A provincial legal aid clinic is launching a Charter challenge of the Ford government’s decision to eliminate a benefit that helps parents on welfare feed and clothe their kids.
Meanwhile, Toronto is considering the creation of a $8.4 million “temporary family housing benefit” to help up to 4,000 local families avoid homelessness when the Ford government axes the Transition Child Benefit on Nov. 1.
The provincial cut, announced in the April budget, is discriminatory, arbitrary and deprives these children of their right to life and security, says the Income Security Advocacy Centre (ISAC), a legal clinic that advocates on behalf of people on social assistance.
The centre filed its notice of claim to the attorney general’s ministry on Sept. 5.
The Transition Child Benefit helps an average of 32,000 children a month whose families are either not receiving Ontario and Canada child benefits or not getting the full amount, according to government data complied by ISAC.
An average of almost 16,000 families a month could be impacted province-wide, including about 5,500 waiting for their refugee claims to be processed. New parents, those who have not had their tax benefits adjusted after a job loss and those who have had benefits suspended due to a tax audit would also lose the support, worth $230 a month per child.
“The cut to social assistance for children will mean no money for their necessities such as food, clothing or diapers and will have a devastating impact on the health and well-being of children,” said ISAC lawyer Jackie Esmonde in the notice of claim.
The centre plans to file its application around Nov. 1, she said in an interview. It also intends to apply for an injunction that would compel the province to continue paying the benefit until the case is decided, she added.
Neither Attorney General Doug Downey, nor Children, Community and Social Services Minister Todd Smith would comment on the matter, as it may be the subject of litigation.
However, the government has previously said it is axing the benefit as part of a broader overhaul of social assistance.
“Ontarians who meet the eligibility criteria only need to file their taxes to start receiving the Ontario Child Benefit,” said Smith’s press secretary Christine Wood in a statement. The benefit is based on income from the previous year.
The government is spending about $1.2 billion this year on the benefit, an increase of about $31 million over last year, she added.
However, Esmonde notes that the government spends about $67 million a year on the Transition Child Benefit program, less than 1 per cent of the total cost of social assistance in Ontario.
While lawyers battle the province in court, Toronto city staff are recommending a temporary benefit to help affected families avoid homelessness when the cut bites this fall.
Without the provincial benefit, many of these families will lose their housing and be forced to use the city’s already overtaxed emergency shelter system, according to a staff report to be debated by the city’s executive committee on Wednesday.
“What we are doing is prudently providing for temporary continuation of that funding while we try to get the other governments — plural — to accept responsibility where it properly belongs,” said Toronto Mayor John Tory, referring to both the provincial and federal governments.
He denied the city would be letting the Ford government off the hook by introducing the temporary, six-month measure.
The proposed new benefit is “not only morally right … but also practically and financially the right thing to do,” Tory said in an interview Thursday.
If adopted by city council Oct. 2, families impacted by the cut will be eligible to receive up to $675 a month while those who find more affordable housing in the GTA could get up to $2,000 for relocation costs.
“The creation of this benefit will help vulnerable, low-income families with dependent children at a time of potential crisis to maintain their housing or secure more affordable housing,” says the city report.
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“Without this action, significant costs will be placed on the city’s shelter system, which is already at capacity,” the report adds.
Compared to the cost of housing these families in shelters, motels and hotels, the temporary benefit would save the city between $5 million and $25 million, reduce health and safety risks and ensure children aren’t disrupted during the school year, staff say.
Money for the temporary benefit would come from a city reserve fund created in 2008 when the province introduced the Ontario Child Benefit and reduced social assistance benefits proportionately.
Councillor Shelley Carroll, a member of the city’s budget committee, said she hopes council supports the city’s temporary benefit. She said she also plans to introduce a motion calling on Queen’s Park to restore the provincial benefit.
“The real nastiness of this, is that it is such an easy thing to cut,” Carroll said. “That’s because it goes to people who are not eligible to vote, or who are not likely to vote and who tend to be invisible to politicians.”
Community housing and social service agencies praised city staff for recommending the temporary support.
“This is such incredibly good news,” said Debbie Hill-Corrigan, executive director of Sojourn House, a Toronto refugee service agency that runs a homeless shelter and two-year transitional housing programs.
“I can’t say enough about the city having the insight and the commitment to ensure the settlement of refugees. This will really support our families,” she added.
Leila Sarangi, of Family Service Toronto, was also pleased, but worries about what will happen to families after six months.
“It’s really good the city is putting in stopgap measures to support families that are highly vulnerable,” said Sarangi, whose agency supports families with mental health challenges, developmental disabilities and those experiencing violence.
“But it’s really just a stopgap measure,” she said. “What the city of Toronto really should be doing is communicating to the province that this cut shouldn’t happen at all.”
The Transition Child Benefit was set up in 2008 to ensure children of parents on social assistance are not left without money for food and other basic needs if they don’t qualify for the Ontario Child Benefit or are waiting for their application to be processed, according to ISAC, a legal aid centre that supports residents on social assistance.
The benefit is provided through social assistance because it is a program of “last resort,” for people with no other source of income.