St. John the Compassionate Mission hasn’t been receiving much compassion lately.
First, the charitable organization learned a new garbage collection fee for non-profit organizations would threaten their 25-year-old free meal program because they will have to pay thousands of dollars to haul away its waste.
“I have to pay to dispose of garbage and the reason I have that garbage is because I’m feeding people that Ontario Works does not give enough money to eat with,” explained the mission’s executive director, Father Roberto Ubertino. “So where is the logic there?”
Ubertino worked with Ward 30 councillor Paula Fletcher to try and grant the mission an exception. She managed to organize a meeting with an official from waste management, but to no avail.
“We tried to make a real case about why it’s unfair to make us pay for garbage … in the end they refused to make us an exception,” Ubertino said. “They just don’t care.”
He believes the city administration doesn’t see the issue as a priority because it affects poor people.
“The present administration at city hall is not interested in facts,” he said. “They are only interested in this line: ‘I’m an irate taxpayer and I’m outraged because…’ ”
Now Ubertino believes another change in his dealings with the municipal government can be traced to the Rob Ford administration’s cost-cutting agenda.
The Ontario Works program has a provision that allows recipients an additional $100 a month if they volunteer, with the intention to help with transportation costs and also provide the ability to look for work.
After 12 months, the volunteer is cut off. Ubertino says that until recently, he was able to call the supervisor and advocate on behalf of the volunteer so they could continue to receive the payment after their year was over.
“This is a legislation that goes back to when the Liberals took power, and which the city-run welfare and Ontario Disability offices kind of took a liberal, more generous view of it,” he said.
“Now it’s absolutely 12 months, that’s it, because of saving money,” Ubertino said. “My feeling is that it’s not on the provincial level, but on the municipal level, using a legislation that they have up until now ignored.”
When Ubertino contacted the city, which runs the office that distributes provincial money, he was told the Ontario Works program is only supposed to serve as a stepping-stone to full-time employment.
But he points out that for many of the mission’s volunteers, working simply isn’t an option.
“Most of the people we have here as volunteers are people who will never be hired,” he said. “They’re not marketable — they’re too slow, they don’t understand, they have mental health issues or a past with drug addiction, whatever term you want to use, nobody is ever going to hire them.”
“But the reason we do it is because human beings need to feel needed,” he added. “And here is an opportunity for people who don’t have a place in society, who really will never fit in the marketplace, to actually contribute to society.”
But that opportunity could be further and further from reach if volunteers no longer can access the supplementary $100.
Despite it no longer covering the cost of a Metro Pass, volunteer Aubrey Clyke said the additional $100 can make a big difference considering Ontario Works provides him about $560 monthly.
“It alleviates part of coming here,” he said.
Despite good health, high energy and an affable personality, Clyke’s last attempt at employment saw him passing a dexterity test with flying colours for a forklift position, only to face disappointment at the interview.
The reason? He’s 55.
“I thought I was going to get the job, and they told me I’m too old,” he said. “And that hurt.”
Today Clyke volunteers at the mission because he sees it as the only real way to give something back. But he fears he and many others won’t have the motivation after 12 months.
“The church will be short, because people aren’t going to do it willingly,” he said. “They’re just not going to have enough staff.”
That worries Ubertino, but he’s more concerned about the fate of his volunteers.
“If people can’t afford to go volunteer, what are they going to do,” Ubertino said. “They’re not going to be looking for a job, they’re going to stay home and do nothing.”
Ubertino pointed to how the mayor personally intervened in issues affecting more affluent communities, such as permit fees at sports fields and the enforcement of off-leash dog parks, as an example of where his priorities lie.
“If dogs on leashes can get the mayor to mobilize, you would think human beings could too,” he said. “It’s unbelievable.”
But it doesn’t surprise Ubertino, who notes that many in his mission aren’t the ones heading to the polls on election day.
“What they’re targeting are the most vulnerable people, the people for whom this is the only thing that gives meaning to their lives,” he said. “And they’re not the ones you’re going to hear complain.”