'Drained' social service agencies ask city for extra help
'Our agencies are really good about working on small budgets, but there's only so much we can do'
On most days in Ottawa's Chinatown, you'll find a crowd gathering around the door to the basement of St. Luke's Anglican Church just before noon.
They know the drop-in centre will give them a warm lunch. On this autumn day it's pork and beans served from three buffet trays.
When the door opens a staff member comes out with her clipboard of chores and the people in line quickly take on duties: putting out garbage, putting away chairs, cleaning up outside.
A man named Mike watches from the sidewalk, straddling his bicycle. He calls the staff his heroes. He's astounded they can serve anywhere between 100 and 180 lunches every day — many more than they used to even a few years ago.
Mike, who says he kicked his crack cocaine addiction nearly eight years ago, is a regular at St. Luke's Table. He often comes for a cup of tea in the morning when he can't afford tea, or the milk and sugar he puts in it. But today he's not after a free lunch. If he has even a can of beans at home, Mike says he eats that instead of putting pressure on the drop-in centre.
"It blows me away when I see what they do. I couldn't do it," he says.
Dennis, who plans to eat pork and beans today, says people go to St. Luke's Table because government assistance cheques aren't enough to survive on as rent, inflation and food prices rise.
He thinks some people spend their grocery money on alcohol or drugs.
"Some of them, I agree. Some people it's just bills and it's all gone," Dennis counters.
"Between my rent, food for me and my brother, my bus pass, it all adds up," says Dennis.
"So, guess what? You're back to nothing, or almost nothing, depending on the month. It's not really that good."
A 'home away from home'
But St. Luke's Table is more to these people than a place for a free meal. Many come every day because it's a home away from home.
There's bingo on Thursdays and karaoke on Fridays, but mostly there's a sense of routine and friendly people.
Gloria Hogan first walked through the door at St. Luke's years ago, when her children were little.
"When I couldn't afford to feed my kids on the money I was getting, I would bring them here for free lunch or breakfast. And the kids loved it," she says.
Hogan volunteers every day now because she says she wants to give back.
"I feel real connected with this place. It helps me. If I'm stressed out, I just come here." she says.
"The atmosphere is really beautiful."
Ray Harrison is also a regular.
He credits St. Luke's Table and the Somerset West Community Health Centre around the corner for being "crutches for getting me on my road to sobriety."
He used to be addicted to drugs and realizes the role a daytime drop-in can play.
"Getting up and coming here gives you something to do rather than going out and trying to hustle up some money to try and fix whatever your problem is for the day, depending on what your substance is," says Harrison.
More need, not enough money
The number of people dropping in at St. Luke's Table keeps growing. This church basement now sees about 55,000 visits per year, after visits shot up 38 per cent between 2012 and 2014, according to executive director Shea Kiely.
Everyone is just feeling extremely drained. Their budgets are extremely tight.- Shea Kiely, St. Luke's Table
"We certainly have seen new faces in the last few years. We have a very diverse population of women, children, men, families, people from very different walks of life, people that have recently lost jobs," says Kiely.
"We're seeing different stories come through our doors."
Many live in the rooming houses in Ottawa's Chinatown — Kiely says there are 300 rooms in a five-block radius — but there are also people who are homeless or people who simply like the company. Many have struggled with addictions and mental health problems.
St. Luke's Table operates on a budget of $407,000 and is "extremely dependent" on the City of Ottawa — 58 per cent comes from the city.
Kiely is grateful the city usually gives a 1.5 per cent inflationary increase every year to the agencies it supports through its $21 million renewable community funding envelope.
But she says the extra few thousand dollars her day program receives from the city doesn't keep up with the growing need, so Kiely spends a lot of time on fundraisers. It's competitive.
"We've come to that point where everyone is just feeling extremely drained. Their budgets are extremely tight. Our agencies are really good about working on small budgets, but there's only so much we can do. We need greater support," says Kiely.
"We actually save the city money in the long term by preventing people from being incarcerated, hospital visits, ambulances, and all those sorts of emergency services. People don't always get that message."
She's thrilled Mayor Jim Watson has already announced a low-income transit pass will be part of the draft budget on Nov. 9.
But agencies are also asking that a sustainability fund, which was cut a few years ago, be restored for 2017 with $500,000 available so they have somewhere to turn when new needs crop up unexpectedly.
'The whole system is failing'
The city's drop-in centres aren't alone in feeling they can't keep up.
Jewish Family Services on Carling Avenue spends its city funding on counselling services for people on low incomes and, increasingly, for Syrian refugees dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder.
The wait to see a counsellor is now 11 months, compared to three to four months just a couple of years ago, according to executive director Mark Zarecki. That wait just compounds a person's original depression or anxiety, which affects how they relate to their family, their children, and can affect their ability to work, he says.
That in turns leads to more people tapping into employment insurance or welfare, says Zarecki.
The reality is, even with us being more cost-effective, our waiting lists are mushrooming.- Mark Zarecki, Jewish Family Services
"I see a problem in our society, not just our agency," says Zarecki. "The whole system is failing."
He believes society needs to re-evaluate how it cares for its most distressed and vulnerable, and focus more on helping prevent them from deteriorating than in paying the costs once they become calls to police, for instance.
Zarecki does credit the city for at least increasing funding to reflect inflation. The province, on the other hand, hasn't raised grant levels in years, he says, and support from the local United Way has fallen off drastically as it brings in less and less each year.
"Our frustration, as a sector, is we see such tremendous need. We ourselves are very committed to helping people, and then we recognize we don't have resources to help everybody," says Zarecki.
"No one wants to do triage, when they know even people on the low end of the list are suffering. We're forced to do that.
"The reality is, even with us being more cost-effective, our waiting lists are mushrooming."
Making a case at city hall
As chair of the city committee responsible for social services, Coun. Diane Deans hears these pleas.
At budget time last year, after three dozen social agencies, food banks and child care centres came before her committee, she felt the city needed to do something.
But her motion to try to get $250,000 in emergency funding added before the budget vote was ruled out of order by the mayor.
Watson consistently reminds councillors of their pledge, made at the start of this council term, to find savings elsewhere in the budget if they want to increase spending.
Some councillors are still jarred by Deans' failed motion from last December. Coun. Catherine McKenney raised it when council met on Oct. 12, while others expressed concern with the overall budget process.
Meanwhile, community advocacy groups such as the City for All Women Initiative and the Coalition of Community Health and Resource Centres are again highlighting social spending as a budget issue for 2017 and plan to hold a forum and a rally in the coming weeks.
The health and resource centres even supported a study by a Carleton University researcher, who concluded that Ottawa's spending on social services was falling off compared to other city departments.
In the long term, Deans doesn't think the city can continue to pick up the slack for other levels of government, foundations, or an erosion in United Way donations.
"We're basically funded through property taxes, it's the most regressive form of taxation. There's only so much we can do."
Deans says it's up to society to take care of its citizens and the city should implore the Ontario government to provide social service agencies with at least cost-of-living increases, as the city does.
But in the meantime, Deans is pushing to see a $500,000 sustainability fund in the Nov. 9 draft budget, and in the years that follow.
"The range of issues that the case workers are dealing with are much broader than they used to be. They're really pressed to the limit," she says.