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'Some nights, you just don't do dinner': Toronto is becoming even more unaffordable, data confirms

As Sue-Ellen Patcheson makes her way through a local food bank picking up whatever weekly necessities her points will buy — beans, potatoes, bananas if she's lucky — her real wish is that it didn't have to exist at all.

"We really feel it's important that people know that we are grateful. We are so grateful.

"We'd be more grateful if they were put out of business," Patcheson says with a hoarse laugh.

Patcheson, who suffers from a severe anxiety disorder, makes the trip to the food bank on foot from her Toronto home once a week. In her family of five adults, four are on some form of disability support, herself included.

Their income used to be enough to scrape by. But in 2020, Patcheson started having to rely on the food bank to supplement what she could afford.

"Some nights, you just don't do dinner," she says. "Last night was one of those nights."

WATCH | Go inside one Toronto food bank with a user who says it's busier than ever:

As grocery prices continue to rise along with inflation, Patcheson is just one of a record number of clients using Toronto-area food banks this year, many of whom have jobs but simply can't make ends meet. The food bank is a key part of making it week-to-week, but Patcheson says what people actually need are long-term solutions.

"What we really need is livable income for everybody," she says. "Income security takes care of health insecurity, it takes care of food insecurity and it takes care of housing insecurity."

New data from the City of Toronto's Social Development, Finance and Administration division bears that reality out in stark numbers. Toronto is mandated to report on the cost of food affordability every year, but the city says the pandemic forced a pause in data collection until this past June.

Among the conclusions — something many in the city know all too well: "People with low incomes do not have enough money to cover the cost of basic expenses, including nutritious food."

'A scary place'

The data outlines eight common income scenarios that could increase the risk of food insecurity — factors like being on social assistance, single-parent households and rental housing — and a ninth for comparison, using a median income of approximately $84,000. From there, it subtracted basic living expenses, including shelter, food, child care and transportation.

Based on those calculations, a family of four with a full-time minimum wage earner needed 95 per cent of its income when paying a market rent, but 28 per cent for food, putting regular healthy meals very much out of reach.

Have a look at the income scenarios for yourself. The first image is the cost of living with subsidies, and the second without.

Cost of living with subsidies in Toronto
Cost of living with subsidies in Toronto
Cost of living without subsidies in Toronto
Cost of living without subsidies in Toronto

Cost of living in Toronto for low-income households with or without subsidies in 2022

The situation is predictably more bleak where two parents are on Ontario Works, the province's social assistance program. In that case, 137 per cent of their income would be required to rent at market prices, with 41 per cent required for healthy food. A single-person household on Ontario Works fares even worse — with 195 per cent of their income needed to rent at market prices and 45 per cent for healthy food.

Things look considerably better when subsidies are factored in, such as rent-geared-to-income, transit fare passes and the Canada Child Benefit and Ontario Trillium Benefit. With subsidies, the family of four on a single full-time minimum wage income needs 19 per cent of their income for rent and 29 per cent for food, while the single-person household on Ontario Works with subsidies needs 10 per cent of their income for rent and 47 per cent for food.

The data doesn't account for other living costs like utilities, prescription medications and clothing — and importantly, doesn't indicate anything about distribution or how many Toronto families fall into the more precarious income scenarios.

Also not captured in the data are those who are unhoused or on the verge of becoming unhoused, says Saman Tabasinejad, organizing director of the advocacy group Progress Toronto, who says too many in this city are just a paycheque away from homelessness.

"No one's safe from being in an even more precarious situation ... That's a scary place for a lot of people to be," Tabasinejad says..

'Root causes' of poverty come down to income: city

So is Toronto livable?

Ask Sean McIntyre, acting manager of the Poverty Reduction Strategy Office at the City of Toronto, and the answer is "absolutely it is livable, but it's getting more difficult."

"The gap between what it costs to live in Toronto, and what people actually have available to them to live in Toronto has grown," he told CBC News.

Paul Borkwood/CBC
Paul Borkwood/CBC

There are things the City of Toronto can do, like lower the cost of transit and improve rent-geared-to-income subsidies, says McIntyre. But the "root causes" of the strain come down to income, an issue that goes beyond the purview of the city and that means boosting social assistance and disability allowances, he says.

