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WHEN ENDS DON'T MEET: Newmarket family advocates for better ODSP

'We feel alone,' says Newmarket retired couple, who worry about their son's future, with the Ontario Disability Support Program providing support below the poverty line
Marianne and Robert Bahlieda have faced difficulty advocating for better government support for their autistic son.

When Ends Don't Meet is a regular NewmarketToday series highlighting issues of social equity by sharing the stories of Newmarket community members left struggling to make ends meet during a far-reaching affordability crisis.     

Finding outside support for an adult son living with autism has not always been easy for the Bahlieda family.
Newmarket residents and retirees Marianne and Robert Bahlieda have cared for their son, Alexander, for many years, ensuring he has a place to stay and a home that can accommodate his needs. 

But as they grow older, they worry about what the future might hold for their son and how the Ontario Disability Support Program can support him.

“We feel alone,” Marianne said. “You’re on your own … The most worrisome factor for me, there will come a day when we’re not here. What happens?”

As inflation causes prices to raise, the Ontario Disability Support Program has been criticized for not keeping pace. Offered to those with disabilities in financial need, advocates say the amount needs to be dramatically increased after stagnating between 2018 and 2022, with 200 non-profits calling for a doubling of social assistance last year

While the government is increasing ODSP by five per cent, indexing it to inflation and increasing the maximum recipients can earn from work and maintain benefits from $200 to $1,000 per month, advocates still have concerns that is not enough. 

Robert said his son gets about $897, plus incontinence supplies, a deduction from the total. 

“ODSP is abysmal in terms of living independently,” he said. “We love him, and we want to take care of him in a particular way.” 

Minister of Children, Community and Social Services press secretary Patrick Bissett said the five per cent is the largest increase in decades and the earning exemption expansion can make a difference.

We're "empowering people with disabilities who can and want to work," he said, adding that the change "will empower thousands of ODSP recipients with the opportunity to fill the 400,000 open jobs in Ontario."

Lisa Hooper has been working as a local engagement co-ordinator for the Newmarket Heights area, which has residents struggling with evictions.

She said those on social assistance cannot keep up with how much rents have risen, doubling in some cases.

“A lot of people have been displaced. A lot of people have had to move into motels,” she said. “People have just been trying to figure out a way to pay the rent, pay more rent, so they can have a roof over their heads.”

She said many people she works with rely on ODSP and other social assistance, but are struggling to handle the rising rents and legal pressure from landlords. 

“If you have a disability, it’s not like you can just go out and get a job,” she said. “A lot of people are moving back with family because they can’t afford to live on their own anymore … A lot of people can’t afford to get a paralegal to help them.” 

Community Legal Clinic of York Region executive director Jeff Schlemmer said there is another issue with the system. Many individuals may receive Canada Pension Plan Disability benefits, something indexed to inflation. But anyone receiving ODSP concurrently will see that allotment reduced based on their federal benefits. 

With York Region rental rates so high, people need everything they can get, Schlemmer said.

ODSP is “not sufficient for a disabled Ontarian to live in an apartment,” he said. “They are trying to rent rooms where they can, which is often quite unhealthy for them.”

The ability for disabled people to earn more under a recent provincial change is “a trap,” he said, which can cost them federal benefits.

“If any disabled people go out and push through, are (able) to work and earn $1,000 a month, they will find themselves in real trouble.” 

Bissett said the province has taken other measures to address poverty, such as a minimum wage increase, tax credits and the Ontario Child Benefit.

"There are also a variety of income-tested benefits available to Ontarians, such as federal and provincial children’s benefits and the Ontario Trillium Benefit, a tax-free payment that helps low to moderate-income Ontario residents pay for energy costs, sales and property tax," he said.

As far as those with developmental disabilities, the province offers the Passport program, which starts at $5,500 annually and can go to a maximum of $44,275 based on need.

But governments still need to do more to support disabled persons, Schlemmer said, adding that has been the case for decades. Further, he said governments need to return to rapidly building low-cost housing.

The government needs to go back to the time “when it accepted it would pay a lot of money to help our disabled friends and family live lives of dignity,” he said. “Ultimately, it comes down to money. Again, it’s not that they’re asking for more these days. What we’re asking is, can we get back to what you traditionally did and support us in that way?"

While the Bahliedas are financially stable, Robert said they feel concern for others on ODSP.

“They live on whatever everyone gives them. That’s why it’s so important to give them an ODSP that meets the poverty line,” he said. 

The maximum you can receive on ODSP is $1,228 per month, or about $14,736 per year, indexed to inflation each July and adjusted based on your situation. That is well below the poverty line based on Statistics Canada’s Market-Basket Measure, at $48,583 provisionally in 2022.

Marianne said she does hold hope there will be enough significant change to address ODSP and other social assistance.

“I don’t really see much action, and that’s why at this point we try as best we can to advocate for our son,” she said. “Show me what you’re doing to do and unless I see some real positive action coming from the government — no matter which government is in power in the province — I really don’t see much hope.

“We’re living in a province that is one of the richest, most populated provinces in the country, and we’re struggling to do this.” 

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Joseph Quigley

About the Author: Joseph Quigley

Joseph is the municipal reporter for NewmarketToday.
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