A blue-and-white sign in the front window at 378 Talbot St., at first glance, appears deceptively hospitable.
Its message, however, elicits a long second study.
“Welcome To Ontario
Open For Business
Closed For Autism”
Propped up against the glass in the former downtown branch of TD Canada Trust, the sign marks the office of CoField Inc.
Co-owned by Lyndsay Collard and Alison Ditchfield, the pair head up a team of instructor therapists who provide Intensive Behavioural Intervention to children with autism and their families.
Which has the two senior therapists butting heads with the provincial government over autism funding.
Hence the sign.
In a conversation this week with Collard, she delved into the specifics of their work with autistic children.
“We are looking at kids usually between the ages of two and eight who are getting anywhere from 15 to about 35 hours per week of one-on-one intensive therapy.”
The therapy used to be funded by the province, explained Collard.
“The way it used to work is there are about 40,000 kids in Ontario . . . up to the age of 18 diagnosed with autism. When the Liberal government was in power, about one-quarter of those kids were receiving government funding and the rest were sitting on a waitlist.”
All that changed with the election of Doug Ford, advised Collard.
“When the Conservatives took power, what they did was say, ‘We’re getting rid of the waitlist and instead of giving 25 per cent of the kids all of the money they need to fund a program, we’re going to give 40,000 kids just a little bit.'”
So, what is the impact on the children she deals with?
“They are all going to be transitioned back into the school system and many of them are not ready for it.
“If they were over the age of six, they were getting $5,000 a year from the government. Under the age of six, $20,000 a year.”
Collard advised a fully funded program will cost a family between $60,000 and $80,000 a year.
“So, we’re seeing a lot of parents who are re-mortgaging homes, they are cashing out RRSPs and RESPs . . . whatever they can to afford therapy for their kids.”
Now, what about changes – call it backtracking if you like – announced this week by Social Services Minister Todd Smith which will see a return to needs-based autism funding?
Is the provincial government now back on course?
“We hope it will. They announced another six-month extension for all clients who are currently in the system, so that’s good news for our kids.
“So supposedly the committee (the Ontario autism advisory panel) is meeting right now to develop a needs-based system. Which is what it was before. They said by next April it should be up and running.”
Collard advised she has met with Elgin-Middlesex-London MPP Jeff Yurek “many times.”
It is Collard’s view that in those early meetings, Yurek “didn’t really understand autism . . . or the therapy we did.”
However, Yurek did attend a one-on-one therapy session in May of this year “and I think he found it really helpful. So, we were able to talk through exactly why the therapy is important.
“Why the money the government is giving is not enough. What is going to happen if these kids are thrown into the school system and they’re not ready?
“I think it was eye-opening. He processed things and said keep writing letters and hopefully change is coming.”
Collard estimates between 750 and 1,000 children in Elgin are diagnosed with autism.
“One in 68 children are diagnosed with autism and it keeps growing.”
“There is no plan to stop until we get something rolled out that is going to help these kids.”
Another issue is facilities like the Thames Valley Children’s Centre used to be funded directly.
“They stopped doing that,” noted Collard, “and as far as I know that is going to stick. Thames Valley has said if things don’t significantly change, they will be closing their doors by next April.
“That’s not good news for the families. And, even if they do get funding, there is such a lack of professionals able to service them.”
CoField – the only centre of its kind in Elgin – has a staff of 10 dealing with 15 clients “and right now we are about three over capacity.”
In addition to St. Thomas and Elgin county, those clients come from Woodstock, London and Exeter.
Collard feels certain CoField has the resources to expand.
“We just looked at taking on one more of us. Right now we are short-staffed with one-to-one therapists. We have a hard time finding qualified professionals who will stick around.”
In a perfect world, Collard would like to see a program “that allows professionals who are qualified to determine how many hours a child needs.
“I think right now, giving the same amount of money to every kid, you’re going to have some getting way too much money and some kids who are not going to get enough.”
Collard stressed with the job uncertainty due to changes in funding, at least one college in the province is not offering a therapist program in the coming school year.
“People are scared to get into this profession because it has been so unpredictable.”
So, back to that powerful message in the window. Is it going to remain on display for Talbot Street traffic to see?
“Oh yeah. It will be there until we get what we’re fighting for. And, we will keep fighting. We protested in front of Jeff Yurek’s office a number of times.
“There is no plan to stop until we get something rolled out that is going to help these kids.”