"Things are not getting better," says McIntyre.

Garima Talwar Kapoor, director of policy and research at Maytree, a charitable organization that advances systemic solutions to poverty, points out a majority of people on social assistance are forced to rent at market prices, often finding themselves on social housing wait lists for as long as 10 years.

On top of that, she says, for a single adult receiving Ontario Works, the market costs for a one-bedroom in Toronto is nearly triple what they receive, and about double what's received on Ontario disability support.

"Without actually having a concerted effort to build up that kind of housing, you're going to see the gap between people's incomes and the cost of what they need to live a life with basic dignity growing over time," Talwar Kapoor told CBC News.

ODSP changes not good enough: advocates

According to the most recent census data collected in May 2021, Toronto continues to have a higher rate of low income earners than the province as a whole. Its median household income was also lower than all other GTHA regions, where Halton region had the highest median income of $121,000.

Of all Toronto residents employed in 2021, 34.8 per cent had an annual income of under $20,000, a percentage that includes those working part-time.

LISTEN | On ODSP, can you afford to eat healthy food?

For Trevor Manson, who is on the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP), dinner can sometimes look like a couple of oranges and a bowl of cereal. Other times, he's resorted to coffee to suppress his appetite.

"After the rent is paid, you have to keep a roof over your head and see what's left," Manson, who is also the secretary co-chair of the ODSP Action Coalition, told CBC Radio's Ontario Today.

"The people I know on ODSP, myself included, only eat one meal a day because that's all we can really afford."

Many disability advocates have called for the province to double ODSP rates.

Instead, Ontario recently increased rates of income support for those on ODSP by five per cent, the largest hike in decades, according to the government. That's about $60 more per month. Future ODSP rates will also be adjusted to inflation, with the first adjustment coming next July, the province's Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services told CBC News.

The province has also moved to allow those with disabilities who are employed to earn a maximum of $1,000 per month, an increase of 400 per cent.

But Rabia Khedr, national director of the group Disability Without Poverty, told Ontario Today that doesn't go far enough.

"That only benefits the very few on ODSP who can get and keep a job to make that much money. Not everyone can actually work," says Khedr.

Khedr also points to a federal bill — Bill C22 — to establish the Canada disability benefit that she hopes will soon pass to help top up disability rates.

"This benefit in fact will save lives," she says, pointing to recent media reports of individuals on ODSP who are turning to medically assisted dying because they simply can't afford to live.

City advocating for higher social assistance, ODSP rates

CBC News asked the province why Ontario Works allowances have not been similarly increased.

In response, the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services said in an email, "Ontario Works is intended to be a temporary program of last resort that provides both financial stability and employment assistance to encourage individuals and their families to achieve financial independence. The government will continue focusing on improving access to employment and training services for people who are able to work."

As for the city's role, Toronto Mayor John Tory's office told CBC News the mayor will continue to advocate for greater provincial support for those on ODSP, Ontario Works and on the topic rent control.

Asked if the mayor will used his new "strong mayor" powers to specifically address the financial strain seen in the city's latest data, Tory's office responded: "Whatever authorities any mayor has, the present provincial-municipal financial arrangements and strict limits on how municipalities raise funds do not allow for the city to step in where the province has chosen not to."

Paul Borkwood/CBC
Paul Borkwood/CBC

The statement also says Tory is focused on building more affordable housing, keeping the cost of municipal government and in turn taxes as low as possible, and approved a transit fare reduction to residents who need it most.

City staff are beginning to prepare the 2023-2026 poverty reduction strategy, part of a larger plan launched by Tory during his first term, with 17 recommendations to be achieved by 2035.

They include housing stability, access to services, transit equity, food security, job quality and systemic change, the mayor's office said.

While that happens, Patcheson will continue to make the weekly trip to the food bank, but she says to anyone who might judge those who use the service: people simply don't have a choice.

"They're your neighbours, they're your coworkers, they're your church members, people living in your community," she says.

"None of us are happy about going there."

This month, CBC Toronto is running a fundraiser in support of local food banks. If you are in a position to donate, consider heading over to cbc.ca/sots to learn more.