It seems that everywhere the cost of living is rising and anxiety levels about finances are rising right along with it, particularly among Toronto’s low-income families.
"Two of the biggest concerns I’m hearing from clients are about food costs and housing costs," says Colby Koecher who works with WoodGreen Community Services’ Financial Empowerment Team.
"With each increase in inflation, it tips those families closer to the edge of not being able to pay their bills."
Majority already facing crisis
Fortunately, Koecher and her team have years of experience helping Torontonians struggling to make ends meet. About 80 per cent of clients they see at WoodGreen are already in a crisis situation with their finances. Sometimes they can’t make rent or they have seen a benefit suddenly cut off. Others have perhaps aged out of social assistance but can’t access a pension or have debts that have gone to collections. Most are feeling anxious and stressed, says Koecher, who notes every team member is also a social worker trained to help clients in crisis.
"A big part of it is listening to people and validating that, yes, this is not a great situation. It’s valid that you feel run down."
Finding sources of income
One of the first things she does with clients as part of the one-on-one financial counselling is something called a benefits screening. It’s a short interview to find out someone’s income sources, expenses, family makeup, if the person perhaps has a disability, is a caregiver or is in school. This helps WoodGreen’s team answer a key question:
"What kinds of benefits and programs are you not currently accessing and which ones can we help you gain access to, by helping with the application process or advocating on your behalf?"
WoodGreen’s integrated system of programs means having smooth access to services that can help low-income families struggling with the rising cost of living. If clients need money urgently, one of the first things Koecher and her team will do is connect with WoodGreen’s Income Tax Clinic.
"If someone, for example, hasn’t filed three years of taxes and they’re living on a low income, they can be eligible for thousands of dollars," says Koecher, noting that claims can go back up to ten years with Canada Revenue Agency depositing refunds within days.
"Having our tax clinic run year round is a huge benefit, because we are one of the few community service organizations that have that free resource all year."
Up-to-date income taxes are essential for accessing many government benefits, as most rely on a current notice of assessment to determine if someone is, in fact, low-income. WoodGreen’s financial experts know which benefits clients might qualify for and will help them apply.
Access to Housing, Employment Services
Of great concern to Koecher, however, are the many families finding it impossible to manage their finances as skyrocketing housing prices now make up between 75 and 80 per cent of their entire household income. Sometimes they can qualify for a rent subsidy program of up to $400 per month, while others are referred to WoodGreen’s Housing and Homelessness Services.
Once the financial team has determined a client’s income sources and expenses, sometimes that person may decide for themselves that they want to seek out a better paying job, a part-time job, or upgrade their skills. But that also means understanding that working is not always an option for some people, particularly those who are seniors, full-time caregivers, injured or dealing with a mental or physical disability. For those interested in changing jobs, however, "having the Employment Services office right within WoodGreen is super helpful because we’re able to connect clients very smoothly," says Koecher.
Coping with stress and anxiety over finances
Dealing with a crisis in finances can sometimes mean making small changes, but other times there need to be more significant adjustments in order to keep someone from getting deeper in debt, for example. Either way, there are very real feelings of anxiety and depression that many feel when dealing with a money crisis. It’s why Koecher’s team is thankful WoodGreen has walk-in mental health counselling to help clients cope with that stress.
"That walk-in counselling can be an incredible resource for people, even if it’s just for a single session. The best part is that it’s free and not going to cost them any more money."
Making life-long changes
For those looking to make longer-term financial changes, WoodGreen offers financial literacy workshops as well as a free three-month financial empowerment program for families through the Scotiabank Family Finance Clinic at WoodGreen. That’s where financial experts coach clients through budgeting, debt repayment and creating savings plans.
"Everyone has the ability to be financially confident," says Koecher. "So whatever level you’re at with financial understanding, our program really helps people increase your confidence, awareness and knowledge."
If you are struggling to cope with rising costs and are worried about your finances, please contact WoodGreen’s Financial Empowerment team either online or by phone at (416) 645-6000 ext. 1330 or email [email protected]