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Advocates plead to save program that pays bills for people in need

Trustees help people at risk of homelessness with money issues but that program ends this spring, and those who use it fear for the future.

'I can't do these things alone,' Linda Edwards said

Advocates of a program that sees trustees help residents with budgeting say its demise will leave more people homeless. But the city says its hands are tied. (Fred Prouser/Reuters)

By her own admission, Linda Edwards is the least likely person to get up and speak at city hall.

The mother of three lives with depression and anxiety, and has trouble with crowds. When she goes to appointments, she waits until everyone else clears out so she can go inside in the quiet solitude.

So the Hamilton woman surprised even herself when she took the podium Monday to stand up for a program she says has changed her life — the trusteeship program.

The program — offered through Good Shepherd, Mission Services and the Salvation Army — helps people with budgeting and money management. Trustees take a person's cheque — usually Ontario Works or the Ontario Disability Support Program — and pays his or her bills, including rent. The trustee looks for energy rebates and other ways to save money, and helps with budgeting.

A few months ago, my landlord said I owed them back rent and they helped me. I can't do these things alone.- Linda Edwards

The program's proponents say it has kept many people in danger of being homeless in warm apartments and off the streets. Now there's no money for it, and the program will end this spring.

Trusteeship "saved my hiney many times," said Edwards in her presentation to city council's emergency and community services committee. She, like others, hoped the city could find money to save it.

"I was robbed and they helped me," she said. "A few months ago, my landlord said I owed them back rent and they helped me. I can't do these things alone."

Councillors heard her, but in the end, said there isn't much they can do to help. They voted to write to the federal and provincial governments to revisit homelessness funding. But otherwise, they said, their hands are tied.

The trusteeship program is just one of many valuable ones that have fallen by the wayside as the city grapples with a new federal funding strategy called Housing First. Under the strategy, which took effect in April, Ottawa gives the city about the same amount it always has for homelessness initiatives. But the lion's share must be spent on programs that place people directly in homes.

Government funding means many programs were cut

That leaves little left over for long-funded homelessness prevention programs, such as the trusteeship program, YWCA Hamilton's transitional housing program for women and Good Shepherd's Notre Dame resource centre for street-involved youth.

I need my bills to be paid. I need my apartment. I don't want to be homeless.- Adrienne Newport

In fact, those programs and others asked for about $8.5 million in funding this year, said Joe-Anne Priel, general manager of community and social services. But the city only had $3.7 million to give.

Currently, 641 residents use the trustee program, and some estimates say nearly half of those are at high risk of being homeless. Social worker Ed Zacharewski painted a grim portrait of Hamilton without a trusteeship program on Monday. 

There will be more homelessness, he said. As a result, "there will be more panhandling, more theft, more break and enter."

The city hopes other agencies will pick up the slack when the program ends. Landlords can get paid directly from OW and ODSP, said Gillian Hendry, the city's director of housing and homelessness. And other agencies, such as Catholic Family Services, can teach clients about budgeting.

'I don't want to be homeless'

But right now, that's little consolation to the people who use the program. Adrienne Newport gave a tearful presentation on Monday, saying she was admitted to hospital a day earlier over the stress of the program's demise.

"I need my bills to be paid. I need my apartment," she said. "I don't want to be homeless. So I beg you not to close or cut back the funding of the trustee program."

As for Edwards, pride in her presentation hadn't sunk in yet as she stood in the foyer outside city council chambers. Her teenage daughter, Jazmin, held her arm for support.

With the trusteeship program, she said, she's even been able to save enough to buy Jazmin a much-needed laptop.

"I'm still scared. Still nervous," she said. "This whole thing just being here is stressful."

But "I can't lose this program. I just can't."

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