Some Thunder Bay residents living on Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) payments say they're relying on food banks and feeding programs, and selling personal belongings to cover expenses as the cost of goods and services soars.
ODSP recipients who spoke with CBC News described challenges trying to afford food, toiletries, cleaning products and health care.
"I've been accessing the [food bank] and then also popping by the Dew Drop Inn every once in a while for that extra help," said Kai Crites in reference to a Thunder Bay emergency food supplier and a local provider of free meals.
"In the past, I didn't usually have to access things like Dew Drop Inn."
Across Ontario, more than 500,000 people count on ODSP for part or all of their income. There are 6,011 in the Thunder Bay district and 1,243 in the Kenora district, further to the west, according to statistics provided by Ontario's Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services.
Single people on ODSP receive a maximum of $1,169 per month for shelter and basic needs, which works out to $14,028 annually. That's about 30 per cent below the province's poverty line of roughly $20,000.
Here's a look at some statistics about the cost of living in Thunder Bay, according to the latest available data:
'I cannot afford a watermelon this summer'
Prices have skyrocketed in recent months as the consumer price index (CPI) increased 7.7 per cent between May 2021 and May 2022, according to Statistics Canada.
In June, Ontario Premier Doug Ford promised to raise monthly ODSP cheques by five per cent, but Crites and others say that's not enough.
"Five per cent on about $1,000 is only really $50," Crites said.
"Fifty dollars, if you're trying to buy fruits, vegetables, meat … all those essential things, is not enough money, especially when you see a watermelon that's $15, you know? I cannot afford a watermelon this summer."
Crites, who identifies as they/them, said they've been coping by opting for cheaper cuts of meat at the grocery store — chicken thighs as opposed to boneless, skinless chicken — and giving up "luxuries" like their subscription to Microsoft Office.
They also had to forgo orthotics because they couldn't afford them, resulting in a minor but unnecessary foot surgery.
Now, they worry about being able to afford their mobile phone and data plan, something they said is essential to helping them live independently.
"My phone has things like a built-in magnifier, and it has the ability for me to read print through special apps," Crites said. "Even just accessing GPS — as a person with a visual impairment, I find that GPS has been really helpful to my independence. But it requires data."
The province has yet to update its Assistive Devices Program, which helps pay for necessary equipment for people with disabilities, to include new technologies and recognize cellular phones as assistive devices, they said.
Tessa Soderberg, who is visually impaired, said ODSP's extra allowance for service animals doesn't cover the full cost of food for her guide dog, which requires a high-protein blend that is running her more than $100 a bag.
"Every time you turn around, the price of the food goes up and the size of the bag goes down," Soderberg said.
Soderberg, like Crites, is finding it harder to afford healthy food.
She said she often scours the discount section of grocery stores for fresh fruits and vegetables, hoping nothing goes bad before she's able to eat it.
Soderberg grows some of her own vegetables in the summer and said the government could help people like herself by removing the tax from seeds and bedding plants.
"They don't tax groceries – a lot of groceries – but they do tax what's going to become groceries, which makes no sense."
For Alyssa Kirk, who lives with mobility impairments, paying for food isn't as much of a concern because she lives in a facility that provides meals.
But the monthly rent leaves her with $71 for other essentials like shampoo, dish soap, garbage bags and medications that aren't covered by ODSP.
"Toilet paper is so expensive," she said. "Sometimes all I can afford is a box of Kleenex."
A year ago, Kirk said, she could afford necessities and occasionally have money left over for a can of coffee.
Now, she waters down products like dish soap to make them last; uses her grocery bags as garbage bags, and saves change in a jar to pay for medications.
"It's always a fight every single day. And there's never really a day that I'm able to just sit back and relax and not worry about an upcoming payment."
Kirk said she recently sold her mobile phone, her Google Home Mini, an Xbox, DVDs and other items on Facebook marketplace to pay for necessities.
Federal disability benefit involves consultation
People with disabilities and their advocates have been vocal about the need to update monthly payments, with individuals across Ontario reporting living below the poverty line.
CBC News asked the province what if any action it intends to take to meet the basic needs of people with disabilities — such as food, shelter, medicine and other essentials — but did not receive a direct response.
At the federal level, CBC News asked Employment and Social Development Canada about plans for its proposed Canada Disability Benefit (CDB), to be established under legislation tabled June 2.
In a statement, the ministry said, "The details of the benefit, including the benefit amount and eligibility criteria, will be informed by further engagement with persons with disabilities and the provinces and territories."
The government, it said, last year committed $11.9 million over three years to consult on the eligibility processes of federal disability programs and benefits.
"Consultations with the disability community and other stakeholders, such as academics and researchers, are ongoing and will directly inform the CDB," the statement read.