Ron Kitchen, a resident of Barrie, Ontario, remembers when disability benefits were enough to get by.
But that changed in recent years after rents began to rise, far exceeding the nearly $1,700 that Kitchen, who has borderline personality disorder, receives each month from the Ontario Disability Support Program.
Now, she said, she has no choice but to fast during the day in order to pay for her two children’s food. He is also behind on his $2,200 monthly rent and cannot find a job that accommodates his disability and helps support his family.
“Personally, I don’t understand how I’m expected to live,” said Kitchen, 37, adding that he worries the “snowball effect” of putting off bills will eventually make him and his family homeless.
“It’s really crazy what we’re going through, and… I don’t think the public has a clue.”
Kitchen said that despite the public perception that welfare is enough to get him by, the financial support he receives from all levels of government, including a hydroelectric rebate and the Canada Child Benefit, in addition to his disability pay, is not enough to deal with skyrocketing rents, let alone the rising cost of living.
The kitchen is not alone. According to the most recent federal data, approximately one in five people in Canada aged 15 and over have at least one disability, with nearly 17 percent of all people living with a disability living in poverty. To make matters worse, people with disabilities represent 30 percent of Canadians live in extreme povertyearning below 75 percent of Canada’s official poverty line.
Experts say that governments are not only providing an inadequate number of affordable and accessible housing units for people with disabilities, they are failing in their broader duties to ensure sufficient support in the community.
“People are getting rates that are at least a decade behind, if not more,” said Rabia Khedr, national director of the advocacy group Disability Without Poverty.
Across Canada, people who receive some type of disability benefit generally receive about 40 percent of the official poverty line calculated for the community where they live, said Khedr. The lack of annual increases in support, in line with inflation, and the rising cost of living have essentially kept people with disabilities in “a cycle” of poverty that makes it hard for them to get by, he said.
And while the federal Liberal government passed legislation for a new Canada-wide disability benefit, it remains to be seen how much people will receive, and whether it will take effect if another party forms government, Khedr said.
“If you don’t have the money, you can’t have adequate housing, you can’t have clothes, you can’t have food to be productive and hold a job,” he said. “You’re constantly in this fight. It just keeps you down.”
Critics call for increased attendance
Douglas Kwan, director of advocacy and legal services for the Ontario Tenant Advocacy Center, said people with disabilities accounted for about 60 percent of the roughly 10,000 tenants the center served last year. Many of them went to the provincial Landlord-Tenant Board and faced eviction for not being able to pay their rent, he said.
And that’s only the case for people with disabilities who were able to find housing to begin with, he said.
“Especially in a tight real estate market and in the midst of an affordable housing crisis, landlords just aren’t renting to people on a fixed income or with disabilities,” Kwan said, adding that this is considered discrimination under Canadian law.
To alleviate the problem, he said, governments must commit to raising welfare rates across the board, fund and build more affordable and accessible transitional housing units, and implement rent and vacancy controls.
But Tim Aubry, co-chair of the Canadian Housing First Network, which helps communities across Canada implement programs to house the homeless, said disability supports such as income supplements are only part of the solution.
all points west9:46When housing is affordable but not accessible
The rest lies in ensuring that people with disabilities can access additional services, ranging from mental health to assistance in entering the labor market.
“One of the biggest factors fueling homelessness, without a doubt, is the level of poverty that people with disabilities experience,” said Aubry, a professor of psychology at the University of Ottawa.
“Homelessness is really a reflection of the failure of our social policies.”
Governments must be held accountable: lawyer
The federal government announced a 10-year plan in 2017 aimed at “taking steps to promote the right to housing,” and in 2019 officially codified Housing as a human right in Canadian law.
Despite this, Kwan said, it is not a right that can be enforced by law, but is used as a “way and approach” to design housing programs.
But Vince Calderhead, a lawyer at Pink Larkin in Halifax who specializes in legal reform for low-income Canadians, said people with disabilities should still consider holding governments legally accountable for the gap between “what they have promised to do internationally” and “what they are actually doing.”
He said that Canada’s governments, both provincial and federal, are failing to meet their obligations under national and global conventions, such as the right to equality under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and united nations statements — pointing to inadequate disability support programs and the government’s failure to make them easily accessible where disabled people live.
“Too often those obligations are not upheld when it comes to people with disabilities, and governments have felt they could get away with it because, essentially, we live in a mostly able-bodied society,” Calderhead said.
“It is time to hold governments accountable.”
pointed a 2021 Judgment of the Nova Scotia Court of Appeals, a case he helped litigate, which found the province was systematically discriminating against people with disabilities. Last month, an independent human rights board made a decision outline a five-year resolution process.
“Advocates and people with disabilities are starting to hold government to account and … those efforts need to be redoubled,” Calderhead said.