Looking for Rainbows in Turbulent Times

I intend to write about things that are not beneficial, harmful, and need to be changed. However, there are also many good services, programs and people that I intend to highlight because too often, those who could benefit do not have the information to access and benefit, even though they or a family member is entitled.

For example, an accountant living in the suburbs of Toronto, who worked full time, was taking care of her elderly mother who lived nearby but could not grocery shop, do laundry, go to medical appointments or prepare anything other than coffee or microwavable items for herself. She was lonely and isolated but could not take public transit and could not afford taxis. Before her health problems, she worked for a few years, but now, she sat all day with only the phone, television and her daughter’s visits. This woman was eligible for the Federal Disability Tax credit. I encouraged the family to get the forms from CRA, have their doctor fill them in and apply retroactively to the onset of the health problems. The daughter was skeptical at first, saying her mother’s income was so low, it would be a lot of fuss for no benefit. However, the credit can be transferred to the caregiver. Eventually, this family received a significant amount of money, which they used to improve the elderly woman’s quality of life. Inspired, they applied and were approved for Wheel Trans ($2.00 per trip), and with a part time support worker, the woman was able to go to community seniors programs, where she even got lunch and snacks. This family moved to Canada from another country years ago and English was still a second language.

Another example I would like to highlight includes a university professor and her husband, also a professor, who have a similar story. The husband had a stroke a few years ago and could no longer work. He was eligible for the Disability Tax credit from that time, but no one had ever told them about it. As the caregiver, the credit was transferred to the wife. His wife continued to work part time. They also dipped into retirement funds. They were astonished to be successful, got retroactive payments from CRA and can benefit going forward every year.

I am a social worker/community advocate, not an accountant, but I urge everyone to contact your accountant if you have one and CRA to see if there are benefits you may be entitled to. Please check Canadabenefits.gc.ca or call 1-800-622-6232 and see if there are benefits you may not have known about.

I value any feedback on successes or failures that you would like to share that may help others in a similar situation. Feel free to contact me and reach out.

Homelessness

It’s time to speak out.

Today, on Toronto TV news there was a brief mention of a funeral being held for a homeless man who died recently in his makeshift shelter on the streets. Clearly, he did not know of any better options available to him or was unable to process information that could have saved his life. Do you care? I do! And now finally we have a mayor who has said he cares, too.

So, what’s next? There is a committee meeting that will provide a report in March, but it’s important to make sure that new voices and ideas are heard on the topic if we have any hope to institute lasting change. The current system is not working; costs increase while numbers of homeless people increase. Creating more shelter beds and pouring more money into social housing will not significantly change anything. To truly address this issue, we must first define the problem. We currently have several thousand shelter beds which are very expensive. We also have more than two thousand rental buildings owned and operated by the same city department, many of which are in disrepair while others remain vacant or rented to ”market rent” people. Both of these industries cost the city a lot of money but have failed to contribute towards any improvement in the numbers of homeless people or the lives lost.

Since I became involved in the homeless industry about fifteen years ago with Sister Susan Moran nothing has improved. I have tried to define the problems, so now we must ask, “are there are any feasible solutions?” The answer is a resounding “Absolutely!” However, in order to actually institute change there must first be an acknowledgement that things can and should change. Toronto can be a world leader, a city where homelessness is infrequent and handled quickly with innovation and compassion. (I expound on this in my book ”Urban Exiles: An Overview of Homelessness”) I have approached the last two mayors full of hope, but they passed me along to bureaucrats who were not interested at all in working together to make things better for everyone in this city.

Please think about this for a moment. If you were alone in this city and a personal situation arose where all your assets were gone and you had nowhere to sleep, who would help you until you could get back on your feet? If you can name a few people, consider yourself lucky! But, what if you had nothing and no one could or would help? What if this were to happen to your child or grandchild after you are gone? Are you ok with what Toronto is (not) doing? I know that things can be different, fast-tracked, innovative and millions of dollars cheaper. I am going to send this post to everyone who knows my efforts, research, advocacy and success with vulnerable people. Please support this project by sharing this post and donating so that I can keep the momentum going while encouraging conversation and innovation. I would love to hear from everyone who cares.

“Social” housing in Toronto

When we care about someone and see that they are doing things that are not in their best interests, we try to find constructive and supportive ways to communicate that to them.When we care about a city, province. and country, it becomes much harder to find a way to make a difference.

Politicians vary in interests, life experience, values and goals. Some bureaucrats are impressive in their commitment to doing the best for the area they oversee. The Ontario Ombudsman, Andre Morin, and the Children’s Advocate Irwin Elman are two examples. However, there is a side of bureaucracy that can be narrow, cold, impersonal, indifferent, and forgetful of the fact that they are public servants.

