Op-ed: ODSP rates are killing people in Ontario

There are people in Ontario with disabilities who are choosing to die because they cannot live on the $1,169 per month provided by ODSP. CTV reports that Denise – who is 31 years old, uses a wheelchair and has multiple chemical sensitivities – has “applied for MAiD (medical assistance in death) essentially… because of abject poverty.” She cannot afford a wheelchair-accessible apartment with cleaner air that is safe for her illness. 

In a similar case, Sophia, another Ontarian with a disability, opted for a medically assisted death in February because she also could not find housing that could accommodate her disability. These are not the only two cases. London Ontario ICU physician Dr. Scott Anderson reports seeing more patients asking for MAiD because they cannot afford the services they need to accommodate their disabilities. 

Medically assisted deaths are only one way in which Ontario’s pathetic ODSP rates are killing people. The Center for Justice and Social Compassion estimates that almost half of the 12,000 people in Ontario who are homeless have a disability or mental illness. And homeless people are dying at a rapidly growing rate. Toronto Public Health keeps track, and the number of deaths of people experiencing homelessness has been growing rapidly, to 216 in 2021, up from 94 in 2018.

ODSP rates kill because they do not provide Ontarians with disabilities enough income to live. Relative to inflation, ODSP rates are 30 per cent lower than they were 30 years ago. Recipients of Ontario Works (OW), formerly called General Welfare, have suffered even more. Mike Harris’s Progressive Conservative government cut OW by 21.6 per cent. 

ODSP rates, which have declined to make living difficult for the people requiring assistance
Graph from economist Hugh Mackenzie

Shelter

OW and ODSP are divided into a “shelter allowance” and a “basic needs” amount, which is to cover the cost of food, clothing, transportation, medicine, etc. The monthly OW allowances of $413 for shelter and $494 for basic needs can not even pretend to cover the costs of either shelter or basic needs. People trying to survive on ODSP receive similar amounts that are woefully inadequate – $497 for shelter and $672 for basic needs. On the election trail, Doug Ford promised a five per cent increase in both OW and ODSP. 

The approximately 5,000 Ontarians with disabilities who are homeless cannot find housing because there is nothing to rent for $497. And the homelessness crisis won’t be solved by increasing the rate by five per cent to $522. Statistics Canada calculates the cost of low-income housing based on sharing a two-bedroom apartment. The average two-bedroom apartment in Ontario cities is $2,236. In order to afford one room in an average two-bedroom apartment, people need $1,118/month.

Average Rental Prices*
City2019 1bdr2019 2bdr2020 1bdr2020 2bdr2021 1bdr2021 2bdr2022 1bdr2022 2bdr
Burlington1,7061,8511,7871,9701,7722,0571,9782,331
GuelphN/AN/A1,4351,6121,6301,9101,9502,156
Hamilton1,1001,3101,4681,7221,4401,8851,6032,063
Kitchener1,2151,4501,4281,6001,4931,7341,8392,179
London1,0221,2651,2381,4981,2391,6131,6782,023
St. Cath’s1,1561,487N/AN/AN/AN/A1,4511,899
Toronto2,2312,7352,1032,6501,8332,4552,1333,002
WaterlooN/AN/A1,2971,6931,6341,624N/AN/A
Average$1,405$1,683$1,537$1,821$1,577$1,897$1,805$2,236
May of each year*

Source: Rentals.ca (inc. Condos)

The welfare diet

The basic needs amount is also pitifully inadequate. In 1995, when Harris cut OW rates by 21.6 per cent, David Tsubouchi, Harris’s Minister of Community and Social Services, argued that people could survive on a “welfare diet” largely consisting of dented cans of tuna and pasta with no sauce, butter, salt or other condiments. The welfare diet was not healthy nor affordable. Since then the cost of food has risen by 100 per cent, whereas OW and ODSP rates have risen by only 41 per cent – so even the “welfare diet” is unaffordable for people on OW and ODSP. 

Using the Statistics Canada market-based measures of the cost of basic needs, the amount for food, clothing, transportation and other expenses is $1,200 per month. ODSP provides $672 per month for basic needs. Which is only 56 per cent of what is required using government statistics. 

The impact of these inadequate supports is a constant crisis for Ontarians with disabilities. Three attended a press conference this week to put their case before the government.

Pat Gallager spoke at a press conference discussing the difficulty for people on ODSP
Andrew Yang

Pat Gallagher is a roofer who developed an addiction after falling from a roof and being prescribed oxycontin for pain. For the past three years, he has been homeless. In February, he developed severe frostbite in both feet and his left toes were amputated. 

Darrel MacDonald spoke at a press conference discussing the difficulty for people on ODSP
Andrew Yang

Darrel MacDonald, also on ODSP,  is currently renting a one-bedroom basement apartment for $1,250 per month. To survive, he rents out the living room to another person so they can share the rent and pay $625 each. “My landlord has said that he wants to sell the place. I’ve been looking for something else, but can’t find anything,” says MacDonald. He describes finding a bedroom advertised for $500 in Stoney Creek, but when he phoned about it, the landlord told him that the bedroom was shared and the cost was $500 per person.

Andrea Hatalal is a spokesperson for the ODSP Action Coalition. She currently has a bachelor apartment and pays $1,100 per month. She receives $1,169 from ODSP plus a $250 nutrition supplement. She survives by getting food from food banks and meal programs (soup kitchens).

The ODSP Action Coalition is asking for Ford to increase OW and ODSP rates to $2,000 per month – the same amount as CERB. But this may not be enough. During the election, the NDP promised to double ODSP rates. 

Ontarians with disabilities will continue to struggle and many will continue to die until the Ontario government raises ODSP rates to cover the cost of basic food, shelter and clothing.

In Ford’s first four years as Premier, people on ODSP began choosing to die because they could not live on ODSP, and the number who died while homeless more than doubled. With a new four-year mandate, Ford has an opportunity to change that trajectory. The question for Ford is, after four more years with a Conservative majority government, how many people will have died because of ODSP rates by 2026?  

Chris Glover is the MPP (NDP) for Spadina-Fort York

@ChrisGloverNDP

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