To survive we need rent cancelled and basic income, people on social assistance say

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Though Judy Augustino is usually good at budgeting the paycheque she gets on disability, the mad dash to stock up on supplies amid COVID-19 in early March left her broke. 

"I've been going to the grocery store more often and just buying more food than I normally would because I don't know where this is going to go," Augustino said. "I don't know how this is gonna end up."

Augustino, 62, is one of about 50,000 Hamilton residents who rely on a provincial social assistance program.

While most Canadians are struggling under COVID-19, with many businesses shut down, local advocates argue that those at, or below, the poverty line will be hardest hit. 

People on Ontario Works only get about $730 monthly, says Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction director Tom Cooper, adding that even on a good day that amount is not enough. 

"You take that situation and it's certainly compounded by the health crisis we're now facing and it makes it impossible for people on social assistance to be able to purchase enough groceries to stay at home and stay safe," Cooper said. 

For those on lower incomes, mental and chronic illnesses are common — ones that put them in an "extremely precarious position" in the face of COVID-19, Cooper told CBC. 

Yet, Augustino said she feels the federal government is prioritizing the working class through the Canada Emergency Response Benefit. The emergency benefit is a taxable $2,000 stipend that will be given to workers who have stopped working due to COVID-19 and who don't have access to paid leave or other income support. But claimants can only get the money for a maximum of four months. 

"People that do work automatically get $2,000 a month and we're being treated like we're subhuman, like our lives don't matter cause we're just not getting that kind of assistance," said Augustino, who receives $1,150 a month. 

Cooper said the most ideal immediate solution would be for the Canadian government to add a $300 to $400 emergency supplement onto people's social assistance paycheque. But in the long-term, he says, the government should look at providing universal basic income. 

Basic income is unconditional financial income provided by the government to all individuals determined to be in need.