act and could be evicted at any time, said Schlemmer.

“Everybody agrees that disabled people are not at fault for being disabled. We all agree they shouldn’t have to live in abject poverty because they’re disabled … but what’s happened is the government knows the rents have gone up the way they have and hasn’t done anything about keeping up with it.”

So like seniors, these individuals may end up in shelters where they may or may not find themselves homeless.

“In both cases the federal and provincial governments know these things are happening and are letting them happen,” said Schlemmer.

In August 2021, HelpSeeker, a federally funded AI company, predicted that homelessness in York Region could potentially expand to 75 times the national average in the coming year. The information is based on 3,000 variables entered into an algorithm that tracked social and economic impacts of the pandemic. The information tracked suicides and domestic abuse, as well as homelessness.

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