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Social service groups plead for benefits to be kept

By Ryan Flanagan
Kitchener Post staff

With time running out on the Community Start-Up and Maintenance Benefit (CSUMB) and uncapped benefits for people on Ontario Works, the local social service community showed up Wednesday to a regional budget input session in full force.

The region is staring down a $6-million shortfall in these benefits — things like dental and vision care, food hampers and interpreter services — due to cuts from the provincial government. The draft regional budget funds $1.15 million worth of benefits in 2013, but several people took to the region’s delegation desk to ask for a higher funding level.

“What kind of community do we want to live in? For 30 years this community has worked hard to make sure that the most vulnerable are cared for,” said House of Friendship executive director John Neufeld, echoing the themes of the nine delegations who spoke about the shortfall in benefits.

Neufeld was there as part of the Food Assistance Network, a group of local food banks and other agencies that work to provide food to those who can’t afford it. He said the proposed budget cut half the regional funding to food hampers, and  reducing the $750,000 in funding to even $650,000 would mean staff reductions and fewer hours open for organizations providing food hampers.

“Each one of us here tonight is one job loss, one relationship breakdown, one mental health crisis, one death in the family or one health crisis away from needing a food hamper,” he said.

“We want a community where food is not a discretionary benefit.”

Councillors also heard from local residents who have used the benefits in the past, including Melissa Webster, who needed CSUMB in 2011 to afford rent after Ontario Works misdirected funds to her property manager.

“If I hadn’t had CSUMB, I would have either been in a shelter or on the street,” she said.

“I almost lost my housing because of a simple misunderstanding.”

Out of the Cold co-ordinator Catherine Stewart Savage said she has seen people using her service this winter who haven’t used it in at least three years.

“In these times of economic uncertainty, going backwards in support for those in need should be the last thing on our minds,” she told councillors.

Waterloo Coun. Sean Strickland asked to see what would be covered if the region upped its 2013 funding level to either $1.5 million or $2 million.

“Obviously there’s a big need in the community and we have to balance that with some of the other needs,” he said.

North Dumfries Mayor Rob Deutschmann suggested other projects be put off to buy the region time to transition into a new funding model.

“There is the opportunity to look at next year as a transition year and find one-time capital items that we could say no to,” he said.

Other delegations at the input session sought funding for a crime prevention strategy, marketing initiatives for art galleries and maintenance for the West Montrose Covered Bridge.

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