Local social service representatives were given the opportunity Monday to share their thoughts on proposed social assistance reforms.
Progressive Conservative Chatham-Kent Essex MPP Rick Nicholls and Haldimand-Norfolk MPP Toby Barrett, who is also Community and Social Services Critic, called the meeting to get input on a recently-released report by Frances Lankin and Munir Sheikh.
Barrett, who has been having round-table discussions about this issue, said he is impressed that the first 25 recommendations from among the more than 100 in the report, focus on getting people working.
“This report should not be put on the shelf,” he said, in encouraging people to take action.
“The status quo isn't working as well as it should be,” Barrett said, adding it has been quite awhile since major changes have been made to social assistance.
One issue municipalities, which administer the social assistance program, will have to deal with beginning in January is the elimination of the community start up and maintenance benefit program, which was part of the Ontario budget passed in the spring.
Every two years, people receiving Ontario Works (OW) and Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) were eligible for funding to move to a new residence or help pay for overdue utility bills or rent in arrears in order to stay in their current residence.
Valerie Colasanti, director of employment and social services, this represents a loss of about $1.5 million in funding to the community. She said it is being replaced by a new homelessness program, which will have funding that is less than half that was available for the community start up.
Angela Corso, interim director of the Chatham-Kent Women's Centre said this will result in an influx of women and children needing shelter, because the funding won't be available to help get them set up in their own place.
Lucy Brown, general manager of health and family services, said some of the recommendations need to be “fleshed out,” but she believes “there's a lot of really good stuff in (the report) that should go forward.”
In particularly, she agrees with recommendations that call for the province examining ways to make prescription drugs, dental and other health benefits available to all low-income Ontarians, not just those on some kinds of social assistance.
She also agrees that health-related special benefits for people receiving social assistance should be transferred to the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care.
Brown cited as an example that local emergency departments probably wouldn't have deal with a dental issue because it could be addressed before it become an emergency problem.
Barrett said, “it does kind of make sense to have health programs run by the health ministry instead of welfare.”
Nicholls said following the meeting, it is clear the social services sector in Chatham-Kent Essex is under tremendous pressure, especially in the current economic climate.
“Those who rely on social services in this area are suffering, and there is a long overdue need for positive change,” he said.
Nicholls added he is encouraged that the Lankin/Sheikh report proposes some important recommendations for reform.
“The most important aspect of moving forward is engaging with those who receive these services and front line workers delivering these services to ensure that any change produces a system that works better for people in our community,” Nicholls said.