Jennifer Jewell ate just one piece of food per day, for years, to afford her one-bedroom apartment.

The 51-year-old lives with arthritis and medical conditions that have weakened her muscles, leaving her fatigued and in pain. Benefits under the Ontario Disability Support Program offered her less than $500 for shelter costs each month — so she dipped into funds meant for basic needs such as food to afford the $676 unit in Toronto’s Cabbagetown area where she lived for two decades.

It wasn’t ideal, she said, but it kept a roof over her head — that is, until 2020, when she left under threat of eviction, having stopped paying rent when a new landlord wanted to take over the unit.

She found herself facing Toronto’s rental market, where the average market cost for a one-bedroom unit increased by 47.7 per cent in the last decade, while shelter allowances for benefit recipients barely budged.

For six months, she couch-surfed, before landing in an outdoor camp — and later, in one of the temporary hotel shelters the city set up in response to COVID-19. With the closure of those sites now looming, her search for permanent housing keeps hitting a wall.

“The federal government, during the pandemic, decided that the basic amount that people need to survive is $2,000 a month,” Jewell lamented. “And even if we were getting $2,000 a month here, rents are still anywhere from $1,000 to $1,500 a month, which does not leave a lot to live on.”

It’s a concern that’s been rippling up through city hall, with Toronto’s 10-year housing strategy calling on the province in 2019 to increase social assistance rates to reflect the high costs of housing — labelling the existing benefits “clearly unrealistic and inadequate.” And a recent staff report noted that the “affordability gap” has only continued to widen as rent prices have risen.

While a single person receiving disability benefits can get a maximum shelter allowance of $497 a month, someone receiving Ontario Works gets less, with a maximum of $390 for shelter bills. As Toronto’s average rent costs have soared, that monthly OW shelter rate is roughly $20 more than it was in 2010, with the single monthly ODSP shelter rate having increased by shy of $30.

To afford this year’s average market price of $1,225 for a Toronto bachelor unit, a single person on ODSP needs to find an extra $728 per month, or an additional $835 for someone on OW.

Meanwhile, 58 per cent of the city’s homeless population relies on one of these two programs, according to a street needs assessment last spring. Of individuals surveyed in shelters and living outside, 30 per cent relied on OW and 28 per cent relied on ODSP.

“It seems to be the same song, year after year after year, how low these rates are,” said Christine Foster, supervisor of housing access services for Toronto shelter provider Dixon Hall.

With city officials hoping staff can help find housing for as many temporary shelter occupants as possible before those facilities are shut down in stages over the next two years, Foster worries they’ll be up against the same problems.

“There’s going to be a huge push for housing, and where are we going to find it? It puts a lot of pressure on the workers, when there’s nothing available that’s affordable in the city,” she said.

To be eligible for social assistance in Ontario, a household has to demonstrate they don’t have enough money to cover their living expenses, nor have assets that exceed a certain value.

For ODSP specifically, recipients must also have an assessed medical condition that meets a legal definition for a disability — the most prevalent, as of March 2019, were mental illnesses (39 per cent) such as post-traumatic stress disorder, mood disorders and depressive disorders, and developmental disabilities (18 per cent), according to the province’s auditor general.

Jewell noted that while in shelter, she didn’t receive the housing portion of the benefit.

The auditor’s office, in a series of reports over the last few years, has raised numerous concerns about the way social assistance is doled out — from the way eligibility is assessed to employment outcomes. It has pointed to an increasing number of households leaning on those safety nets, and for longer than before, with annual spending increasing by billions of dollars in the last decade.

But on an individual level, rates have been flat since a 1.5 per cent bump at the start of the current Ontario government’s term in 2018 — half of a three per cent increase planned by the former government.

In a statement, a spokesperson for provincial Children, Community and Social Services Minister Merrilee Fullerton said their office was looking forward to Ottawa rolling out a promised new disability benefit, which could supplement the money given out by Ontario’s disability program.

The timing of that benefit rollout is yet unclear, with a statement from federal Employment, Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion Minister Carla Qualtrough saying they were working with the provinces and territories to ensure the new federal benefit wouldn’t “negatively impact entitlement to other programs and services” — and pledging to involve those living with disabilities in aspects of the program’s development from its design to its “eligibility criteria.”

Since the pandemic emerged, spending on social assistance in Ontario has dropped — a trend Fullerton spokesperson Krystle Caputo attributed largely to households relying, instead, on the federal benefits that were made available during COVID-19. In a report published in the fall, the province’s financial watchdog found Queen’s Park had spent $369 million less on OW and $83 million less on ODSP in the first half of 2021-22, compared to the same period of 2020-21.

For those who remain on OW or ODSP, some other programs can help with costs. In Jewell’s case, since she’s been in shelter long enough to count as chronically homeless, she’s now eligible for an additional subsidy on top of her monthly ODSP if she can find a place to rent.

That can be difficult, Foster said, with landlords often recoiling from prospective tenants on social assistance and asking for “working people.” Outside of the private market, Toronto’s rent-geared-to-income housing, where monthly costs are adjusted to a household’s income, had a queue that stretched more than 78,800 households as of the end of last year. Homelessness is one of a few circumstances, along with the likes of terminal illness or domestic violence, that adds priority.

Jewell told the Star she’s been offered some rent-geared-to-income units, but said none of them were accessible enough for her to manage in her wheelchair. So, as her search continues, she remains in a downtown shelter hotel.

“I’m paraphrasing, but there’s a quote that says you can tell a lot about society by how they value the least of us,” Jewell said, discussing the recent ODSP rates. “I think that shows.”

Correction– April 14, 2022: This article was edited to correct that Jennifer Jewell spent six months coach-surfing after leaving her rental apartment, not three months as previously reported.

Victoria Gibson is a Toronto-based reporter for the Star covering affordable housing. Reach her via email: