Hamilton Spectator: Majority of Hamilton food bank users pay market rent

Posted September 17, 2018

Jeannine Rodgers lugs four bags of groceries from the Good Shepherd food bank to a bus stop on Cannon Street East.
 
"I hate asking people for help, so it feels crappy," said Rodgers, who lives on a monthly disability payment of $1,151.
 
Rodgers, 45, rents an apartment in the basement of a house for $790.
 
After that, there's "pretty much nothing" left, which is why she hits the food bank once a month.
 
Rodgers isn't alone. Those who live on social assistance and scrape by in the open rental market figure prominently among local food bank users, notes a new report called Hunger Count 2018.
 
At at 37 per cent, the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) was the most common source of income for those who went to local food banks. Ontario Works (OW) was second at 35 per cent.
 
Meanwhile, 73 per cent of households were found to pay market rent. Of those, 51 per cent spent more than half of their income on rent, running an "extreme risk of homelessness," the report states.
 
Hamilton Food Share, a hub for the city's food banks and hot meal programs, produced the report, which examines data from front-line agencies.
 
Squeezed households make sacrifices, such as going without medicine to keep the lights on, says Joanne Santucci, executive director of Hamilton Food Share.
 
"Sometimes they lose their fight with poverty ... They hit the street."
 
With Hamilton's rapidly rising rents and social assistance not keeping up, Santucci worries about what will happen if the dam breaks. "We can't even afford to have 100 people hit the street."
 
Anthony Keegan can attest to this. Keegan says he lived in the bushes behind the escarpment rail trail east of Corktown for weeks this summer.
 
"The jobs are scarce. I live hand to mouth," said Keegan, who'd just picked up groceries from St. Matthew's House food bank on Barton Street East.
 
A welder who was laid off, the 49-year-old says he managed to find a room, thanks to a friend. He pays $400 a month, which comes out of his $700 welfare cheque.
 
"I thank God and these people and the volunteers. These are the people that are keeping me alive right now," Keegan said.
 
Rents in Hamilton have soared in recent years. In October 2017, the average rate was $1,020 in the Hamilton census metropolitan area, which includes Grimsby and Burlington, notes the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation.
 
Santucci says the city, local social service agencies and corporate donors are doing their part to help. "Where it falls down is at the provincial level."
 
Ontario's previous Liberal government had planned to increase ODSP and OW by three per cent, but Premier Doug Ford's Progressive Conservatives have scaled that back to 1.5 per cent.
 
Ford's government has also announced the end of the province's basic-income pilot program, which started in 2017 and was supposed to last three years.
 
Social Services Minister Lisa MacLeod has criticized the previous government's approach as a "disjointed, patchwork system."
 
"Our plan will help get people back to work and help them keep working ... These efforts will go hand-in-hand with our existing efforts to make life more affordable," MacLeod added in a prepared statement without offering specifics.
 
Ford campaigned on reducing hydro rates and introducing "buck-a-beer" to keep money in consumers' pockets.
 
But the social assistance rollbacks and cancellation of basic income have sparked an outcry from anti-poverty advocates.
 
Hamilton ACORN recently rallied against the measures, which in tandem with the buck-a-beer announcement, were a "slap in the face to low-income earners," chair Mike Wood said.
 
On Thursday, Rodgers issued this challenge: "I'd like the government to live off what they give us ... I bet you they wouldn't be able to do it."
 
 
***
Article by Teviah Moro for the Hamilton Spectator