In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, Ontario citizens on the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) and Ontario Works welfare program are struggling to survive. Their exemption from the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, or CERB has pushed them toward extreme poverty, placing them at a high risk of homelessness due to insufficient ODSP and OW rates. In response to the increased suffering, Toronto-based advocacy group POOF (Protecting ODSP OW Funding) is fighting for ODSP and OW funds to be made equal that of CERB during and beyond the pandemic.
COVID-19-related measures and restrictions have perpetuated economic instability and disparities, propelling more Ontario citizens to rely on government assistance to pay rent and put food on the table. In response, the City of Toronto opened 11 new shelters and secured more than 1,200 hotel rooms for homeless people, according to a statement from April, 2020. At the time, about 770 people had moved into hotel rooms, with 492 people moved to community space.
According to the latest data from Statistics Canada, one in four Canadians (about 25 percent of the population) has a disability. Although the disabled community is being disproportionately affected by COVID-19, Canada isn’t collecting any national data to provide evidence and drive policy decisions.
How much do ODSP and OW clients receive?
The maximum shelter allowance for a single individual on ODSP is fixed at $497. Between shelter and basic needs, the maximum monthly payment for single individuals on ODSP is $1,169. For those on Ontario Works (OW), it is $733. Currently, the average market rent in the city is $1,148 per month for a bachelor apartment, leaving those dependent with a dire shortfall of living resources.
POOF declares it is not enough
Still, ODSP/OW recipients are expected to survive on as little as $650 a month, which, in POOF’s view, is not enough to live by with dignity, especially during the COVID pandemic. The pandemic has exacerbated many individuals’ physical and mental health needs, but the current ODSP and OW rates are keeping clients in poverty at a time when access to stable income is crucial to preventing the spread of COVID-19.
Back in April, housing activist and POOF founder Isabella Gamk launched a province-wide petition that called on the Ontario government to double ODSP or OW rates to make it equal with CERB.
The petition, which surpassed its goal of 20,000 signatures, states that “ODSP and OW clients cannot rent a place to live at average market rent since affordable, subsidized, rent geared to income housing is unavailable at this time and may be unavailable for the next 10 to 20 years due to a huge waiting list and zero vacancies.”
Because of that, Gamk says, “clients have to pay average market rent using most or all of their cheque, both their Shelter Allowance and their Basic Needs Allowance.”
As rental rates and housing prices have increased, so have evictions and homelessness.
CERB excludes ODSP/OW clients unable to work because of health limitations prior to the pandemic
On the Ontario government site, it states that “Ontario will partially exempt income received under the CERB for OW and ODSP clients who were on the program prior to the COVID-19 outbreak. This approach enables existing clients to partially stack CERB and SA [social assistance] payments, and to continue to access health and other benefits while receiving CERB.”
According to Gamk, the majority of ODSP and OW clients are unable to work due to their health conditions, including herself. Those who receive income from sources other than employment are subject to having funds deducted from their social assistance benefits.
How is it that those who are not able to work, or who are only able to work a little, due to health limitations are getting less in government assistance than the people who are and were able to work before the pandemic?
Response from the Ontario government
There have been minimal changes to ODSP rates prior to the pandemic – an increase of 1.5 percent to monthly payments, which amounts to a mere extra $11 per person per month.
In April, the province announced that it will grant a partial exemption of CERB payments for those on social assistance by treating CERB as earned income; the first $200 of CERB payments and 50 percent of each additional dollar received per month will be exempt from any deductions. Payments granted on or after March 1st, 2020 will be deducted dollar-for-dollar when determining eligibility for social assistance.
The Ontario government’s policies regarding ODSP and OW rates fall short of considering that those on ODSP and OW suffer from various health conditions and often rely on special diets and medication to get by.
Social assistance needs a tune up
For many ODSP and OW clients, this struggle is nothing new.
Their continuing experiences and challenges during, prior, and beyond the pandemic have exposed some fundamental flaws in current social assistance programs that urgently require modification to better protect their clients against food and housing insecurity.
“Secure housing must be accessible to all people – which means that the wages and income support for these food bank clients must be raised dramatically,” Gamk stresses. “Those of us on the support program should be allowed to live above the poverty line in dignity and with respect.”
The pandemic shows us where our government assistance system is lacking. The experiences of ODSP and OW clients urge us to confront why the most vulnerable of our community are having to fight for the right to sufficient food and secure housing during a pandemic and beyond. It is time to challenge why and how ODSP and OW clients are supposed to survive when they are unable to work due to health limitations or receive very little work, yet are getting less in government assistance than the people who are and were able to work before the COVID pandemic.
How is that after decades and decades, the most vulnerable and in need are still forgotten, left perpetually in a state of struggle for the bare essentials to life?
These issues that the ODSP and OW community is not only urging us to reevaluate our government assistance programs, but our society and culture attitude towards them.
Watch: Housing activist Isabella Gamk explains link between poverty, rising crime & police budget
 POOF Protecting ODSP OW Funding.” POOF Protecting ODSP OW Funding Public Group.
 City of Toronto. “City of Toronto Statement on Notice of Application Regarding City Emergency Shelters.” City of Toronto, 26 Apr. 2020.
 Morris, Stuart, et al. “ The Dynamics of Disability: Progressive, Recurrent or Fluctuating Limitations.” Statistics Canada, Government of Canada, Statistics Canada, 3 Dec. 2019.
 Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services. “Ontario Disability Support Program – Income Support Directives.” Government of Ontario , Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services, 2016.
 City of Toronto. “Current City of Toronto Average Market Rents & Utility Allowances.” City of Toronto, 3 Feb. 2020.
 Isabella Gamk. “Petition: Raise ODSP OW Shelter and Basic Needs Allowances Now.” Leadnow.ca, Apr. 2020.
 Government of Ontario. “ Ontario Disability Support Program.” Ontario Disability Support Program, Government of Ontario, 2020.
 Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services. “Ontario Increasing Social Assistance Rates.” Ontario Newsroom, 2016
 Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services. “About Social Assistance in Ontario.” About Social Assistance in Ontario | Ministry of Community and Social Services, Government of Ontario, 2020
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