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Hamilton's faith leaders want re-think of social program cuts

A collection of Hamilton's faith leaders gathered at City Hall Tuesday afternoon to call on government's to reconsider planned cuts to social assistance programs.

A collection of Hamilton's faith leaders gathered at City Hall Tuesday afternoon to call upon both the provincial and municipal government's to reconsider planned cuts to social assistance programs.

"We're here to bring notice to the issue of poverty right before the season of harvest," said Deirdre Pike, one of the organizers, and a senior social planner for the Social Planning and Research Council of Hamilton.

The group, which calls itself Faith Leaders Against Poverty or FLAP, came together as part of a province-wide vigil taken by Ontario's faith communities. Representatives from the Anglican Church, the aboriginal community, as well as the Bahai and Muslim communities, among others, spoke before a small crowd.

Pike mentioned that similar gatherings were taking place in Toronto at Queen's Park and in cities like Windsor and London.

Pike, who brought an acoustic guitar to the event, started and ended the vigil with the singing of We Shall Overcome.

"During this season of thanksgiving we're reflecting on abundance," said organizer and speaker, Anglican priest Bill Mous. "It's an opportunity to reflect upon the work we need to do to fully share what we have," he added.

One of the areas we might reflect upon: social assistance rates, said Mous.

Calling social assistance rates "woefully inadequate," he's hopeful that an upcoming review of rates will result in the provincial government " adopt[ing] an evidence-based approach to establishing rates."

"Increasing social assistance will greatly improve the dignity of our citizens," said Mous. "Everyone deserves to have enough."

The overall message of the speakers present: both the provincial and municipal government must consider the personal cost of proposed cuts to social services and lack of investment. But the faith leaders also repeatedly called upon citizens to engage in issues surrounding the health and welfare of its most vulnerable citizens.

"Politicians will be dynamic when the citizenry is dynamic," Pike told the crowd.

Denise Arkell, executive director of the Neighbour 2 Neighbour Centre, said she came to the vigil because she's concerned about how the province's austerity budgeting is going to affect the food bank and community centre's services.

"As a social service provider, we're going to increase our numbers drastically," said Arkell. "The faces of poverty are getting more severe. What we're challenged by as agencies is what are we going to do?"

Steve Leighfield, executive director of St. Matthew's House, said he, too, is concerned about the "trickle down effect" of cuts to social services. He said that the services he's most concerned about are St. Matthews' food bank. "The challenge there," he said would be in dealing "with increased demand" without receiving increased funding or donations.

Tom Cooper, director of the Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction, was most concerned about cuts to the Community Start-Up and Maintenance Benefit. The benefit, which grants $799 every two years for individuals ($1,500 for families) that need to move from unsafe living situations, or who need to relocate for health reasons, is being cut or left to municipal discretion.

"Cuts will affect the ability of women and children to leave abusive living situations," said Cooper. He mentioned that this cut comes at a time when the Vital Signs Report indicates an alarming increase in the rates of domestic abuse in Hamilton. He also believes it will lead to an increase in homelessness.