To survive we need rent cancelled and basic income, people on social assistance say
'I don't know how this is gonna end up'
Though Judy Augustino is usually good at budgeting the paycheque she gets on disability, the mad dash to stock up on supplies amid COVID-19 in early March left her broke.
"I've been going to the grocery store more often and just buying more food than I normally would because I don't know where this is going to go," Augustino said. "I don't know how this is gonna end up."
Augustino, 62, is one of about 50,000 Hamilton residents who rely on a provincial social assistance program.
While most Canadians are struggling under COVID-19, with many businesses shut down, local advocates argue that those at, or below, the poverty line will be hardest hit.
People on Ontario Works only get about $730 monthly, says Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction director Tom Cooper, adding that even on a good day that amount is not enough.
"You take that situation and it's certainly compounded by the health crisis we're now facing and it makes it impossible for people on social assistance to be able to purchase enough groceries to stay at home and stay safe," Cooper said.
For those on lower incomes, mental and chronic illnesses are common — ones that put them in an "extremely precarious position" in the face of COVID-19, Cooper told CBC.
Yet, Augustino said she feels the federal government is prioritizing the working class through the Canada Emergency Response Benefit. The emergency benefit is a taxable $2,000 stipend that will be given to workers who have stopped working due to COVID-19 and who don't have access to paid leave or other income support. But claimants can only get the money for a maximum of four months.
"People that do work automatically get $2,000 a month and we're being treated like we're subhuman, like our lives don't matter cause we're just not getting that kind of assistance," said Augustino, who receives $1,150 a month.
Cooper said the most ideal immediate solution would be for the Canadian government to add a $300 to $400 emergency supplement onto people's social assistance paycheque. But in the long-term, he says, the government should look at providing universal basic income.
Basic income is unconditional financial income provided by the government to all individuals determined to be in need.
In 2017, the province piloted a three-year basic income project to explore the effectiveness of supplying consistent financial income to those living on low incomes. A little over a year later, the PC government canned the project because they said the program wasn't helping people independently contribute to the economy.
Close to 4,000 people from Thunder Bay, Lindsay, Hamilton, Brantford and Brant County were enrolled in the pilot program.
Relief funding amid COVID-19
In light of COVID-19, the provincial government has pledged $200 million in relief funding to social services that includes support for individuals, food banks, shelters, non-profits and other organizations.
For those on social assistance, the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services said in an emailed statement that it is making discretionary benefits more readily available. These benefit amounts are locally determined for one-time "extraordinary costs" and include stipends up to $100 for single people and $200 for families until the end of April.
People who aren't on a social program are able to access emergency assistance through Ontario Works and funds set aside from the federal government.
The Ministry is also supplying $5 million in social services relief funding to First Nations individuals and families through the existing Transitional Support Fund (TSF). This is for anyone in financial need, whether they are on social assistance or not.
During this time, Hamilton can provide additional aid by freezing rent for the coming months and increasing support through the city's housing stability benefit, says Suzanne Kelly, who volunteers at Willow's Place — a mission service for women.
Kelly, 58, is also on social assistance and uses food banks.
She said it's essential that the city help take people off the streets and out of overcrowded shelters.
"People in our circumstances and those who are facing true homelessness are not being paid attention to by this government," Kelly said.
The organization Rent Strike Niagara is also advocating for a focus on housing security in the Niagara region, saying the government should waive all rent and mortgage payments. The group wants rent cancelled and not just deferred.
Similar 'strikes' are happening across the province, including Toronto and Ottawa, as more people continue to lose their jobs.
The ministry did not directly respond to comment on the province's decision to not cancel rent, but said people can get support through their local Ontario Works office.
An automated message from CityHousing Hamilton says that although those in housing units owned by the city will not be evicted during this time, "you should continue to pay as much of your rent as possible."
"I'm hoping as more eyes widen and open, and as we poor people get better at communicating that this is our everyday life, that these are the problems that we face...I'm hoping that as (people) see it, they'll develop a stronger political will to advocate for permanently increased allowances," Kelly said.