Ask the Expert: Can we end poverty?

Daniyal Zuberi 
RBC Chair & Professor of Social Policy, 
University of Toronto

Daniyal Zuberi is the RBC Chair and Professor of Social Policy at the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work and Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy at the University of Toronto. In 2015, he was elected to the College of New Scholars, Artists and Scientists of the Royal Society of Canada. He was previously the William Lyon Mackenzie King Research Fellow at Harvard University. His innovative social policy research has made important contributions to the study of urban poverty, inequality, health, education, employment and social welfare. He has authored four books and other publications that examine the impact of public policy on vulnerable and disadvantaged populations in Canada and the United States. Imagine a City spoke with Daniyal for our ‘Ask the Expert’ series to provide a big-picture lens on poverty across North America.

1. What are some of the common drivers that contribute to poverty across North America, whether in Winnipeg or Washington?

Poverty in North America is multi-faceted, affecting many individuals, families, and communities. The real cause of poverty is the lack of income. Many people are working longer and harder simply to tread water, living only one or two missed paycheques away from major financial hardship. With the explosion of precarious employment, too many households struggle to balance work and family life requirements as individuals take on multiple jobs to make ends meet and deal with the stress and anxiety of supporting their families. A job is no longer enough and they struggle as the “working poor” trying to find affordable housing and childcare for their families.  For those unable to find work, they receive very limited support. Most of these individuals can’t access employment insurance benefits due to program restrictions. They join tens of thousands of others on wait lists for housing assistance and subsidized childcare as well as heavily-subscribed charitable programs such as food banks. Instead of helping and enabling these individuals and families, we trap them in poverty, failing to provide the training, support and education they need to upgrade their skills and find secure living-wage employment.

Malika Favre art of piggy banks seen from above with one broken on UNIGNORABLE colour

2. How have changing labour market conditions, including precarious employment, impacted poverty?

The changing labour market is a major contributor to growing poverty in North America. With a shift away from manufacturing to the service sector in a globalized economy, we’ve seen a rapid expansion of precarious employment including poverty wage, part-time, and insecure jobs that fail to lift individuals and families above the poverty line. Our employment protections and social welfare policies have failed to evolve to protect people from poverty in this new economy. When hours are cut or workers are laid off, many can’t receive support from employment insurance because they haven’t worked enough hours to qualify. It’s important to note that these changes do not affect all workers equally. Women and racialized minorities, especially new immigrants, are the most likely to work in these precarious jobs. They’re forced to make impossible tradeoffs between working extra hours, but spending more on childcare, paying for rent or food. This is true in both Canada and the United States.

3. Discuss the changing nature of poverty in North America and how it differs in urban, suburban and rural contexts.

Poverty exists in cities, rural areas, and suburban areas. Many of the causes and consequences of poverty in these three contexts are similar, but important differences also exist. For example, poor individuals and families in the suburbs are less visible. In Vaughan, a wealthy area in York Region, we see “hidden homelessness” where people are doubled or even tripled up living in other people’s basements. In suburban and rural areas, there are also problems with social isolation that also include greater challenges in terms of accessing transportation for services and employment opportunities. But the urban poor face some unique challenges too. Especially if high housing costs force them to live in stigmatized areas with high concentrations of poverty, where transit is less accessible, less frequent, and of poor quality. While it may be easier to access services for individuals living in urban neighbourhoods, living in a high poverty urban neighbourhood can also make it more difficult for a person to successfully obtain employment as a result of discrimination on the basis of ethnicity and postal code. It can also require coping with more challenges including violence and schools that lack resources to address the major challenges facing their student populations. Fundamentally, in urban, suburban and rural contexts, poverty comes down to a lack of resources.

Statistic that 1 in 5 people in Toronto live in poverty and 1 in 8 in Peel and York Region

4. Is there a single, best way to tackle poverty? If not, what are some common solutions we should be working towards?

No, I don’t think there’s a single solution. We need to continue to promote proactive policies and programs to prevent poverty and support struggling individuals and families. For example, we can raise social assistance rates to bring those households up above the poverty line. Expanding access to high-quality early childhood education will increase maternal employment and incomes by sending more mothers into the workplace, generating greater tax revenue and also reducing poverty. The research is clear that “housing first” and harm reduction approaches are far more effective than punitive measures to address problems such as homelessness and addiction. The latter results in an extremely expensive, reactive system where we end up spending more than required for policing, incarceration, hospitalization, and shelter services. We also need to focus on issues like raising the minimum wage, addressing a growing mental health crisis and providing individuals, including youth, with the training and support they need to find good jobs. Solutions at the local level are also important and include investments in high quality transit and community infrastructure. These include things like community hubs and health centres, parks, and community gardens that can really improve the quality of life for people in low-income neighbourhoods. These programs, along with significant policy reforms, could work together to reduce poverty quite dramatically.

