Grey seeking other funds for "Circles" after province freezes OW levels

Grey County administration building. Sun Times files

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An Ontario Works funding freeze isn’t chilling Grey County’s plan to help launch next year a Circles program, described by officials as the “gold standard” of poverty reduction initiatives.

A working group of municipal and community organizations intends to apply for an Ontario Trillium Foundation grant to kick-start the program.

“We’re not letting go,” said Grey County social services director Barb Fedy.

A partner on the working group will apply for the grant this spring, she said. Circles will cost about $160,000 annually.

If the grant is approved, the plan is to launch Circles in Hanover with 10 to 12 low-income families, she said.

The original plan was for Grey County to launch the program this year as an employment initiative with Ontario Works funding.

But that plan was shelved because of the provincial government’s decision to hold those levels at 2018 actual expenditures for 2019 and 2020.

“Circles would have been an enhanced program that we’ve never done before, so it’s new and we would have had to find the dollars. And with the cuts that came, there’s no finding dollars. We, in fact, had to have some service cuts as it was,” Fedy said.

Grey County Warden Selwyn Hicks, who Fedy called a big proponent of Circles, said he’s optimistic the initiative will launch in 2020. Trillium grants have supported Circles programs in other municipalities.

Hicks said Circles is like a “Big Brothers/Big Sisters program for adults” because its key element is matching middle-class mentors with people in poverty.

“It is a continuum of the good work we’re already doing in terms of building bridges out of poverty,” he said.

Circles began in the United States in the 1990s. It launched for the first time in Canada in 2009 by Lambton County, which later obtained the rights to become Circles Canada and now serves as the program’s recruitment and training site.

There are now 10 Circles chapters in Ontario.

“This is the gold standard,” Fedy said.

“There are a lot of initiatives that are helpful; they have a target niche. This is stronger. This has a much more entrenched community impact because people understand that it’s no one’s fault. No one wants to live in poverty, no one chooses to and it’s very hard to get out of it. When people say, just get a job, that’s not always the answer and throwing money at it isn’t always the answer.

“The answer is compassion, understanding and connections and being relevant and being included in what goes on in your community. That’s what Circles does.”

Circles Canada co-ordinator Kim Godin said the “magic” of the initiative is those “intentional friendships” between low-income families – who face barriers to getting out of poverty – and middle-class mentors.

“When you match them together and friendship and resources and supports wrap around those individuals, their connection to that social capital, as we call it, really helps support them move forward with their goals of education and employment – reaching full self-sufficiency,” she said.

Circles “coaches” and partners – like non-profit, educational and employment training organizations and community members – also work to support the low-income families with their “plans of change” to increased education, career selection and sustainable employment.

Grey County currently funds with Ontario Works dollars a Getting Ahead program that is delivered by the Adult Learning Centre and supports people in poverty create their own plan for stability.

The intent is for graduates of that program to have an opportunity to join Circles.

The Circles working group – made up of Grey, Bruce, Hanover, United Way of Bruce Grey, Grey Bruce Health Unit, Adult Learning Centre and Four County Labour Market Planning Board representatives – has been meeting over the past year to plan and develop the initiative.

Hicks expressed disappointment after last month’s Association of Municipalities of Ontario conference that Circles will not launch in 2019 because of the Ontario Works funding freeze.

The provincial government announced last November that it will be redesigning social assistance programs to make them more sustainable and provide people with more effective support.

“Everything we’re doing is actually moving towards those exact types of programs,” Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound Progressive Conservative MPP Bill Walker said of Circles.

“The less we spend on interest and debt, the more money there is for these programs. That’s why we’ve taken a lot of the initiatives we’ve had since taking office.”

Walker said the county hasn’t asked to meet with him yet about funding for Circles, but he would welcome such a meeting.

“I’ve said openly to every single municipality and the two counties – if I don’t know that you’re doing something or having problems, how can I really be a good advocate and positive influence for you?” he said.

Hicks said he’s passionate about Circles because he grew up poor and knows the importance of mentors to helping people out of poverty.

“The whole idea that a community can really help to bridge someone out of poverty is a very powerful concept for me because I’ve lived it,” said the Hanover lawyer.

Since 2009, Lambton Circles has supported 180 low-income families. Nearly 80 per cent of the graduates have increased their education, about 60 per cent have graduated from post-secondary education and 77 per cent have boosted their earnings.

Godin said the graduates have saved Ontario Works about $1.8 million.

The program also identifies barriers that keep people in poverty, she said, and develops solutions.

Lambton created a micro-credit loan program, which provides interest-free loans to low-income families in need of a car. A fundraising breakfast provided money for the program and all money paid back goes into the pot. The loan default rate is only about three per cent.

“That really helps with transportation to college, adult education, daycare or the grocery store. The transportation of having that used car is life-changing,” said Godin, who noted she’s looking forward to supporting the local working group to launch Circles.