HEIGHTENED ACTIVITY ALONG ELEVATED PARK
If you’ve strolled along the St. Thomas Elevated Park this summer and enjoyed the progress made to date, you haven’t seen anything yet.
And, if you haven’t had the opportunity to venture forth high above Sunset Drive, then you are going to have to wait until the end of this month to experience the sights and panoramic view afforded at this country’s first elevated park.
As On Track St. Thomas director Serge Lavoie explained this week, to accommodate a major push atop the Michigan Central Railroad bridge the park will be closed to the public until Aug. 25, which is the date of the annual picnic.
“I actually just locked the gate an hour ago,” advised Lavoie on Thursday morning.
“After that, it will re-open and for the first time ever it will be open from one end to the other. There are actually a lot of moving parts to what is happening in August and September.”
What exactly is going to transpire this month?
“We begin building a 210-foot wooden deck at the eastern end of the bridge. Beyond that, we lay a 10-foot wide concrete sidewalk all the way to the end of the bridge.”
Later this fall, different surfaces including grass will be laid down on either side of the deck and sidewalk.
“The sidewalk is the key to making it totally accessible all the way across,” stressed Lavoie. “Beyond the west end of the bridge, the whole trail will be graded smooth all the way to Lyle Road.”
That stretch of the roadbed is to accommodate re-routing The Great Trail – formerly the Trans-Canada Trail – across the elevated park.
Also scheduled for this month is the installation of St. Thomas artist Christine Dewancker’s major art piece, The Faraway Nearby, which previously was on display at Ontario Place in Toronto.
“That’s 12 pieces of sculpture that will be going in there. The layout will be different than it was on Lake Ontario. It is more linear. Her installation is going to be about 30 feet wide and go out about 120 feet.”
It will be fully wired for lighting but will not be activated until later this year or possibly next spring.
“It depends on getting a solar panel system up there and we haven’t managed to pull that together yet.
“Down the road, probably in 2020, we’ll be looking at getting a permit to take water out of Kettle Creek and use that for irrigation on top of the bridge.
“In the plans, part of the bridge will have a reflecting pond and that is actually a holding pond for our irrigation system as well.”
It has come a long way to this point, however, August will be a highlight month in the park’s evolution.
“We hate closing it because we get visitors from all over Ontario. It’s for 25 days only and then we are going to be permanently open after that.”
Tickets for the 5th annual Elevated Picnic are available at eventbrite.ca
POINT TO PONDER 1
How’s that sensitivity training coming along for all members of council?
That’s the recommendation of integrity commissioner Mark McDonald following complaints from a city employee alleging unwanted touching by an unidentified council member.
Will there be a report from whoever is monitoring this training as to the status of each member?
Sensitivity training has been ordered for city managers in the past with some doubt as to whether those in question ever attended or benefitted from the sessions.
And, what about the employee who was the victim of this harassing behaviour?
Has she been offered any post-incident assistance?
Or, is she off work on stress leave?
If such is the case, the fallout from this council member’s actions is greater than either McDonald or Mayor Joe Preston are willing to admit.
INSIGHT INTO AFFORDABLE HOUSING
A letter from Peter Ostojic in the July 27 posting regarding the city’s involvement in the construction of affordable housing prompted the following insight from Ralph West, housing services administrator for St. Thomas-Elgin Social Services.
He writes, “I’d just like to provide a little context to enable somewhat more informed consideration of Peter Ostojic’s question as to why the city is building affordable housing units itself.
“I should begin, though, by saying that the City of St. Thomas (and the County of Elgin) owe both Peter and Nic Ostojic an enormous debt of gratitude for the affordable housing units which they have built on many sites since the beginning of the province’s affordable housing programs.
“The units they have each contributed to our affordable housing stock have been extremely well-constructed, energy efficient, and been built at remarkably low cost.
“These units were developed in responding to the city’s past proposal calls for the use of capital funds provided under provincial programs for affordable housing development.
“The successful proponent for the use of those funds is required to maintain the rents of the units they develop at 80 per cent or less of the average market rent (AMR) for units of a similar size in the community for a minimum period of 20 years (and now 25 years under the most recent provincial programs).
“The capital funding provided under the various affordable housing programs to date is intended to reduce the proponent’s total borrowing costs, costs which, once a project is occupied, are a primary operating expense for the building owner.
“Tenant rent payments must be high enough to cover those costs to make the project viable. Thus the greater the contribution to the overall capital costs from the provincial program, the lower the rents charged to tenants can potentially be.