5. What is the role of the non-profits like United Way in mitigating the effects of poverty?

We have a healthy and vibrant social services sector. We need to continue to build on that and expand it. United Way and other organizations do great work in providing services and supports for vulnerable and at-risk populations. United Way does a particularly great job of raising awareness of important issues like precarious employment through its research. It also brings together coalitions to mobilize, to advocate for policy reforms and new programs and to fundamentally address some of the root causes of poverty with the goal of eradicating it.

6. Can we end poverty?

Absolutely, yes. Fundamentally we have to understand that we can end poverty if we have the political will. There are many places in the world—including Scandinavian countries—that have largely eliminated poverty. But it’s still extremely rare. Canada has done a lot more in terms of supporting those living on a low income and reducing poverty compared to the United States where we’ve seen a lot of cutbacks and a really rapid increase in deep poverty. Although there is a long way to go, I don’t think we should ever lose hope. I think, in fact, this is an important reminder why this work is so tremendously important. We can’t stop fighting to improve the quality of life for people living in poverty.  One of my friends is a congressman in the United States and he recently sent out an email with Dr. Martin Luther King’s message: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

Ways you can help:

Can we end the cycle of child hunger?

In Toronto, 26.8 per cent of children — about one in four — live beneath the poverty line. That’s the highest percentage of poverty among urban centres in Canada. Along with poverty comes food insecurity; since 2008, the city’s inner suburbs have seen a 48 per cent increase in food bank use, including children.

Malika Favre art of white fork with black silhouette of children on UNIGNORABLE colour

Having a job is no longer enough to ensure food security. Factors such as precarious work and lack of affordable housing can impact a household’s ability to put food on the table. Imagine a City spoke to frontline community workers and poverty experts on the long-lasting side effects of hunger, as well as innovative programs that are helping to tackle this issue right here at home.

What are some of the root causes of child hunger in the GTA?

“We’re looking at a city where there are so many people who are struggling, but food insecurity becomes a by-product of that — it’s one of the symptoms of people who are income-insecure,” says Shoba Adore, executive director of United Way-supported Braeburn Neighbourhood Place. “It’s about affordable housing, decent wages, employment that’s not precarious.” Income insecurity leads to food insecurity, and it’s much more pervasive than many realize; even those with a job (or multiple jobs) don’t always have enough to eat on a regular basis.

“By the time they pay for their rent and transit there isn’t money for food,” says Dr. Elizabeth Lee Ford-Jones, project investigator at The Hospital for Sick Children and a professor in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Toronto. For many parents, she says not having enough money to feed their children is a terrible shame. They may “slink along to food banks” or deny the problem exists; in some cases, they keep their kids home from school if they don’t have lunch money.

What are the long-term effects of child hunger?

Research conducted by Ford-Jones and McMaster University’s Janice Ke found that food insecurity and hunger lead to a number of health-related issues. In children, it’s associated with delays in socioemotional, cognitive and motor development; higher levels of hyperactivity, inattention and poor memory; higher frequency of chronic illness; and increased risk of childhood obesity. For youth, there’s increased risk for depression and suicidal ideation, as well as mood, behaviour and substance abuse disorders.

“There are long-term impacts on children but also on the family — how parents basically sacrifice their own food and nutrition to provide food for their kids,” says Michael Polanyi, community worker for the Children’s Aid Society of Toronto. That takes both a physical and psychological toll on parents and the family as a unit; in some cases, parents are under so much stress and depravation themselves that they’re not able to provide for the family.

What about school programs?

There are 180,000 children in Toronto accessing either snack or lunch programs in schools, “but certainly it’s a fraction of all children going to school,” says Polanyi. “Many countries have universal hot lunch programs, like France, where they provide nutritious meals for all the kids at lunchtime.” In Canada, there is no national strategy to provide students with snacks or hot lunches; programs are typically provided by charitable organizations.

Braeburn, for example, provides enriched snack programs during afterschool activities. And while many families visit the agency to access its food programs, Braeburn is also able to offer other ‘wraparound supports’ such as lunch-and-learns for students as well as tutoring and homework assistance. It also allows students to maintain their dignity and avoid embarrassment or shame. “We try to offer programs in a universal way — it’s open and you choose to come,” says Adore. “All of our programs are free, there’s no means testing, you’re not reporting on what your income is … so you’re getting lunch but you’re also doing your homework.”

What about community-based approaches?

Food banks can help with immediate needs, but community-based initiatives like The Stop Community Food Centre can empower vulnerable populations with longer-term solutions. “The Stop is a whole food program … where the community grows the food, harvests the food, prepares the food and serves the food,” says Ford-Jones.

