It has been discussed for years, but a city committee has moved decentralization of London’s Ontario Works office one step closer to reality.
During the Community and Protective Services Committee meeting on Monday (Feb. 4), members unanimously supported a report that calls for the creation of four regional Ontario Works offices. Ontario Works provides temporary financial and employment assistance to those who need money right away to help pay for food and housing costs.
Nearly 11,000 London households, approximately 24,000 individuals and families, utilize Ontario Works, which is currently located downtown in the Market Tower. The existing lease for the space in Market Tower, 80 percent of which is used for Ontario Works, expires in 2017.
Lynne Livingstone, acting Ontario Works administrator, said the move to a regional approach is something that has been apparent for years. However, this new report puts the city on a path towards decentralization.
“What has become very apparent is that the our current model of a centralized Ontario Works office no longer meets the needs of our clients, or our community, particularly well,” Livingstone said. “So how can we better meet the needs of our clients, achieve better outcomes for those folks and connect them with their community?”
The answer to that question, Livingstone said, was made apparent after the conclusion of an analysis of where people trying to access Ontario Works services reside. The analysis shows 21 percent of the Ontario Works caseload is found in the city’s northwest, 23 percent in the northeast, 24 percent in the southeast and 24 percent in the southwest. In addition, the report also states eight percent of clients reside in the downtown.
“There is a relatively even distribution across our community of where people who are trying to access Ontario Works services reside,” Livingstone said. “What that says to us is we can serve our clients better in a more evenly distributed way.”
Livingstone also said decentralization also allows the city to partner with other organizations in order to better meet the needs of “that particular community or those particular clients.”
It was a point unanimously agreed to by the committee.
Ward 2 Councillor Bill Armstrong commend staff with “staying the course” towards decentralization, but said efforts should be made to find partners in the community and shared spaces that could be used for Ontario Works programs. Currently, the only established location for a future Ontario Works office is in the southwest at the South London Community Centre.
Ward 5 Councillor Joni Baechler also expressed her support for decentralization, saying the strategy brings with it words such as dignity and respect.
“It’s treating individuals in a manner that engages them within their community and doesn’t stigmatize those who need to collectively gather at one location within the city,” Baechler said. “I don’t wanted to say herded down to one spot, but that really is an outdated model.”
Ward 12 Councillor Harold Usher said he is “tickled pink” about the proposal, but cautioned against bringing together too many partners — and their related services — together in one location.
Ward 4 Councillor Stephen Orser, who isn’t a member of the committee, also agrees with decentralization, but he also raised a pair of concerns around what happens after it takes place.
Orser expressed concern over the number of Ontario Works clients who utilize private cheque cashing services to cash their post-dated cheques, receiving in return a diminished portion of the total sum. Orser asked the committee to consider some type of mechanism for cashing cheques onsite.
He also questioned the need for the proposed fifth location downtown in light of the eight percent of Ontario Works clients that live in the area.
Livingstone agreed the eight percent is a small number, but added there is a reason the fifth location is necessary.
“We are talking about largely a homeless population, a no-fixed-address population, that at this point in time are still part of our caseload,” said Livingstone, who added the fifth location would the final place of implementation, not taking place until 2017.
Mayor Joe Fontana said “it makes an awful lot of sense” for the city to utilize a regional approach because the expectation is “it will be easier for them, less costly for them, and I think better service for them.”
However, he did express concerns around the proposed 2017 timeline. “Certain things in the downtown may happen a lot sooner than that, therefore we have to be nimble enough, I think, to do it in a two year time period.”
Fontana, always as strong proponent of community partnerships, is calling on the idea once again as he says simply “building new locations isn’t an option.”
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