Programs bring job hopes to welfare recipients
Ronnie Johnson is working to improve his life through a new Ontario Works program. Johnson is working at Grenville Farm with a group who is supported by Ontario Works two days a week while he is looking for a job as a painter.
Photo by Jennifer Bowman
April 25, 2012
MUSKOKA - When the woman he loved left him for a cab driver, Ronnie Johnson turned to the bottle. The more he drank, the more his life spiralled downward. He lost his job.
That’s when Johnson ended up on welfare.
Johnson, a 50-year-old painter from Kilworthy, is one of a growing number of Muskokans who have come to rely on Ontario Works.
In 2011 the Ontario Works caseload in Muskoka increased 9.7 per cent. That is 6.4 per cent higher than the provincial increase.
Generally viewed as a program of last resort, Ontario Works is there to help people who are out of work, no longer eligible for unemployment insurance, have limited assets, and no bank account.
Johnson has been on and off welfare throughout the years because of lack of work.
This time he’s hoping he’ll be able to get off and stay off. In his efforts to get a permanent job, he’s working on getting his driver’s licence for the first time.
He said he’s glad he didn’t have his licence before.
“I wasn’t responsible,” he said.
Rick Williams, commissioner of community services for the District of Muskoka, said Muskoka’s Ontario Works caseload has increased dramatically over the past six years.
“Demand for all of our programs has doubled, including Ontario Works,” said Williams, “which five years ago was about 500. Now it is about 1,000.”
Despite the bad news, Muskoka is also one of the top five municipalities in Ontario where people who are on Ontario Works gain employment. On average, Muskokans stay on social assistance for less than 10 months; across the province most people stay on Ontario Works for about 13 months.
One of the reasons for this is the re-employment programs the province has implemented.
Ontario Works recipients receive three things: a monthly check, health-related benefits, and programs to help them enhance their employability.
In Muskoka that includes a variety of training and workshops with a focus on construction, tourism, retail and life skills development. It also offers addictions programs, community gardens, community kitchens and volunteer placements.
“It gives people activity and hope while they’re on Ontario Works,” said Williams.
Johnson used one of the programs to find work again at Grenville Farms in Severn Bridge. Now he’s waiting for the planting to begin.
The re-employment program isn’t a long-term solution for Johnson though, because it is seasonal. He’s looking for a painting job.
“Hopefully I’ll be having a real job,” he said.
Williams said seasonal jobs are one of the reasons the Ontario Works caseload in Muskoka is so high.
The caseload increases in the winter and decreases in the summer by as much as 20 per cent, he said. That’s about 200 people.
That’s mostly due to construction and tourism, he said.
Cheryl Parlett, manager of programs for the Ontario Works program for the District of Muskoka, said the group of Ontario Works recipients increasing the most rapidly is youth ages 18-25 and recently displaced males ages 35-45.
“This group, the 35-45-year-old males, they’re often the seasonal workers, the subcontractor, they haven’t been part of an apprenticeship program,” said Parlett.
Gravenhurst has 31 per cent of all Ontario Works recipients in Muskoka.
Ronica Lewis is a 44-year-old mom from Gravenhurst. Her husband Dale was working at Tembec, but had to apply for social assistance because of a bad shoulder.
He’s been on welfare for six years, allowing her to take advantage of the programs.
She said she did a volunteer job at Fairvern Nursing Home in Huntsville through an Ontario Works program, as well as some workshops.
She plans to continue volunteering, she said, but she’s not planning on going into the workforce because of back trouble.
“The volunteer work that I do now, like the food basket, even though it’s once a month, it’s nice to get out,” she said.
About one-third of the people on Ontario Works in Muskoka have mental health issues.
“The fastest growing number of people with mental health issues are between the ages of 18 and 40,” said Parlett. “Sixty per cent of all ODSP (Ontario Disability Support Program) grants in 2009 and 2010 were due to mental illness.”
Parlett said it is more difficult to help local employers see the benefit of hiring someone with mental health issues.
“We need to continue to work with the special populations. These people have significant barriers to employment,” said Parlett.
Social services programs cost a total of $10 million each year, $2 million of which is funded by the district. The rest is funded by the provincial and federal governments. By 2018, everything is scheduled to be uploaded to the province, decreasing the district’s financial burden.
The social services programs include Ontario Works, as well as other aids to families in need, such as emergency funding for people in a financial crisis, social housing, employment services, child-care subsidies and senior services.
About 15 per cent of all Muskoka residents, 9,000 people, rely on these services each year.
Williams said the district is looking at creating partnerships in the community and other services.
“We have to do something dramatically different in the next five years or we’re going to lose a good part of a generation,” said Williams.
-With files from Neil Etienne
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