Terry Collins kicked a crack cocaine addiction a decade ago and has been looking for steady work ever since.
But a criminal record from his years of drug abuse, lack of a driver’s licence and an outstanding student loan that prevents him from going back to college to update his skills are serious obstacles, said Collins, 52,
“I’ve been trying to better myself through various community training programs. But my past mistakes continue to hold me back,” he said.
The former GM assembly line worker who has cycled on an off welfare for about 20 years and uses food banks to make ends meet is bracing for the results of Social Services Minister Lisa MacLeod’s 100-day revamp of social assistance, expected Nov. 8.
Collins is among almost 70 per cent of Toronto food bank users who rely on social assistance and a growing number of adults over age 45 who visited a food bank over the past year, according to the Daily Bread Food Bank’s annual report being released Wednesday. People in this age group represent 37 per cent of food bank users — the largest demographic — up from just 28 per cent a decade ago, according to the report.
“I think they should try to increase social assistance for people,” said Collins, who lives on $570 a month after paying subsidized rent in a rooming house. “I just hope they don’t make it any worse than it already is.”
Although food bank use in Toronto is down by almost 5 per cent over 2016-17 to about 915,000 visits this year, it is still 14-per-cent higher than during the economic recession of 2008. And it is more than double food bank use in 1995, when Mike Harris’ Progressive Conservative government slashed welfare rates and introduced workfare, the report notes.
The analysis, being released a week before Doug Ford’s PC government is expected to unveil an overhaul of Ontario’s social assistance system, is “intentional,” said Daily Bread CEO Neil Hetherington.
“We are hopeful the minister has a chance to go through the report and look at what the full cost (of more cuts) would be,” he said in an interview.
MacLeod halved a planned 3-per-cent welfare rate increase to 1.5 per cent, killed the basic income pilot project and paused other Liberal reforms on July 31, while the Ford government embarked on a review of Ontario Works (OW) and the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP.) Together, the programs serve almost one million Ontarians and cost about $10 billion annually.
Individuals on OW receive up to $733 a month while a single person on ODSP gets a maximum of $1,169, amounts that fall well below any measure of poverty, Daily Bread’s report notes.
“Social assistance reforms in 1995 brought cuts and new rules, setting in motion a hunger crisis that continues today,” Hetherington said in the Who’s Hungry report. “This year we have a chance to make a different choice, one that sets us on a path to end hunger.”
The report comes in the wake of a series of open letters this month released by business leaders, physicians and social justice advocates urging the Ford government to treat the province’s most vulnerable residents with dignity and fairness. Collectively, more than 2,000 individuals and 120 community agencies have signed the letters.
The lack of public consultations on the government’s 100-day review has also prompted about 50 people living on ODSP to write MacLeod. Under questioning by the NDP in the legislature Tuesday, MacLeod said she has consulted with “stakeholders,” but refused to elaborate.
Daily Bread and the open letters call on the Ford government to restore this fall’s promised 3-per-cent rate increase and commit to future increases that reflect the true cost of living. They want Ontario to cut punitive rules and reporting requirements, stop forcing people to drain their savings before qualifying for help, and allow recipients to keep more of the money they earn before facing welfare clawbacks.
“Bringing program recipients out of deep poverty and maximizing their ability to work … would set the foundation for a culture of trust, collaboration and problem solving,” said an open letter signed by more than 800 healthcare providers and 20 community agencies.
People arrive on social assistance in crisis, said Mary Marrone, legal director of the Income Security Advocacy Centre, a legal aid clinic that supports people on social assistance.
“They get there because something has happened in their life. Illness, disability, marriage breakdown,” she said.
Helping people deal with those obstacles is the key to helping them escape assistance, added Marrone, whose centre wrote an open letter signed by more than 1,100 social justice advocates and 100 agencies.
The best way to ensure people stop cycling on and off welfare — a concern MacLeod raised when she announced her review — is to support the creation of good jobs, Marrone said.
“People who move off social assistance are more likely to be working in the precarious labour market which (the government) has just made more precarious by rolling back the gains that were made,” she said of legislation introduced last week to reverse recent labour standards improvements.
Whatever happens to social assistance after Nov. 8, Collins, who has just completed a 12-week relief worker training program, is not giving up on his dream of leaving welfare behind.
He thinks his past experience of homelessness and living with people suffering from mental health and addictions would make him an ideal candidate for a job in the city’s shelter system.
“I’m applying,” he said. “I hope they give me a shot.”
Food bank use in Toronto by the numbers:
914,470 Food bank visits in 2017-18
86% Increase in food bank visits in Scarborough since 2008
25% Decrease in food bank visits in city core singe 2008
$808.29 Average monthly income of food bank user
68% Rely on social assistance
13% Rely on employment as main source of income
62% Have a disability
68% Income spent on rent and utilities
$8.04 Daily amount available for food and other necessities after paying rent and utilities
34% Have completed some post-secondary education
9% Children using a food bank who go hungry at least once a week
58% Adults gave up a meal to pay for something else in the past three months
29% Adults gave up food to pay rent
Items Terry Collins received from the food bank:
Terry Collins visits the Salvation Army food bank at the corner of River St. and Queen St. E. about once a month. He receives between $60 and $80 worth of food that usually fills two boxes. During his last visit Sept. 20, Collins received the following items:
- 1 can of chicken noodle soup
- 1 box of Captain Crunch cereal
- 4 litre bag of chocolate milk
- 1 box of dried scalloped potatoes
- 1 box of dried turkey dressing
- 3 loaves of whole wheat bread
- 1 tray of chicken breasts
- 1 box of assorted crackers
- 2 bottles of barbecue sauce
- 1 package of ground coffee
- 2 pkgs of 6 peach fruit cups
- 1 pkg of 6 chocolate/vanilla pudding cups
- 3 O’Henry chocolate bars
Laurie Monsebraaten is a Toronto-based reporter covering social justice. Follow her on Twitter: @lmonseb