November 19, 2018

BY ROLAND FLEMING

Waterloo Region is not doing enough for its citizens with mental illness. Too often they are left behind and it doesn’t just hurt them, it hurts all of us.

People struggling with mental illness are more likely to struggle with consistent poverty, and often have trouble holding down a job. As such, they also often have trouble affording a place to live.
As a single person in Waterloo Region you can expect to pay an average of approximately $830 a month for a one-bedroom apartment. For someone who is struggling with mental illness, and hasn’t been able to keep a job, they will likely be surviving off Ontario Works. The maximum allowance from this agency is a little over $700 for a single person. So, to find one’s own apartment, let alone buy food, is nearly impossible. What options does this leave for someone who is mentally ill?

You might be thinking, “Why don’t they just go on disability if they are mentally ill?” It’s a valid question, but the process of getting benefits is often one that takes time, patience and stability. I have personally met people whose mental states would surely warrant the status of being disabled, but oftentimes the very nature of their mental illness prevents them from being able to complete the process. The Ontario Disability Support Program does provide a maximum of about $1,100 a month, but even that leaves little to spare after rent.

This means that a person with mental illness will likely have to find alternatives to renting their own one-bedroom apartment. So what are the alternatives?

Realistically, on a maximum income of $700 a month, a person is going to have to share a space with someone to make basic survival affordable. Unfortunately, many mental illnesses mean the person doesn’t do well living in close quarters with others. This means that many find themselves constantly moving from one place to another, one couch to the next.

This lifestyle only supports a further worsening of mental health, as the places they are forced to live and people they are forced to live with only add stress to their already difficult lives.

The best option would be to obtain supportive housing specific to mental health issues. Waterloo has slightly over 300 of these units, but according to a 2011 inventory of supportive housing, wait times were between two and five years.

Another option would be affordable housing which lacks the support but at least would provide people with their own space. There are a little over 10,000 of these spaces, but again wait times listed on the 2011 housing inventory were between four and six years for a single, non-senior person.

At best a single person living on Ontario Works would have to wait at least two years to afford their own place. In the meantime they are left to live in shelters or on the streets, where they are more likely to cause harm to themselves or others, where they will frequently use hospital beds and where they will cost taxpayers more in emergency and police services then if they’d had a place to live.

Providing affordable and supportive housing for our mentally ill population is crucial for their health, and it will benefit everyone else too. As a region we need to create more spaces for the mentally ill, as it will benefit not just their health, but our health as a whole.

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