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January 22, 2014

The importance of speaking up

The community got a win at Waterloo Regional Council's budget meeting last week (January 15, 2014).

Council voted to invest an additional $1 million in the discretionary benefits program. And it is a credit both the Councillors and to the many community people who came out to speak in favour of putting money into that program.

Discretionary benefits are provided to people receiving social assistance to help with things like food emergencies, finding housing, getting dentures or orthotics. It also covers the cost of burial. Those are just some of the things discretionary benefits are used for.

One of the things I have learned over the years is that for our Governments at the local, provincial and federal levels to fulfill their responsibilities well, they need to receive input from community groups and individuals about community needs and the impact public policies are having.

During the Region of Waterloo's budget input sessions dozens of individuals and groups came out and spoke up about the importance of discretionary benefits and urged Councillors to boost funding. They came from the local foodbanks and Out of the Cold programs, churches and Social Planning Councils. They included people who were helped by discretionary benefits. These are folks who work everyday to help people in need get by and hopefully be able to get ahead.

Wayne Porty, a Pastor from Waterloo Mennonite Brethren Church spoke. Wayne administers the Barnabas Fund at Waterloo MB Church. He explains "Over and above their regular tithes, the people of our congregation have given $70,000+ annually, to extend mercy in the form of financial & emotional support to people in crisis in Waterloo Region.  Our congregation is passionate about coming alongside those who struggle - we care about them, because Jesus cares about them even more."

Here is a bit of what Wayne shared with Council.

The majority of Barnabas’ $70,000 budget goes toward direct assistance to people in financial crisis...bridging the financial gap for people who have no way to resolve their situation, on a case by case basis.  We take the time to hear people in their time of need, to assist them in making a plan, and to journey alongside them as they work toward financial stability.  It's not a loan or a thoughtless handout.  95% of people who we assist are not part of our congregation, and there is no expectation that they will become so. It is an extension of love & mercy.

So this is the context I'm working from - the majority of the people I come into contact with have already made attempts to access support from the Region, and they have either been denied or it is simply not enough.  Although we have been able to fill in some of the gaps for the 300+ families we are actively connected with, as the gaps have grown wider – which we’ve especially seen in the past year - we are less able to fill them.  We are stretched to our max, and we simply cannot keep up.  I'm here today to offer a very frank challenge to you for 2014 - to not only match the generous contribution that you made in 2013, but to consider doing even more.
 I have personally seen the impact of the province's cuts to discretionary funding.  I have seen how it has hamstrung the ability of Ontario Works and Disability staff to assist in logical ways to legitimate needs.  Their hands are tied.  I can see their frustration and disillusionment as they cannot do what they know needs to be done in order to get their clients on the right track.  This is a mirror-image of the helplessness & hopelessness the clients themselves experience.  

Kudos to both Regional Council and staff and to the people of Waterloo Region who spoke up for the needs of people struggling to get by in our community.

Now we need the Provincial and Federal Governments to do their part. It has been cutbacks in benefits and services at those levels of Government that have led to the rise of foodbanks and Out of the Cold programs.