Housing is the key to any poverty-reduction plan, and advocates are not seeing that addressed in the recently released Ontario strategy. Michael Swan

Without housing, poverty plan is ‘window dressing’

By 
  • January 14, 2021

Ontario’s plan to help poor people has left a lot of blanks yet to be filled, said the executive director of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Toronto.

“This plan that the government is laying out is short on specifics,” Michael Fullan told The Catholic Register. “There’s some good statements there, but there’s not any teeth backing it up.”

Children, Community and Social Services Minister Todd Smith released the province’s new five-year poverty-reduction strategy just before the Christmas break. The plan promises job creation, skills training and services to connect people on welfare with employment while commiting the government to accelerating the number of people getting off welfare each year from 35,000 in 2019 to 60,000 by 2024.

But the 7,000-word document makes no specific commitment to build or finance affordable housing, and that’s a problem, said Fullan.

“Something that jumps out — there wasn’t a big mention of affordable housing,” he said.

One in seven Ontario households are living in unaffordable or substandard housing, according to figures cited in the plan. The most specific measure proposed to deal with the housing situation is “providing an income-tested monthly benefit payment directly to eligible households in housing need to help pay their rent.” The amount of the subsidy and who would qualify are not specified.

Subsidized community housing currently only serves 23.8 per cent of people living below the poverty line, leaving more than three-quarters to compete on the private market. The average rent for all properties listed on Rentals.ca in November was $1,743 per month. Under Ontario Works, the shelter allowance for a single person living in Toronto is $390 per month. For a family of four it’s $756.

Absence of affordable housing makes poverty harder to escape and drives every other aspect of life below the poverty line, said Capuchin Brother John Frampton, director of St. Francis Table in Toronto’s west end.

“They’re paying so much in rent they can’t afford food. So they’re coming to us,” Frampton said.

“It’s just that people have to make a choice each month — pay their rent or eat,” said St. John of God Brother David Lynch, executive director of The Good Shepherd in downtown Toronto. “A lot of the people who come to us are housed, but they can’t afford to keep their accommodation and eat at the same time. Those people are lining up for sandwiches at our doors each day.”

“You’ve got to deal with basic needs first,” said Fullan. 

For just about every one of the 26 Catholic Charities member agencies, lack of housing drives demand for their services and plunges clients into crisis, Fullan said.

“Unless you have that foundational plank of affordable housing — where people can have a secure roof over their head and roots in the community, so kids can go to the same school and not to five schools in two or three years, to be able to lay down those social connections, friends and those touchpoints in every community, even parishes — you know, the rest of the stuff you do is just kind of window dressing. It isn’t going to work,” Fullan said.

Fullan believes the province is open to working with Catholic Charities on providing a connected and complete suite of services that will help individual people escape poverty.

“I would commend them for recognizing that poverty involves more than just income deprivation,” he said.

Fullan and the directors of Catholic Charities’ agencies have been working on proposals for “wrap-around” services, “where we can come together as a group of agencies and say, ‘How can we concentrate here and give this person what they need,’ ” he said.

While Fullan looks forward to further talks with the government, he is certain housing holds the key.

“If people can be secured, housing-wise, then our work is going to be more effective in terms of making sure they’re part of the mainstream, contributing to our community and the common good,” he said.

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