by Douglas Whitelaw
True story. Recently, an individual in dire straights came to our attention. Due to recent illness, he is blind. His wife is in palliative care. Hydro to his place had been disconnected three weeks previously, on April 1. Seeing his vulnerability, someone robbed him which meant he was unable to pay rent. A friend from out of town was helping him and a nearby church was giving him food.
First thing, we called London Hydro, to determine exactly the situation with them. The account was in her name, so no one would talk to us, or him. But it was explained that they had sent numerous notices and finally the disconnection notice. We explained he couldn’t see the bills (and had been robbed). We went up three more levels to a supervisor who responded that they would not turn the power back on even for a few days while we tried to sort out a plan.
When the city was working on the London Plan, the Ark Aid Mission hosted a session so that people with lived experience of poverty would have a voice in the Plan. The city official who facilitated the event asked me for my comments. I responded that we needed to do something about the Hydro rules and deposits, because they are a serious barrier to finding – and keeping – adequate housing. She responded that London Hydro is not the city’s responsibility.
The City of London is London Hydro’s sole shareholder. In 2013, it paid a $3 million dividend to the city. In February, 2016, City Council debated what to do with a $10 million dividend. So, London Hydro makes money and because it is publicly owned, returns some of that money to the City and we all benefit. But it evidently has no means by which to assess a hardship case and exercise some discretionary compassion. To finish my story, we called the Community Care Access Centre (CCAC) which bumped the case up the list for assessment. Within a few days of that, he was moved into shelter at the Centre of Hope, which is, however contrary to the City’s stated policy of getting people into housing.
My point is larger than London Hydro. Many recommendations in the Mayor’s plan to eliminate poverty are beyond local control. But a good place to start is a thorough review of those policies, programs and procedures that are controlled by the City, whether directly or through second hand boards or commissions. First up is the recommendation that children under age 12 ride the buses free. LTC points out this will cost them $150,000 and they can’t afford that. I don’t know how the figure is arrived at and obviously if previously paying customers no longer have to pay, there will be a cost. But has a study been done to see if more parents would take the bus – and pay – if kids went free? Are there other things we can do to encourage additional ridership? We’ll never lift people out of poverty if we all say, ‘I can’t afford that’ and let it stop there.
Unless you experience the social welfare system, you have no idea how adversarial it is. I can attest to the stress people experience when they perhaps inadvertently complete a report incorrectly or miss a deadline. The response they receive is that they are being cut off, rather than a helpful response of remediation. An egregious example was that of the single mom of a developmentally delayed child who lost her glasses in a house fire and was told by her worker she would have to wait 18 months to qualify for new ones. Not true – there are discretionary funds which our volunteer helped her access. A denturist with offices in several cities told us that London had the most difficult rules around dental care in his experience. A hearing aid clinic reported that while they could provide hearing aids within the amount allotted in discretionary funds, workers were approving higher estimates, resulting in clients not getting the devices/services to which they are entitled because they could not afford to pay out of their own pocket. These programs are administered city employees, who could be re-trained and coached to be helpful rather than adversarial.
So, let’s have a look at city-owned or controlled assets to see if, inadvertently or not they contribute to poverty and human suffering. We could start with London Hydro, which one social worker told us is ‘beyond frustrating.’
Douglas Whitelaw is Executive Director of Ark Aid Street Mission, which provides free evening meals and other services to those who are homeless or living on income supports.