After 25 years of serving meals to those in need, St. John the Compassionate Mission’s meal program could be forced to close as a result of a new garbage collection fee the city plans to levy on non-profit organizations.
The new policy, adopted by city council on Nov. 29, will result in all non-residential tenants including retirement homes, places of worship, charitable organizations and libraries paying for garbage collection. In the past they were exempt from such a fee. The move is projected to save the city $2.9 million a year.
The organizations will eventually pay commercial rate of $806 a year per bin for weekly pickup with the increase to be phased in over four years.
This means organizations like St. John the Compassionate Mission will see costs skyrocket based on the number of bins they have, said Father Roberto Ubertino, the mission’s executive director.
“It turns out that our cost will be about $30,000 per year, for garbage,” said Ubertino. “And that really puts our program in jeopardy.”
Ubertino says the city actually loses out if the mission is forced to close its meal program, because they are providing essential service — food and shelter — at no cost.
“It’s also providing a social service because during the winter, people have a place to come, and we have a social worker,” he pointed out. “All of these services we provide free of charge.”
Shelter and social services could be the only free services left if the meal program comes to a close.
That worries long-time mission user and volunteer Jeannie Dunn, who can’t read or write because of a learning disability. She has trouble finding work and said apart from providing meals, the mission offered her a place to socialize and meet people when she was depressed.
“I’ve been coming for 25 years, so if it closes down, I have nowhere to go,” she said. “What am I going to do, sit at home and be depressed again?”
Dunn, who eats at the Broadview Avenue mission three days a week, says it’s hard to stretch her disability benefits through the month.
“I only get $570 a month, I go to the grocery store, buy nothing and it’s $200,” she said. “I eat here because I can’t afford to feed myself on the little money they give us.”
Ubertino said Dunn’s story is typical.
“A lot of the people that come here live on welfare,” he said. “And most of the people coming here live in situations where they don’t have any cooking facilities.”
The mission serves people from across the city, and Ubertino says the need is strong. Each morning, there are about 50–60 people waiting outside when the mission opens at 6 a.m.
Ubertino is concerned about what may happen to those people if the mission can no longer run the meal program.
“For these people, if you don’t have places like this, you don’t eat,” he said. “I have people who regularly come up to me and are really thankful, because sometimes they haven’t eaten for several days.”
After repeated attempts, Public Works and Infrastructure chair Denzil Minnan-Wong did not respond to the Town Crier’s request for comment. But a city document with information on the new non-residential fees says charities will not suffer “undue hardship” as a result of the policy change.
“Many Non-Residential customers are large for-profit organizations or large charities with significant budgets,” the document says. “Charities that provide social services should anticipate lower fees achieved through diversion, since recycling and organic programs are provided free-of-charge.”
St. John’s the Compassionate Mission is neither a large for-profit organization nor a large charity. While they currently recycle, if they were to pay $30,000 for garbage collection, it would be the second largest expense in their annual budget.
Councillor Gord Perks said the city implemented the policy too hastily. Perks, a member of the works committee, made a motion for the policy to start Jan. 1, 2013, rather than the current July 1, 2012, but it was defeated.
“It would give these small charities and daycares and so on, an opportunity to figure out how they’re going to pay for it rather than have it lumped onto a budget that they would already have had to approve for this year,” he said.
Ubertino compares the policy to Mayor Rob Ford waging a “war on the poor”, and says the garbage collection fee is not getting as much attention as library or pool cuts because it affects those in the low-income bracket.
“He is hurting and taxing the poorest people,” Ubertino charged. “The people that come here, and basically need the food to get through the day, they’re not the ones you’re going to hear from.”
Ubertino is looking to see if the city would exempt a particular organization if they offered a social service. If not, the mission might be handing out its last free meals soon.
“We simply cannot afford it,” he said. “We have to choose, do we feed people, or do we pay for the garbage … That’s what it’s come to.”