On the third and final day of the provincially run distribution of grocery gift cards, many Torontonians who lost food in the ice-storm power outage left a Scarborough employment centre empty-handed.
Hundreds of people had waited on Friday to receive a food voucher at the city's Golden Mile Employment and Social Services Centre. But at about 4:00 p.m., with dozens still in line, the supply of cards dried up.
Police told people to go home but a crowd of about hundred people remained, hoping more would be delivered before the centre closed. But at 4:30 p.m., staff reiterated that gift cards were no longer available.
After a December ice storm left thousands of Toronto residents without power for days, the province announced a plan to distribute $50 and $100 grocery gift cards to replace food that spoiled in the power outage. The demand for cards has far outweighed the provincial supply. The cards have been disbursed since Tuesday but have run out several times, leaving many people frustrated.
Earlier this week, the province had hoped to distribute $200,000 worth of gift cards to those who were unable to replace groceries lost in the storm. But given the overwhelming response from residents, they have since quadrupled that amount.
"To date, $835,000 worth of gift cards have been distributed to those most in need," Zita Astravas, press secretary for the Premier, wrote in an e-mail on Friday.
Crowds began forming at the employment centre, which was scheduled to open at 8:30 a.m., as early as 5 a.m. But as the day stretched into the afternoon, many families and individuals were still waiting upwards of two hours to receive provincial handout, ranging from Shoppers Drug Mart to President's Choice gift cards, with no guarantee they'll receive one.
Wayne Schaper, who was without power for three days, was one of the last people to receive a card. He had been waiting for about two hours and said he felt "very lucky" that he would go home with one. But he was sympathetic to those who didn't have as good fortune.
"It's unfortunate that not everybody here who showed up gets one," he said.
Many people left looking visibly frustrated. Norma Barrientos was one of those people. She waited in line for several hours over the course of three days, but each day cards were gone by the time she arrived after her work day.
She was critical of the process and said she was "really mad" after failing to receive a card.
But even for those that received a voucher, the process required a lot of patience. Nicole Bower, who lives in the Scarborough area, had been waiting for two hours to collect a $100 gift card for her family.
She described the experience as "disorganized and so inconvenient.
"It's a nice idea and I'm glad they're doing it, but it takes a huge commitment from us," Ms. Bower said.
But after her wait, Ms. Bower eventually received her voucher and said she felt "relieved" as she walked out of the busy mall with hundreds still waiting behind her.
Some people waiting in line have been critical of the screening process, saying people aren't required to demonstrate need. But recipients were required to bring confirmation of their address, to demonstrate that they live in one of the affected areas, and were asked to declare the number of people in their household.
The province says they have helped over 8,500 families and individuals who are "most in need" and "cannot afford to replace the perishable items they've lost over the course of the storm," the e-mail said.
Joyce Tyler was one of the first people to arrive at the employment office on Friday morning, lining up 6 a.m.. She said she tried to get a gift card on Thursday but was unsuccessful so she arrived early on Friday to ensure she'd be at the front of the line.
In the early hours of Friday, with a crowd that stretched from the mall into the frigid cold street, city staff took measures to keep things orderly. Stanchions with rope barriers were set up to create a single file line and city employees handed out numbered tickets to ensure people knew their place in line.
On Thursday, however, Carol Leon was waiting early at the employment centre and said the scene got fractious.
“I think people just started to get a little bit impatient and there was a couple of people that got into arguments over spots,” she said.
Gift cards ran out Thursday morning before Ms. Leon could get one. With more cards expected in the afternoon, she returned and waited about an hour to get one. After having to throw out all her spoiled food after her home was without power for two days, Ms. Leon said she was “extremely relieved” to receive the food voucher.
The second supply of cards ran out late afternoon Thursday, with about 20 people waiting in line. They were told to come back Friday, though there was no guarantee they would be more successful.
The disbursement of these cards ran short on Tuesday as well. A provincial government spokesman said that the program is limited by the pace at which the participating retailers can provide the cards.
“From my understanding … these grocery stores don’t just have thousands of these cards that are activated sitting around that they can just hand to us,” said Craig MacBride, a spokesman for Madeleine Meilleur, Minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services, which is running the program.
Spokespeople for Loblaw and Metro, two of the major grocery retailers supporting the gift card program, could not immediately confirm their role in delays distributing the cards.
Mr. MacBride stressed that there is “no blame to be laid” and that all parties are working to make the program as fast as possible. “If we could get it immediately, we would,” he said.
The government had warned before Thursday’s distribution started that quantities would be limited. It says that there will not be enough cards for everyone who lost power and that they should be left for those with the greatest need.
The opposition parties criticized the government for not doing enough to identify the most desperate. New Democrat Cheri DiNovo said the program was “bungled from the get-go” and Progressive Conservative MPP Lisa MacLeod said the government was effectively allowing anyone hit by an outage to collect a gift card, whether it was needed or not.
“People can go in whether their food was spoiled or not, or whether or not they are having a problem making ends meet,” Ms. MacLeod said.
Thousands of the cards, which are funded by both the government and the retailers, were handed out Thursday. They were valued at $50 for individuals and $100 for families.
The value of the cards distributed Thursday morning totalled $75,000, another government spokesperson said, with a further $250,000 worth coming later in the day. The value of all the cards handed out Tuesday and Thursday, the spokesperson said, amounted to nearly $500,000.
The province confirmed that Friday would be the last day of distribution in Toronto and the program will spread into other affected communities throughout the province in the coming days.
With a report from Adrian Morrow
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