We’ve been crossing paths for a few years; she’s homeless, with her large carrying case holding her worldly possessions and, regardless of the time of year, wearing a heavy wool coat.
The first time was a summer day, years ago in midtown when she approached to ask for spare change. Donation rendered, I took the step of asking her what happened to her, what led to her ending up on the street asking for money. She gave no answer, indicating a reluctance to respond. She was struggling but she held her Caribbean pride.
Sometime later, at a location farther north, there she was again, and with a large nylon suitcase on wheels. Now it’s her regular spot. Paths cross, but we don’t speak. That’s how she wants it. Although, we always acknowledge each other with a nod that says, “I see you. I notice you are here”.
She spends her days peacefully, not bothering anyone. Sometimes, through someone’s charity, she has a meal. At those times the mask cracks a little and she bears an expression of gratitude.
But her physical health is declining; with joints swollen and now wrapped with gauze, as if bandages could do something more than signal to anyone who cares to notice that she needs medical treatment. Less obvious but evident, if she allows any talk, is that she also has a chronic mental illness. This is not a lady who smiles, except occasionally in that bitter way that says the world has again confirmed to her its unrighteousness.
She could be anywhere up to 60 years of age; it’s hard to tell. She may have family but with her reluctance to talk about herself, it’s hard to know, although at one point she hinted at having a daughter.
Where does she go at night? Does she sleep on the street or in a shelter? What happened before her life put her where she is now? Yet, she must have a will to live.
The people like this woman who live on Toronto’s streets are not included on the welfare rolls. To receive welfare support you must have an address. But the conditions for welfare support are daunting for many so some would rather take their chances living on the streets.
Support for the homeless is a municipal responsibility, while social assistance is under the provincial Ministry of Community and Social Services. But if the province were to heed the long-awaited Ontario Review of Social Assistance in Ontario, titled “Brighter Prospects: Transforming Social Assistance”, the whole thing would be administered municipally. The welfare system as it is now, namely Ontario Works (OW) and Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP), is an exercise in misery for many who have to rely on social assistance payments and a strain for those who administer the programs.
The supports provided by Social Services have always had a grudging nature to them premised on a resentful acknowledgement that as human beings we are to some extent our brother’s keeper. Yet, the system as it is now is punitive, implicitly judging harshly those who need help. What the review chaired by Frances Lankin and Munir Sheikh aims to do is move the narrative away from “punishment and surveillance and toward dignity and support” for the almost 900,000 receiving social assistance in Ontario.
The review process included input from assistance recipients. They gave a clear message that they need better supports in finding jobs and moving back into the workforce. People want to earn their keep, but as they try to find their way sometimes with difficulty back into the workforce, the social service system is a hindrance rather than facilitating a strong transition. Welfare recipients need Social Services to be a bridge in helping to find jobs and they do not want to be punished while making the transition into the workforce.
As it is now, there is significant claw back whenever a person receiving welfare gets a job. The review recommends allowing people to keep $200 of earned income without penalty.
Another recommendation is to simplify payment rates which currently vary according to housing costs and other criteria. This would be replaced with one standard rate for persons living on their own or modified for people in shared accommodations, and would also take into consideration where in Ontario a person lives as it affects housing cost.
The review would also see various healthcare supports regularized so that they would benefit all low-income individuals and families. As such, persons moving from welfare to work would not lose those benefits.
The review offers a lot to consider, but the fear is that it will become lost in the weeks and months ahead, having fallen victim to political gamesmanship now that Premier Dalton McGuinty has prorogued the Legislature.
A note on weather…
When a storm is as lethal and damaging as the one experienced in recent days by Jamaica, Cuba, Eastern Canada and the Eastern United States, it seem wrong to have a name as cute as “Sandy”.