Watch closely when the provincial Liberals switch funds from one program to another. You might just see cash evaporating in the move.
That's what frontline service providers charge is happening with the Ontario government's plan to fold the functions of the Community Start-Up and Maintenance Benefit (CSUMB) into another initiative come January 2013.
This program used by 16,000 people on social assistance every month provides up to $1,500 per family every two years to those in crisis - for first and last months' rent, money to avoid eviction, payment of utility arrears in freezing weather and basic amenities like bedding, dressers and dishes for those setting up household.
In the new year, half of the $117 million now allocated to CSUMB will be pooled with funding for five homelessness programs including the Emergency Energy Fund, Emergency Hostel Services, the Homelessness Prevention Program and the provincial Rent Bank Program. These programs will be rolled into the Community Homelessness Prevention Initiative (CHPI), which municipalities will administer.
According to May Nazar, spokesperson for the Ontario Ministry of Community and Social Services, CHPI will allow municipal managers to decide how to allocate funds, providing "greater flexibility'' to address local priorities and better meet the needs of homeless individuals and families.
CHPI, she says, will receive a total of $246 million, and by the year 2018, Ontario municipalities will see a net benefit of $1.5 billion by 2018.
But those who advocate for the poor aren't exactly celebrating. For one thing, a city of Toronto staff report taken to the city executive this week points out that while Toronto will get a total of $96 million for all its programs for the poor, the net result will be $21 million less.
Reps from social agencies fear this loss of funds will severely limit the number of residents gaining access to the service CSUMB provided. According to this week's staff report, CSUMB was once an entitlement for those on social assistance will now be offered on the basis of a needs assessment.
The province's changes, the report says, "will reduce the city's capacity to assist residents facing housing-related crises, as program criteria will prioritize services for the most vulnerable clients within the limited funds available."
That's the worry of Jennefer Laidley, research and policy analyst at the Income Security and Advocacy Centre. She says that because CHPI addresses the needs of all low-income people, those on social assistance will have to compete for funds. That is not the case with CSUMB, which was specifically designed for them.
"There are no guarantees that people on social assistance will receive the same funding they did in the past," Laidley points out. "Why isn't the government trying to provide stability for a group they know is the most vulnerable?"
She also points out that although there are some efficiencies in having this much flexibility for cities, municipal service managers will "either have to take money out of other funds to help people on social assistance or choose not to. It's all in their discretion."
Those helped by CSUMB funding in the past are clear that the small sum provided a lifeline in hard times. "I had no shelter, no money and no stability because I was going in and out of jail," says Johnny Smash, who uses the Corner Drop-In at St. Stephen's Community House. "The CSUMB paid for my first and last months' rent and gave me the financial power to speak up to a potential landlord," he says.
Dawn D'Cruz used CSUMB money to escape an abusive marriage. She hired movers so she could take her furniture, and bought basic necessities like cleaning supplies, dishes and toiletries. "Because of the CSUMB money, I was able to live a decent life," she says.
According to Philip Unrau, director of programs and services at Central Neighbourhood House, the new funding model will prove hugely negative for those on assistance trying to get or keep housing or deal with emergencies. "The bottom line is that the government has cut funding for low-income tenants, and they've just renamed the program something else," he says.
The staff report proposes engaging communities and stakeholders, including service users, in a process of consultation on how to implement the CHPI plan, and commits to reporting back to council on recommendations in 2013.