Hamilton digs deep for social service funding as province watches

Hamilton may have to continue funding social service programs by itself beyond next year with the provincial government concentrating more on balancing its budget in the coming years.

Ontario Municipal Affairs Minister Linda Jeffrey said in an interview the changes the Liberals made to the homelessness programs last year won’t be reviewed, and in fact municipalities such as Hamilton are adapting to the new fiscal reality of less money.
“It’s a relatively new change in the last year,” said Jeffrey. “(Service providers) find this to be better. It seems to be working.”

Jeffrey was in Hamilton Nov. 25 to attend a fundraising event for Javid Miza, the Hamilton Mountain provincial Liberal candidate at Michelangelo Banquet Centre on Upper Ottawa.

But Hamilton councillors only hours earlier agreed to spend $2.1 million to keep the YWCA transitional housing program, various food banks, and the housing stability benefit operating through 2014. Members of the emergency and community services committee also agreed to spend $250,000 in one-time funding to add 10 temporary beds to Mary’s Place. This year, about 2,600 women had to be turned away because the facility was full.

Staff [are] using up a reserve fund and tapping [a] one-time transitional grant from the provincial government to cover this year’s costs. That funding won’t be available beyond 2014, say city staff.

Gillian Hendry, director of the city’s housing and homelessness said the funding solutions staff found for 2014 won’t be done in 2015, putting at risk the food bank and YWCA programs.

“At this time we have adequate funding for 2013 and 2014,” said Hendry. “We could have a problem in 2015.”

The province is providing to Hamilton in 2014 almost $16 million of the $21.4 million it will cost for operating the Community Homelessness Prevention Initiative, which is about $7 million less than what it had previously provided. In 2012 the province eliminated the Community Start-Up and Maintenance Benefit program that incorporated Ontario Works and Ontario Disability Support Program. The province then consolidated five existing housing and homelessness programs into the CHPI.

Last year the province capped the discretionary funding to municipalities, meaning instead of providing Hamilton with nearly $6.7 million in social service money, the province will be givingHamilton$3.4 million in 2014, leaving over a $3.4 million funding gap in needed health-related services for people on social services.
Jeffrey said service providers recommended to the province streamlining the homelessness programs to improve their efficiencies.

“So we did,” she said. “We provided some funds (so municipalities) got used to the new system. It prevents people from being homeless in the first place.”

Jeffrey applauded Hamilton officials for making the new funding model work.
“Hamilton has done a really good job of building evidence to demonstrate the kind of dollars they should have and I think they have been fairly successful,” she said.

The province did provide some transitional funding of about $3.1 million last year to help smooth any funding problems, said Jeffrey. But city councillors and staff have continued to struggle through 2013 and 2014 to find the necessary monies to keep the programs operating.

“We have been limping along,” said Mountain councillor Terry Whitehead. “It’s inevitable we will have to get a partner (to fund the programs). We have a year to lobby the government.”

But Jeffrey said the Liberals have no interest in giving Hamilton more funding, nor re-instituting the special social services funding the city received for about a decade starting in 2003 to cover downloaded costs. Liberal politicians have repeated told municipal officials because the province is uploading their social services costs, those savings are more than enough to cover any financial shortfalls.

Jeffrey said the province has a budget “that is strained like many others, but we continue to provide uploading of the important social service functions that we committed that we will continue to do. That is really hard when you are fiscally strapped.”