I love Toronto, Ontario, and Canada! An architect with a vision can do a set of drawings and people will see exactly what he/she hopes to achieve. An engineer could estimate the time required to complete the project, and the cost. After several decades of helping people solve problems, I can see where certain systems are not as helpful nor as cost efficient as they could be. For more than ten years I have approached various mayors, bureaucrats and politicians from time to time. I have a file of letters that could provide material for a sitcom. The response has always been a variation on the same theme…basically, ”get lost”. There are programs and services that we have on the federal, provincial and municipal levels that are world class and my plan is to share these ideas internationally. However there are programs and services which are not OK and I plan to describe them.

Here is my 2015 challenge to everyone reading this. Please share the content and if any of it is important to you, speak out, say something, do something!

Our city, Toronto, has a few thousand people in shelters at any given time at an enormous cost. Despite this investment, after all these years we still have people living and dying on the streets. Read my book, available on Amazon, “Urban Exiles: An overview of Homelessness.” Then, check on Google for the costs to our city of perpetuating a system that is not working. Our social housing is not working either. The last I heard, there were seventy-seven thousand people on the waiting list.

About ten years ago, determined to solve this problem, I went to the then head of the housing organization with some ideas. I explained that in the course of my work I had met a number of people who were living in social housing who could be living in the private sector. Some worked for cash which they did not declare while others brought in friends or relatives who worked full time but were not officially on the lease. Others lived in the so-called “market rent units” of our social housing program. I suggested that we offer an amnesty and an incentive so that people would move out and either rent in the regular market or buy a place of their own. Prices were affordable at the time. Under this plan, no one would be pursued for misrepresenting their financial situation. Rather than heeding my advice (or returning my call), the then top man instead instituted a policy demanding full disclosure of tenants income annually ”or else”…

A few years later once leadership had changed, I tried again by meeting with a staff member at the housing office on Yonge St. I shared my ideas for helping those with the ability to move out of social housing thus freeing up units for people from the shelters and those living at, or below, the poverty line. Again, she said she was not really interested in my idea. I will never forget this one comment she made: ”We are landlords, not social workers… we collect rent and maintain the properties.. we don’t get involved with the people otherwise”. She walked me to the elevator. ”You call this social housing,” I asked, “what’s the social mean?” She turned and walked away.

When I read in the paper that a new director had been hired, I arranged another appointment. Hope dies hard. He listened politely, and then walked me right to the front door and I never heard from him again. He’s since been replaced and I’m glad.

It is possible to restructure social housing, empty units, help people move on and reduce the need for anything but short term transitional shelters. Shelters should be a hub for all restorative services not just ”three hots and a cot” for the amount of money they get per person (read the book, and read my lips)!

Last for today, why would a person with a job and a paycheck be in ”market rent housing” owned by social housing when they could be out here like the rest of us in the private sector and free up those units for people who do not have a choice other than shelters or streets?

The next few posts will be about improving healthcare for all of us in Ontario and, on a federal level, stopping the huge underground economy which does not pay tax.

As always, I welcome comments, suggestions and donations.

Potpourri for a snowy day

There is a part of me that retains a naïveté, leftover from another era. If you let people know that there are ways to be more helpful, generous, and supportive to those who could really benefit, they would welcome this information and use it wisely. Last week I wrote about a disappointing taxi experience. Since then I have tried to contact the owner and manager of the large, longstanding company to discuss my concerns and suggestions. Several messages and several weeks later, I am still waiting to be called back. A couple of other companies I contacted stated they did have seniors discounts but were very vague and reluctant to provide information about how to access them.

Uber is a new taxi service that has brought a lot of attention to the taxi industry in the GTA and this dialogue is important and timely. I have tried to contact them but cannot find a phone number. I want to ask if the drivers are licensed and insured, are there any background checks and how much information do they require about private drivers who join. The idea that someone with bi polar disorder or schizophrenia, an addiction or a child predator can be a private driver is terrifying. Being able to confirm that standards are in place is crucial to feeling safe and protected.

Taxis are licensed and controlled by local municipalities and there are a limited number of licenses. Those who are licensed or work for someone who owns a license can work in the taxi business but no one else so it does discourage customer service since there is no incentive to compete with fares, benefits etc. Monopolies can do whatever they want and have little incentive to improve services or benefits to customers, or at the very least, be open to conversations and innovations.

I don’t expect or require anyone to always agree with me as healthy debate is crucial to a healthy community. If anything I write about matters so that you can add your own voice and direct your own views where they will do the most good. My daughter once told me this inspiring anecdote when I was feeling weary about really being able to make the world a better place:

“A tiny pebble appears insignificant. However as it rolls down a cliff and gathers earth, grass, other pebbles and momentum, and by the time it reaches the bottom it has become a powerful boulder.”

So, fellow pebbles, wherever you are, stay with me. I will be tackling much heavier subjects in blogs to come.