Monday, August 30, 2010

Ontario Works' Callous Stupidity

James, the youngest member of our household, is not a loser. Not by a long shot. Abandoned at an early age, his life has not been easy: foster homes, group homes, and now, a cold adoptive father. As you’d expect, he was delinquent in his teens, in constant trouble with the law. He was plagued by difficulties managing his anger—again, as you’d expect.

But at 21, James wants to put the past behind him and do better. He’s taken counselling to deal with his anger. From all the evidence, it worked; pushed beyond what even I could bear, I’ve seen him patiently withstand the stressors and respond maturely.

He doesn’t want a life of crime; those days are past. He isn’t irresponsible, nor victim to entitlement. He wants to earn a living, have a stable home, and get his life in order. As a roommate, he’s superb. When borrowing, he keeps his word and gives back what he takes—sometimes with a bonus just to show his gratitude.

Even though the disappointments can be soul-destroying, he puts effort into seeking work, and just two months ago got hired. You’ve never seen a man more proud, nor one more serious about the discipline of showing up and doing a good job.

I sing his praises here because the story I’m about to tell might lead the compassionless to conclude that James is just another piece of Vanier trash: shiftless, irresponsible, and out to milk to system. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Before James got his job, he was on Welfare. Of course, we don’t call it Welfare in Ontario these days: the correct name is Ontario Works, which, as I’ve pointed out in other posts, is pure Orwellian doublespeak—on several levels.

James was under the impression that Ontario Works assisted people moving off Welfare into the workforce by continuing to pay limited benefits for a few months, notably covering their rent. Therefore, when he got his job (full-time/minimum wage, ie a pittance), he purchased food and paid off debts. It left him little for himself, but he was happy knowing that he could, at last, behave responsibly. With the time he thought he had, he started laying money by against the day he’d have to pay the rent himself.

For a month, everything was rosy. Then the hammer fell.

Ontario Works doesn’t cover rent once you’ve started working. Oh, it seems as if they do. James’ Statement of Assistance looked exactly as it had the month before, with the usual amounts filled in for “Basic Needs” and “Shelter” It wasn’t till the landlord called to say he hadn’t got James’ portion of the rent that James discovered something evil was afoot. For every dollar he had earned, Ontario Works had subtracted an equivalent amount from the money they would actually pay out. Thus, while James’ Statement of Assistance duly noted what he was entitled to, it didn’t bother saying the entitlement was strictly theoretical. James never saw a penny. Worse, having reasonably counted on it (he’s not to blame; it takes a very sick organization to play this kind of accounting game with real people’s lives), after buying food and paying off his debts, he had no money left to pay the rent himself.

To say that he was pissed is understating things, but he didn’t let his anger take control. He realized that if he borrowed what he needed for the rent, he could, with careful budgeting, repay the loan and meet his rental obligations.

Then he lost his job. As near as I can tell, he’d been hired while the company was temporarily snowed under. Once the crisis passed, they found a pretext to dismiss him—conveniently before his three-month probationary period was over so it wouldn’t have to pay him severance.

Despite the blow to his self-confidence and income, James soldiered on and contacted Ontario Works. At the very least, he figured, he could count on them to pay the rent again, even if it left him with a debt not easily repaid.

Guess what? Ontario Works will, once again, be covering his portion of the rent on our apartment but not until next month. Apparently, they’ve calculated that the income he received for six weeks’ work should cover two months’ rent. How they figure this, I do not know. People earning twice what James was getting would be hard pressed paying two months’ rent on six weeks’ salary unless they didn’t eat or pay their bills.

So, thanks to Ontario Works and their callous stupidity, James is utterly destitute, carrying a loan for last month’s rent (borrowed from a person who himself cannot afford the debt incurred to help him out), and incapable of raising this month’s rent. Our landlord, whom I’ll call Mr. Wu, is threatening to evict all three of us. His response to James’ attempts to fill him in on what’s been going on and work things out was simply: “I don’t care.” I wonder if he studied the Ontario Works training manual.

In a final twist of the knife, James’ case worker is refusing to speak to him until he apologizes for hanging up on her in disgust over this whole, wicked absurdity.

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