With Enbridge Gas poised to increase rates in July, Community Cares CEO says it adds to the ‘perfect storm’ of economic struggles

Rent prices have increased 25 per cent in St. Catharines over the last three years. Gas prices are high, with potential to get higher. Add increasing food prices, transportation costs, utilities bills — it is becoming increasingly difficult for people to survive.

Seniors, the working class, low-income individuals and families on government assistance, “everybody is struggling just to try to get by in life right now,” said Miles Slauson, emergency bed worker with The Hope Centre.

It’s a “vicious cycle.”

Slauson sees it first-hand every day, whether working at the centre or at its Welland shelter. The amount of money coming in each month is not enough for many people to live, and it’s becoming necessary to take inventory of what matters most, and plan accordingly.

“People are trying to figure out: how do I keep a roof over my head, how do I keep food on the table … how do you keep gas in the tank?” said Slauson. “A lot of people right now are feeling very overwhelmed and trying to juggle all these balls.

“When I look at the bigger picture of society, we are going backwards. We’re not going forward, we’re not taking care of our people right now,” he said. “Everybody’s trying to do their part in the shelters, trying to get people off the street, re-housed and everything. But it’s a battle that’s going to take a very long time to fight.”

The largest barrier remains housing. Slauson had hoped the cooling real estate market would show up in the rental numbers, but so far that hasn’t been the case. Rental prices in May showed a 6.5 per cent increase month over month for a one-bedroom apartment in St. Catharines, averaging $1,451.

Each week, The Hope Centre sends out a list of apartment listings, motel options and shelters. The updated list from June 13 had Welland rentals ranging from $550 a month for a room in a house — tenants share a bathroom, common room and kitchen — to one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments for $1,250 to $2,050 a month.

“If you’re a person on government assistance, or OW (Ontario Works), or even working class or low income, you can’t afford these places,” he said.

A single person on OW gets about $800 a month, making even the room rental — Slauson said $550 is unusual, with rooms typically renting between $700 and $1,000 a month — difficult to afford.

Someone on disability gets about $1,200 to $1,400, but is in a similar situation, just “trying to figure out how to get by,” said Slauson.

St. Catharines city Coun. Karrie Porter said Niagara’s “out of control” rental prices have resulted in more people relying on food banks and struggling to make ends meet. And when people are limited in the type of housing they can afford, it can “lead further to a downward spiral.”

“There are still some rooming houses available, but they’re not often the best places to live,” said Porter, who is the housing help manager at Community Care of St. Catharines and Thorold. “There’s sometimes a lot of conflict. And people just don’t have a lot of choice anymore and can get stuck in situations that are very difficult to get out of.”

Because of the high rental demand, landlords are being selective in who they rent to. Not only do they prefer students, with landlords usually getting paid in advance in that case, said Slauson, but are also looking at potential tenants’ credit scores, creating an additional barrier to housing.

During the pandemic, one of the options that became readily available was motels, which took in higher numbers of renters to subsidize a lack of tourism-related money. But as COVID-19 restrictions eased, and tourism rose, tenants got evicted in response, he said.

“You have a lot of working class that are living paycheque to paycheque, and they can’t afford a regular apartment,” said Slauson, adding motel housing is between $1,200 to $1,600 a month.

“More people are facing being evicted from their apartments, so we are seeing a huge increase in seniors into the shelters. We’re seeing a huge increase on families into the shelters right now. And we’re probably, at one point, going to run out of space.”

Last week, another element got added to the list with Enbridge Gas receiving approval from the Ontario Energy Board for a rate increase of 18.5 per cent to 23.2 per cent beginning July 1. Community Cares chief executive officer Betty-Lou Souter said it is yet another piece to add to the growing list of money woes, creating the “perfect storm.”

“It’s very concerning and it’s going to put a whole different spin on what poverty really means,” said Souter. “We live in a community and a society that believes everybody should live with dignity and purpose, and that’s what we should be trying to achieve.”

Whether it’s OW, the Ontario Disability Support Program or Old Age Security, government assistance is not keeping up with inflation, said Porter. The easiest and quickest solution is to raise rates, which was “promised” by government leaders.

“I would like to see them make good on that promise, and that’s something that can be done right now,” she said. “We just need people to have more money available in their pockets so they can avoid eviction and eat.”

Leave a Comment