“By keeping building costs as low as they have (while maintaining excellent quality) Peter and Nic Ostojic have each required a smaller share of the available funds for their projects than other private—or non-profit—developers normally would have.
“These same provincial program rules and program logic applies when the city chooses to use those funds itself, which the province’s affordable housing programs do allow it to do.
“However there are two additional benefits attached to the city’s direct use of these funds. They both relate to social purpose.
“We are dedicated to serving everyone, and where needed and appropriate, supporting our tenants in meeting their obligations as tenants, rather than evicting them.”
“The city has no motive to increase rents above the guideline amounts at any point in time. The city’s goal is simply to permanently increase the stock of affordable housing units in St. Thomas and the County of Elgin (at no additional expense to city taxpayers), because there is a pressing social need to do so. “Although the required 20 years of below-market rents required of private developers under affordable housing programs does seem like a long time, the first units built under the program were occupied back in 2008 so we are already more than halfway to the expiry of the condition in the funding agreement requiring that those rents be kept at artificially low levels, with the stock of affordable housing being at considerable risk of being reduced as funding agreements expire.
“The second difference connected with having the city own the housing has to do with who can gain access to the affordable units which are built. When the city owns the units we can dedicate their use to whichever members of the community stand to gain the most benefit from them.
“Private landlords are quite understandably risk-averse when it comes to making choices amongst who they choose to house. The choice of tenant is essentially a business decision for them. The city does not have that luxury. We already house a large number of households with complex needs.
“No prospective tenant to city housing is turned away because of the foreseeable challenges that their tenancy will represent. We are dedicated to serving everyone, and where needed and appropriate, supporting our tenants in meeting their obligations as tenants, rather than evicting them.
“Ours is (and must be) a different business model, one that the city’s housing staff are already fully familiar with and dedicated to implementing.
“There is no question that every additional affordable housing unit built in the community makes a positive contribution to our community’s overall well-being —especially those units meeting the 80 per cent of AMR requirement of provincial funding.
“The benefits that Peter Ostijic has provided in this respect over the past 10 years is a large one for which we all owe him a substantial debt of gratitude. And furthermore, it is clear, as he points out, that his development of affordable housing projects has included efficiencies that the city has not yet matched.
“However, the city has multiple overlapping priorities involved in determining choices as to how to turn the available provincial dollars into the greatest possible public benefit, and, most recently, the city’s decision with respect to that funding was that the public interest was best served by maintaining city ownership of the resulting affordable housing units—and choosing to locate them, together with the new social services building, where they would bring additional life to that particular commercial district of the city.
“If I were In Peter Ostojic’s shoes I can well imagine asking the same question he is. Having made the sacrifices he has to serve the interests of the community by developing modest affordable housing projects, and using a minimum of provincial funding to do so, why is the city not leaving that development process to already-existing community-minded experts such as himself.
“I hope the points that I have made above will go some way to making the city’s decision more understandable, even if there may still be some room left for debate about it.”
Appreciate the background info, Ralph. Good to have insight into such areas of discussion as affordable housing.
HOW MUCH SPACE DO KIDS NEED TO PLAY?
Round 2 of the committee of adjustment hearing to deal with an application by Patricia Riddell-Laemers for a minor variance so she can operate a childcare centre out of her home at 18 Hickory Lane is scheduled for 9 a.m. this Tuesday (Aug. 6).
The initial hearing July 11 dealt with the deficient lot area, frontage and front yard depth which are requirements of the city’s zoning bylaw for a childcare centre.
Neighbour John O’Reilly – who presented arguments in opposition to the facility – is expected to be bolstered by other neighbours concerned about the childcare centre in operation for some months.
POINT TO PONDER 2
Are city firefighters close to a contract after a lengthy arbitration process? Will that agreement include 24-hour shifts?
And, how is life at the two St. Thomas fire halls under the guiding hand of chief Bob Davidson?
FOR THE CALENDAR
Celebrations begin this month in honour of the 200th anniversary of Frome United Church. The weekend of Aug. 9-11 will feature a memorabilia night, cemetery tours and a 10 a.m. service on Sunday. That will be followed by a formal anniversary church service on Sunday, Sept. 22 with guest ministers John Brown and Roxanne Bale. That day will also include music with the Lunch Bunch Choir, a luncheon and time afterward for greetings and reminisces.
Questions and comments may be emailed to City Scope
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