Life as a senior on welfare
Carol Goar Jan. 14, 2005. 01:00 AM

Going on welfare was one of the most humiliating things Lloyd ever did. All his life he'd worked hard at demanding physical jobs. He'd paid his taxes, pulled his weight and proved himself against men half his age.

But at 62, his body wore out. He couldn't lift heavy loads anymore. His legs hurt and he was tired.

With no income and no savings, he swallowed his pride and applied for welfare.

As a single "employable" man, he was eligible for $520 per month, provided he was actively seeking work.

His rent at a seedy Cabbagetown boarding house ate up $380 a month. That left $140 for everything else.

He went without winter boots. He held his eyeglasses together with masking tape. He skimped on meals. He walked everywhere he needed to go.

This month, Lloyd's nightmare ended. He became a pensioner. In a couple of weeks, he'll receive his first old age security cheque worth $1,032.45.

With great reluctance and on condition that his last name not be used he agreed to tell his story. He did it as a favour to Naomi Berlyne, a community worker at Central Neighbourhood House, who wanted to highlight the plight of seniors living on welfare.

Until 1995, people over the age of 60 with no income qualified for a monthly payment of $930 under Ontario's Family Benefits program. They were not required to look for work. Welfare was considered a bridge to retirement.

Former premier Mike Harris changed all that (as well as slashing social assistance rates by 21.6 per cent). He decreed that welfare clients in their 60s, except those with medical disabilities, would have to look for a job right up to their 65th birthday. As "employable" individuals, they would be entitled to $520 per month under the Ontario Works program. No further assistance would be available.

There are roughly 2,500 welfare recipients in Toronto who fall into that category. For the most part, they are invisible and forgotten.

Now that Lloyd is no longer one of them, he is willing to talk about what it was like to live on $520 a month and trudge from employer to employer, knowing no one would hire a relatively uneducated man in his 60s.

"I don't want to say anything bad about Canada," the Jamaican immigrant began. "I love this country. Even though I'm poor, I can go where I want and say what I want.

"But it hasn't been easy these last few years. I live in a rooming house with 12 other people. We have a lot of mice. My room is on the third floor. I have to go down a long hallway and two narrow flights of stairs to get to the kitchen. My knees hurt on the stairs. I've counted them many times. There are 44 steps.

"The kitchen is small. Two people can't work in there at once. You feel bad when you're cooking and someone says: `Your pot smells nice.'

"There are two bathrooms. I don't like using them. They're stained and dirty. Sometimes I sit in the washrooms at the Eaton Centre because they're so clean."

Lloyd blames himself for not staying in school when he was young. If he had learned to read and write properly, instead of becoming a carpenter, he might have been able to find a job when his muscles gave out.

He also takes responsibility for not thinking ahead. It simply never occurred to him that he would lose his physical prowess.

But he doesn't want sympathy. He wants to repay Berlyne for all the support she's given him (including a Christmas gift out of her own pocket).

"I have a lot of working-class clients," Berlyne said. "Once they get into their 60s, they're pretty worn out. And they get stuck in this situation. I've seen it happen time and again.

"I find it difficult to witness people of this age having to subsist on such a low income. It's a very unforgiving system."

She thinks the plight of seniors living on welfare might have escaped public notice because they weren't the primary victims of Harris's draconian social assistance cuts. She thinks the current Liberal government is so intent on getting social assistance recipients into the workforce that it is blind to the needs of older clients.

"I strongly believe the law needs to be changed back to what it was before 1995," Berlyne said.

The cost would not be prohibitive. Only 2.3 per cent of Ontario Works clients are over the age of 60.

The benefits to proud individuals who can no longer work would be immeasurable.

As for Lloyd, he's thinking about what to do with his first pension cheque.

He figures he'll start by getting his glasses fixed. Then maybe he'll buy winter boots. His 11-year-old running shoes aren't much good in the snow. If he can afford it, he'll purchase a senior's transit pass. Perhaps he'll splurge on a lottery ticket.

His greatest hope is that some day he'll have an apartment of his own. "I'd keep it clean. I'd be able to control the heat. I could go to the bathroom at 2 o'clock in the morning without strangers looking at me."

To those who have never known degrading poverty, it may not sound like much of a retirement.

To Lloyd, it is a comfortable and dignified existence.