Anxiety looms as funding for financial empowerment programs for low-income Ontarians set to expire
Programs have helped more than 100,000 Ontarians tap into $391.3M in new income
Carla Macias barely spoke English when she landed in Toronto from Ecuador with her two sons 14 years ago. As a newcomer, she struggled to find out how she could go to school, earn a living and help support her children.
She later came to Toronto's Jane Finch Community and Family Centre and learned from staff about how she could apply for government benefits, funding to go to school and file her income taxes — for free.
"When I remember the [first] time I came here I feel emotional," said Macias, who credits the centre for helping her get settled in the community.
Macias has since become a regular at the centre, relying on guidance from members of the Financial Empowerment and Problem Solving (FEPS) team. But when she called recently to file her income taxes, she was told to come sooner than later as the program may be forced to end.
The Jane Finch centre is one of four locations funded by Ontario's Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services to offer the FEPS program. But at the end of March, funding is set to expire for both the FEPS program and the Ontario Financial Empowerment Champions — which funds services at five centres in other parts of Ontario.
Together, the two programs have helped more than 100,000 low-income Ontarians tap into $391.3 million of new income over the past four years through free income tax filing and other benefits. The cost to the provincial government for both programs has been $1.7 million a year, according to Prosper Canada, the national charity that administers the funding.
Now, the programs' future is unclear.
"If some of these centres are gone, that will be really hard for us," said Macias.
Skills and tools
Over the years, Macias has learned from staff about other programs she could have access to.
One of her sons was diagnosed with a learning disability, and she said she struggled to help him keep up with his studies. Macias learned through the program she'd be eligible for a child disability benefit to help support him.
WATCH | Advocates sound alarm as funding for financial programs helping low-income Ontarians set to expire:
"I got the support and the money helped my son a lot," said Macias.
"He's almost finished his high school and he's accepted for university and the money will help him to continue to achieve his dreams."
Tanya Loor, a financial empowerment worker at the centre, said stories like Macias's are common. But she said it's not just about helping low-income families tap into benefits they don't know they're eligible for — it's about giving them the knowledge to do it themselves.
"When we talk about the financial empowerment piece for the client, it's like we've given them the tools, then they have to do the work. They finish doing the work. They get this money. But then in turn, they also gain this knowledge that they're able to pass on to other people," said Loor.
For Loor, keeping the FEPS program running at the Jane Finch centre is something that's not just important professionally, but personally too.
"I grew up in this neighbourhood. So, you know, I have a vested interest in wanting to see a lot of people become successful," said Loor.
'Always weighs heavy on us'
Advocates say the timing of the situation can't be worse: many centres are in the middle of tax season after a year that's been extraordinarily busy because of COVID-19.
"People have lost their jobs, have lost their livelihoods. People on fixed income have not been able to do both: pay the rent and feed their families," said Lee Soda, executive director or the Agincourt Community Services Association, which also operates tax clinics and other financial services through the FEPS program.
Soda said community centres have stepped up during the pandemic to help ease the burden for many residents who are experiencing challenges.
"These are people who count on us... We can't minimize those trusted relationships that community based social service agencies like ours have in the community."
On the uncertainty of the program's future, Soda said: "It's worrisome to us. It's something that always weighs heavily on us."
Still, she remains optimistic that the government will see the benefits of keeping programs like FEPS going.
Optimistic and waiting
In a statement to CBC News, the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services said, "The ministry is working with Prosper Canada to extend Financial Empowerment and Problem Solving Program and the Financial Empowerment Champions Programs funding to help ensure that Ontarians receive the benefits to which they are entitled."
The ministry did not provide details but added it is meeting with Prosper Canada this week.
"I think everybody appreciates that the pressure is really great right now and it's not really the time to remove services from people," said Elizabeth Mulholland, CEO Prosper Canada, adding that because of COVID, there are far fewer places in Ontario offering free tax filing services.
Mulholland said Prosper has been in talks with the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services and is asking for a three-year extension of the programs.
"I do believe that [the province] sees the importance of it and they're very alive to the needs of Ontarians right now, particularly low income ones," Mulholland said.
For community members like Macias, it's not just about keeping the programs running for them, but for others who might need it down the line.
"I hope these centres remain open for our community and for the future immigrants who come here," she said.