The “social safety net”?

I have worked all my life in various pursuits, some admittedly more successful than others. Today I find myself facing physical limitations and medical issues for the first time in my life. My weight gain from not smoking, lack of exercise, my “frozen shoulder”, elevated sugar levels, foot swelling and pain, all contribute to limiting the type of work I can do. Throughout all of this, though, my singular goal has been to find work. I have never been one to put my feet up and live off the public purse. It’s just not my nature.

Thankfully, Ontario Works, the welfare system here in Ontario, within very restrictive guidelines, has still managed to show compassion and understanding for my situation and I am alive today because of it. Also, having been through the horrible experience of staying at the shelters in town, I am most thankful that London Housing finally came through with accommodation. It is a far cry from living in the hellish conditions of places like the Men’s Mission, which no one should ever have to suffer.

Obviously this is the first time I have been subjected to the system of support in Ontario, so everything has been new to me. With the exception of the front counter staff at OW, who treat people like pond scum before even giving them a chance, I take no issue with how I have been dealt with, in fact, I have been pleasantly surprised at the genuine concern for my predicament. What I do take exception to, and I think needs to be rethought, is the systems and programs outside of the control of OW.

Firstly, my experience with a local “counselling” company. Having just gone through the trauma of coming far too close to buying the farm because I had no meds, coupled with the loss of my job and my threat of eviction, I was quite obviously in a poor mental state. It didn’t help that I was also all alone in a strange town, with no support network of friends.I had never been to any type of counselling or therapy in my life, so I had no idea what to expect. I did think that they would offer me some effective help by referring me to various agencies or suggesting courses of action to get me back on track. OW approved me for ten sessions and I can only assume they are expensive. They were; however, a total waste of time and I only went to two sessions before quitting. They do nothing more than sit and listen to your list of troubles, but offer nothing in return. I asked a number of questions about things like financial assistance, lodging, work related programs, exercise options and on and on, yet my counsellor said that was “not their purpose” and she had no information what-so-ever on anything to help me. What good is that? It was pointless.

Frankly I am not sure how I came into contact with Goodwill, who I know no doubt do good work. Maybe it was a referral from OW, but they did offer some very helpful courses to assist me in my job search. What I found incredibly lacking though was their counselling. My first counsellor referred me to a program, part of the Ontario Government’s Second Career program, and offered online through Conestoga College. Only after several emails back and forth did I learn that this is a post-grad course and I did not qualify, which my counselor should have known. Subsequent to this total waste of time I requested a change of counsellor because I felt she was doing nothing for me. Although, after some prodding, they agreed to assign a new counsellor to me, the first available appointment with him was over a month away! My job search is urgent and I need all the help I can get. There is obviously a shortage of qualified counsellors or funding issues or something that would delay assistance this long. This is of little help to someone struggling every single day to find work.

The merry-go-round with Leads, a local agency designed to help the disabled, was ridiculous. After my referral from OW in January I received a letter setting an appointment for March 31st, almost three months from the date of the referral! Then I got a call cancelling my appointment with no real explanation. Then after a follow-up on the second referral, they had no record of it and told me to go back, yet again, to OW for another referral. After all this I then got a letter telling me I have an appointment for August 1st! This is six months after the initial referral. Watching all their commercials and looking at their website I did feel that they could be very effective in overcoming my physical challenges and finding me some kind of meaningful work, so I pressed to get an earlier appointment, and was successful.

Last week I met with a counsellor and had a very in-depth two hour interview. I left feeling that there was a very good chance that they would find me work. I was to attend again yesterday for a follow-up. Full of anticipation, when I got there, first, they had misplaced my file, but we were to go ahead anyway. That struck me as odd because I assumed there might have been some contacts made with employers or that they had done something. I was wrong. I was ushered into the office, whereupon the counsellor looked up job postings with people like the city and a call centre. I had explained that, since the day my contract ended with Home Depot I had spent every day, all day, searching every possible job posting anywhere. There was no job publicly posted anywhere that I did not know about. I assumed that the whole purpose of Leads was to tap into the hidden job market for people with disabilities. I also assumed that they acted as advocates for people like me. The results of the meeting were that I was to apply online, myself, something I could and did do every day, to these jobs. I asked somewhat incredulously, if it wasn’t better to go through Leads so that they might advocate on my behalf with the employer to consider hiring someone with challenges. The answer was that it didn’t matter, so what is the purpose of Leads?

My point here is that it, in my humble opinion, it is time for reform. I question why there are so many publicly funded outside agencies involved in the process of getting people back to work. Ontario Works mandate should be, simply, to get people back to work. The programs should start with providing people funding for their basic needs, but then it should ran the gambit, from work, home and life counselling, to retraining, to academic funding to housing to employment counselling with resume building and interview counselling to job placement and follow-up, all coordinated under one roof and by a team who are fully aware of the client’s needs. There should also be volunteering opportunities to gain work experience and temporary job placement. When I worked setting up the call centre we needed four call reps immediately. I called OW to advise of the job, which paid $11.00 an hour to start. How many of the eight thousand people on assistance applied? Not one. The system is obviously broken.

I don’t pretend to understand the internal workings of OW, but I do hope that maybe someone will have the courage to submit some ideas up the ladder. With a provincial election looming and the Premier with the lowest ever popularity ratings, maybe a really effective “works” program would be an effective election campaign strategy. It could start with putting able-bodied people on assistance to work, but letting them keep the money earned. There are thousands of projects in a place like London that could be done with public/private partnerships, like cleaning up all the graffiti or picking up the thousands of cigarette butts lying all over the city.

Just food for thought, I hope.

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