Naureen Aqueel

Local health centres urge province to reinstate housing benefit

Posted on: November 20, 2012

Published in The Ward, Nov 20, 2012.

Photo credit: Ottawa Innner City Health

Photo credit: Ottawa Innner City Health

Community health centres and organizations for the homeless in Ottawa are lobbying the Ontario government to reverse a decision to eliminate benefits that help vulnerable people pay a portion of their housing-related costs.

Eliminating the Community Start-Up and Maintenance Benefit (CSUMB) will have “inequitable and unavoidable” health impacts on already vulnerable populations, argues a recently released report by the Wellesley Institute, a Toronto-based research and health policy organization.

Community health centres across the province maintain that the housing benefit, which is scheduled to be terminated on Jan. 1, helps people receiving social assistance to pay onerous and unexpected accommodation costs and, ultimately, to obtain or maintain a home.

Lindsay Snow, a community engagement worker at Centretown Community Health Centre on Cooper Street in downtown Ottawa, said the bid to reverse the province’s decision to end the benefit would put a strain on community health centres in the city.

“It would make more of our clients stay homeless longer,” said Snow. “There is a correlation between being homeless and health. It impacts negatively on your mental as well as physical health. And our already busy homeless programs will certainly become busier.”

The Wellesley Institute published a health-equity impact assessment report last week that shows the government’s decision to cut the funding could result in people on social assistance becoming homeless with negative health consequences. The assessment was conducted with health care centres as well as income security and housing organizations.

Steve Barnes, a policy analyst at the Wellesley Institute and a contributor to the report, said during an interview that all the organizations that participated in the study agreed the cut was going to have significant impacts on health and social outcomes for those who have relied on the benefit in the past.

“The problem with all these things is that once people can’t pay their housing-related expenses, they often end up either homeless or they end up in substandard housing and these are things that have really negative health impacts,” said Barnes. “So the argument that we are making is that by cutting this relatively inexpensive benefit, you are going to end up with a sicker population and then we will just end up paying for it through the health care system and other things.”

The benefit, which provides $799 to a single person and $1,500 for families, has been in place for the last 20 years. It provides low-income earners access once every two years to money to cover costs of first and last month’s rent, outstanding utility bills, and essential household items. More than 1,600 people rely on the benefit each month in Ontario.

The province is only passing half of the funding recovered from the cut on to municipalities as part of a consolidation of housing programs. Municipalities have been struggling to fill the funding gap.

Last week, city councillors voted to take $250,000 extra from Ottawa’s daycare budget to put to the social services budget, seeking to offset a $7-million provincial cut. The move was termed a one-time solution by councillors and community members, who said it would not be sustainable in the long-term.

Municipalities are not expected to have homeless prevention plans in place until 2014 – a full year after taking responsibility for the new program.

“Municipalities haven’t had to deal with these programs, so they are going to first have to work out how they are running these programs, and then each municipality is coming up with different decisions,” said Barnes.

“One of the problems is that you might end up having a completely different response in Ottawa than you would have in Toronto, or in Hamilton or anywhere else in the province. We are creating these really inequitable situations across the province where it could be worse to be homeless in Ottawa than it could be in Toronto, for example.”

Barnes said the earlier practice of dealing with these problems provincially helped create consistency in the response across Ontario.

The provincial government maintains the move to eliminate the benefit is an attempt to combine housing and homelessness support programs. Half of the provincial CSUMB funding will mean $62.6 million goes to support the new consolidated program and will give municipalities more flexibility to address their local needs, says the Ministry of Community and Social Services website.

Wendy Muckle, executive director of Ottawa Inner City Health — which provides health care services to the homeless — called the provincial government’s decision to eliminate the housing benefit “fairly short-sighted.”

Muckle said she could not understand why the government was picking to eliminate this benefit. “It is not a huge amount of money but it will affect a lot of people very negatively,” she said. “Clearly when you are picking what things need to go, you try to pick things that have the least amount of impact on the least amount of people, and I think there is general consensus that this doesn’t meet those criteria.”

“Being homeless is not good for your health and the longer people remain homeless the greater impact it has on their health,” said Muckle. “Unfortunately, things like this that don’t necessarily seem like a huge change of policy often have a tremendous long-term impact on both the amount of people that are sick and what their life expectancy is.”

The report released by the Wellesley Institute recommends the province reinstate the CSUMB or at least delay it until 2014 so that municipalities have more time to ensure they can meet local housing needs. This would also give the government time to carry out a health equity impact assessment to determine the potential effects of its decision.

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