The following is a copy of a correspondence I have sent to my local Member of Provincial Parliament today, with the hope of opening a dialogue on poverty and housing in Waterloo region, and to find reasonable and immediate solutions.
Attn: Kathryn McGarry, MPP, Cambridge
498 Eagle Street North
Re: Poverty, Affordable Housing, and Bureaucracy
Dear Ms McGarry,
I hope this letter finds you well. If you will excuse the length of my correspondence, I would like to tell you my story, and afterward, ask you four specific questions, the answers to which I’m hoping you will address in some way.
I have been a resident of Cambridge for my entire 43 years of life, and in that time I have known success and happiness. But I must admit that it has been some time since I enjoyed those parts of life. I suffer with mental health challenges; specifically treatment-resistant clinical depression, social anxiety, and PTSD. I received these diagnoses approximately seven years ago, following a suicide attempt, the result of which was a lengthy stay in Cambridge Memorial Hospital’s Mental Health ward. Since that time, I have struggled to survive in the face of growing challenges. Soon after my release from the hospital, I was approved for coverage through the Ontario Disability Support Program, and have been receiving Disability Benefits as my sole income ever since.
I am a quiet man, I don’t smoke, I don’t drink alcohol, I abide the law and do what I can to help my neighbours. But solitude and loneliness are constants in my life.
As I’m sure you’re aware, Disability Benefits are a mere pittance and do not allow one to live a dignified life. (I receive the basic housing and living expenses benefit as well as a special diet allowance owing to a recent diabetes diagnosis.)
Upon release from the hospital, it took some time for me to find a housing situation that was both affordable and safe. But I did manage, seven years ago, to find suitable accommodations. I live in a small two-bedroom apartment in Preston, and I pay $621 per month, plus electricity. My current living situation leaves very little left in my budget – after accounting for all of my obligations – for food, clothing, and other essentials. But it has, up until recently, been liveable with vigilance and help from other community resources.
However, I was recently informed by my current landlord that the property on which I live is being sold. And after undergoing the acute inconvenience of hosting dozens of potential buyers and real estate agents through my home over the course of several weeks, I have received notice that an offer was made to purchase the property with the condition that myself and the occupant of another unit be evicted, on the grounds that the buyer wishes to move his family into the units.
I am assured, by Waterloo Region Community Legal Services, that this is perfectly legal. To clarify, I now understand that the law (Ontario Landlord Tenant Act) allows a buyer to evict a tenant with 60 days notice, and a payment equal to one month’s rent and that there is no recourse available to the tenant. If you’ll pardon the repetition, it is within the law to throw a disabled person out of their home for no other reason than that someone with the financial means has decided they’d like to live there instead. It makes no difference that I’ve never once been late with my rent payments, or that I’ve never had any kind of conflict with my landlord, neighbours, or the municipality. It makes no difference that I volunteer what time I can to help with poverty activist groups in the region, or that I play by all the rules.
To any reasonable person, the above would be offensive enough, but knowing that I have no recourse, I’ve begun searching for a new home. And I expect you know what I’ve found. My search has been hampered by a rental market that is now priced well out of my extremely limited and unforgiving income. I invite you to browse the ‘Apartments and Condos’ section of the ‘Kitchener Area’ Kijiji listings. You will find that the average price for a one-bedroom unit is more than my total monthly income. To be clear, I have few choices. I’m faced with applying for apartments that are laughably inadequate or are entirely unaffordable. What accommodations I’ve been able to find, of course, are also sought after by hundreds, and perhaps thousands of other people in the region who are facing the same dilemma. Though most of those people are abled and employed. They have incomes well above mine, and while my credit rating isn’t terrible, it certainly isn’t good enough to compete with all of those people. I hesitate to use the word discrimination, but that is what it amounts to. Any landlord, when given the choice between a gainfully employed person and a disabled person, is going to choose the lesser risk.
I would hope you can hear the frustration in my words, if not by now, then certainly with the next part of this story.
There are famously advertised community supports available to me. ODSP is one of those supports. Lutherwood and Waterloo Region Community Housing are also intended to help people in my situation. But I’m writing this today to tell you that they are wholly inadequate. Of the three organizations I’ve listed here, Lutherwood-Coda is the only group that seems willing to help. They have offered to grant me funds to cover the last month’s rent deposit required by most landlords, and this is a huge help providing I can find a landlord willing to rent to me. Where all of this falls flat, is the point at which the two organizations that exist solely to support the disabled and those with incomes below the poverty line. I would hope that you’re aware of the difficulties in finding housing through WRCH, owing to the scarcity of affordable housing and the number of people seeking help. The estimated wait time for housing through them (for a one-bedroom apartment) is six years.
Please read that last sentence again.
I have to find suitable housing by January 31 of this year. If I were dependent on them to find me a solution, I would be homeless for six years, possibly a great deal longer. Now, they do offer “urgent status” to people who are already homeless, but I do certainly hope I’m not alone in seeing the flaw in that policy. Of course, this isn’t really a policy problem, is it? It’s a much bigger problem than that.
Next is the utter lack of regard and assistance provided by the Ontario Disability Support Program. Before I go on, I want to point out, as clearly as I can, that – like all other recipients of Disability Benefits – I did not ask for this disease. I did not put myself in this situation. And I have done everything required of me by ODSP, my doctors, and the law. Yet, an ODSP representative has told me outright that they will not offer any extra support, whether financial or otherwise, to assist with this situation. A situation that is utterly beyond my control.
Local poverty advocates and mental health peer support workers have told me that there are potential benefits that ODSP could offer to help with the costs of moving and to boost my monthly income. And when I ask why they would summarily dismiss my request when there are programs or funds they can offer, I’m told it’s because that’s their standard operating procedure. To deny requests for help as a matter of course, and to capitulate only when the person in need fights against the denial in whatever limited way they can, and often not even then. To remind you, I am disabled. Though you may find my deportment impressive, my limitations are real, and they are severe. But what of those who don’t have the ability to express themselves as I do? What of those who have no one to advocate on their behalf? This system – these systems are failing us wholesale.
To pile on top, it bears noting that Grand River Transit, bafflingly, still refuses to offer reduced fares for the disabled. Which currently affects me to a large extent, as I now must travel far to attend viewings for apartments wherever I can find them, hurting my budget even further. Why are this region’s services so discriminatory to those in the lowest income bracket?
Now, we’ve come to the four questions I hope you will address:
In what way must a person live to elicit the government support we’re entitled to by law when the bureaucracy of service actively works to deny those supports? How should I have conducted myself to avoid this situation? The rules are supposed to be clear and navigable, but after seven years, I’ve found them to be utterly unavailable and (perhaps) deliberately convoluted.
How is it legal for a person, by virtue of their wealth, to throw someone out of their home on a whim? Whether disabled or not, shouldn’t we have a right to be secure in our own homes?
What are you willing to do to find and implement reasonable and immediate solutions to these problems that far too many people in your constituency are suffering through? Will you wash your hands of the problem in the same way ODSP representatives do? In the way Mayor Doug Craig does? The way Regional Council does? Or will you accept responsibility for the way our city and region treat its most vulnerable citizens and work quickly to help us?
And finally, after reading all of this, and understanding what I face, can you please tell me just what the hell I’m supposed to do? As I am at a loss and am in danger of crisis and relapse.
I turn to you as a last ditch effort to heave this government off its laurels and inspire someone, anyone to take these problems seriously. I don’t know what you can do, nor do I know how to solve any of it myself. I’m just a disabled citizen who is drowning in poverty while my government sits by and watches. And I’m fed up.
I await your response.
Martin J. Clemens