Hamilton poverty debate produces statement, few solutions

Hamilton anti-poverty activists and policymakers met at Hamilton City Hall Friday to discuss reduction of provincial benefits for low-income Ontarians.
Community stakeholders attend a meeting on Friday at Hamilton City Hall. The topic of discussion is how to respond to provincial cuts to services for low-income Ontarians. (Mark Chambers/CBC)

"People are dying on the streets," hollered Michelle Hruschka during a meeting Friday among Ontario's poverty advocates at city hall in Hamilton.

Her words, if not recorded officially, didn't go unnoticed by those present.

The meeting brought 12 anti-poverty groups together to discuss the effects of Ontario's 2012 budget on the most vulnerable population, including the homeless, those living on social assistance and women and children in shelters.

The group, which called itself Ontario Communities Uniting (OCU), met to form a united front that would call on the provincial government to reverse its decision to cut funds to the Community Startup and Maintenance Benefits (CSUMB) and healthy discretionary benefits.

The CSUMB is often used to help those individuals and families on social assistance. It can be used to pay for first and last months' rent, utility arrears, dental care and to help people resolve unsafe living conditions.

Hamilton, like many other regions, has pledged to cover the program for six months. But after that, there is no plan in place for filling the funding vaccum that will result.

The stakes for Hruschka are grave, she said. On disability, she can't afford the dental procedures that might help her get a job and then lift her out of poverty.

"I can't get my teeth fixed. Who's going to hire me?" she said after the meeting.

But the voices of those affected by the cuts, like Hruschka's, were largely absent on the council floor.

Instead, much of the five-hour meeting centred on how the OCU could formulate a unified message.

Those present included representatives from poverty advocacy groups from 12 regions, including Hamilton, Niagara, Toronto, Peel, Kitchener-Waterloo and others.

Councillors Jason Farr, Brad Clark, Brian McHattie as well as Hamilton Mountain MPP Monique Taylor were also present for the meeting.

The necessity of the OCU coming up with a unified message to the public, the media and politicians was underlined repeatedly during the gathering. Laura Babcock, a communication consultant, put together a comprehensive statement for the group.

The meeting, which saw each region, including Hamilton, discuss how cuts will affect those dependent on the CSUMB in their communities, was a kind of brainstorming session on how to cobble together a coherent and effective strategy how to engage with the provincial government, the public and the media on the subject of eliminating poverty.

"Community collaboration is going to be hard for the province to ignore," said Ward 9 councillor Brad Clark.

At several points during the meeting, Clark stressed the need for poverty advocates to adopt a softer tone — to speak to politicians not from an antagonistic standpoint, but as something like a partner or concerned third party.

Others called for a change in the way poverty is discussed. Rather than focus on the "character of the poor," said Mike Balkwill of the Put Food in the Budget Campaign, it would be wiser to discuss the "character of the labour market." He also suggested that poverty advocates ramp up their approach, a method that could include those who run food banks essentially going on strike in protest.

"If people who ran food banks stopped suddenly, it could get interesting," he said.

In contrast to Clark's message of partnership with government, Balkwill asked advocates to put the pressure on provincial politicians, especially during an election year.

"[Provincial politicians] need to be all afraid that we're going to kick them in the polls," he said.

The occasionally contentious meeting did end with a unified statement — sort of.

In the end, the OCU's group statement called for the government to make "eliminating poverty" the priority.

But the discussion didn't end with the messaging. Members of the audience, many of whom are dealing with the cuts first-hand, argued for greater protest activity and were very vocal about their displeasure about how important it is for people to hear about the real experiences of the poor.

Hruschka would like to see a more comprehensive political approach to getting action. She mentioned the Quebec student movement as an example of how effective protest can be.

"Our elected officials no longer represent us," Hruschka said. "Even in the city of Hamilton, who are our councillors talking to? The lobbyists."

"Meanwhile the streets get worse and worse," she said.