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National Benchmarks Show Londoners Struggle to Climb Out of Poverty

London has bounced back from the last recession, with a jobless rate that would be the envy of many cities and its housing and real estate markets riding a hot streak.

But it’s another story for those living on the margins, new figures suggest, painting a picture of a city struggling with poverty issues comparatively worse than the year before the last downturn hit.

It’s taking Londoners nearly twice as long to get off welfare as it did a decade ago, the year before the 2008 recession, and the city’s overall rates even outpace those in larger cities, the numbers indicate.

Some of those numbers are contained in the latest report by Municipal Benchmarking Network Canada, which ranks 15 cities nationwide on more than 100 measures affecting public services and costs.

Last year, nearly 12,000 Londoners received social assistance, the highest rate per 100,000 people of the cities surveyed in the report. London had a higher proportion of people living on welfare than did Toronto, Niagara, Waterloo and Hamilton.

The city’s own figures also indicate it’s taking longer for Londoners to get off welfare, an average of 34 months, almost twice as long as the 18-month average in 2007.

So, why are needs so much greater in London, a city whose jobless rate is running at 6.3 per cent, the same as the national average, and only slightly higher than the Ontario average?


One reason might be London’s profile as the region’s largest centre.

Kevin Dickins, the city’s manager of employment and income supports, said London attracts people — some of them struggling — from outlying centres as a Southwestern Ontario hub.

Experts also argue that low welfare payments are backing the most vulnerable into a corner.

Chuck Lazenby, executive director of the Unity Project, an emergency shelter, said the Ontario Works rent allowance — $375 for a single person — makes it virtually impossible to find a safe place to live.

“They can’t afford rent . . . The amount that social assistance covers for rent is a big barrier,” she said. “We absolutely know we could get people out (of shelters) sooner if that one thing changed.”

The benchmarking report shows Londoners are staying in emergency shelters longer than ever, averaging 41 days in 2016 compared to 20 days in Toronto and 10 in Waterloo. Occupancy rates hit 98 per cent last year, compared to the median 86 per cent among all 15 cities tallied.

Key factors include low bachelor apartment vacancy rates, economic troubles and lack of preventive supports, said Abe Oudshoorn, a Western University nursing professor and member of the London Homeless Coalition.

“The numbers are going up not because we’re not getting people out of shelter, but because the number coming into the system is greater than the number of people exiting,” he said.

Indigenous people area vastly overrepresented in the city’s homelessness data. Close to 30 per cent identified as Indigenous, a group that accounts for less than three per cent of the city’s population.

Observers say that’s a function of a larger historical problem.

“When we talk about Indigenous homelessness, oftentimes we’re not just discussing housing . . . Mental health and addiction, trauma — all of these (other issues) being the symptoms of colonialization,” said Andrea Jibb, Indigenous community planner at Atlohsa Native Family Healing Services.

Agencies like Atlohsa are trying to tackle the root issues.

“Indigenous people have lost that relationship to land and community,” Jibb said. “Mainstream programs may not speak to Indigenous people because they feel they might not have a place in greater society.”

But others insist good news is getting lost in the scary numbers.

More Londoners on welfare are finding work, Dickins said, with employment numbers “inching up” every year.

And a new five-year shelter report shows the number of distinct individuals seeking out shelter beds is down by 18 per cent since 2011, said Jan Richardson, the city’s manager of homeless prevention.

“We’re actually rehousing more people with supports than we ever have before,” Oudshoorn said.

Lazenby said while community groups and the city are doing all they can, shelters would benefit most from a provincial top-up to welfare rates.

“Our community is really working hard at coming up with new strategies, and we see that working,” she said.

“But we’re still seeing people come into the system, and we’re still seeing the same barriers we saw 20 years ago. How do we change that?”

By Megan Stacey,
The London Free Press