Community gardens allow vulnerable populations to grow some of their own food, “but also gain some income through selling food locally through farmers’ markets,” says Polanyi. Community kitchens or food hubs can also provide access to healthy, low-cost food; some also teach basic nutrition and cooking skills. United Way-supported FoodShare, for example, works with schools and communities to deliver healthy food along with food education; its FoodLink program connects community members with local low-cost food programs, such as food banks or community gardens.

What are the next steps in eradicating child hunger?

While there’s a need to expand school nutrition programs and provide better access to affordable food, fighting child hunger and fighting poverty go hand in hand. Though the federal government is developing a poverty reduction strategy, experts agree there’s a need for more funding and more action. “It’s such a wise investment for us to make that will change the long-term costs to the healthcare system,” says Adore. “We feel like we’re in the Ministry of Prevention.”

Ways you can help:

Three Ways to Empower Girls

Growing up is tough, especially for girls in a hyper-connected world where social media and FOMO (fear of missing out) make those teenage years even more challenging. During those years, their self-confidence plummets, as does their mental health, making them particularly vulnerable to exploitation and self-destructive behaviour.

Statistic in 2016 more than half of Canadian women without a high school diploma were not in the labour force

In Grade 6, 36 per cent of girls say they are self-confident; by Grade 10, that number plummets to only 14 per cent, according to a report by Healthy Settings for Young People in Canada. And approximately 12 per cent of female youth, aged 12 to 19, have experienced a major depressive episode, according to the CMHA (Canadian Mental Health Association). Supporting girls at this critical point in time can help to build confidence and provide them with tools to face life’s challenges. Imagine a City talks to front-line workers and experts about how to empower girls and young women — and why it’s so critically important.

  1. Build self-esteem

Growing up comes with its share of growing pains, but it’s even more challenging for girls who are already at a disadvantage, whether that’s living in poverty, experiencing violence in the home or suffering from the trauma of sexual abuse. “Low self-esteem reduces one’s ability to cope, increases self-destructive behaviour and their ability to plan for the future, which puts them at greater risk,” said Jody Miller, managing director of the Elizabeth Fry Society of Peel-Halton, a United Way-supported agency.

That’s why it’s critical to provide supports that build self-esteem in girls — supports that are holistic, non-judgemental and trauma-informed. “We have a classroom for at-risk girls in collaboration with the school board,” says Miller. “We’re able to decrease the barriers they would normally experience in attending traditional school, making things more individualized, as well as offering mental health support that helps keep girls involved.”

But it’s not just getting girls to do their homework; it’s about providing activities that build self-esteem and develop leadership skills, “countering those trends toward self-doubt,” Miller says, “having girls be able to build those supportive relationships, recognizing their own inherent capabilities, including them in decisions, honouring their self-worth, and building upon that.”

  1. Build resilience

Building self-esteem goes hand in hand with building resilience and empowering girls to stand up for themselves and avoid exploitation — whether that’s peer pressure, being taken advantage of by a boyfriend or getting lured into sexually exploitive situations. This can happen to any girl, but particularly those who are experiencing low self-worth.

Once a girl is being trafficked, for example, it takes her on average seven times before she’s able to successfully exit that life, says Miller. “It requires a lot of resources coming together to support that girl.”

That’s why the society’s Empowering Against Exploitation program, funded by the United Way, was created — and is now held as a national model for effective sexual exploitation preventative education, starting with girls in Grades 7 and 8.

Embracing an empowerment approach, this program blends a variety of activities that foster self-reflection, understanding about the issue, and knowledge to help young women identify predators and potentially exploitive situations. It also teaches them how issues like substance abuse can tie into exploitation. “The average age of recruitment is so young, you want to be able to give them the tools [at an early age],” says Miller.

  1. Create opportunities

For girls at risk, completing high school is challenging enough; the idea of pursuing post-secondary education may seem like a pipe dream. That’s why Girls Inc. of York Region, a United Way-supported agency, provides lunch-time and afterschool programs specifically for girls aged 12 to 18 identified as ‘at risk’ by school guidance counsellors. These programs are aimed at building life skills and confidence, from violence prevention to youth leadership, career counselling and opportunities in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

As well as providing academic support and teaching life skills — such as how to open a bank account and what to wear to a job interview — it’s also important to open up opportunities they may have never considered or even thought possible, such as those in STEM. Teaching girls to code and create websites, for example, builds confidence, but also gives them skills that can lead them out of poverty or other limiting situations.

“As women we have fewer opportunities or have to work harder to get treated as equals,” says Barb Wallace, executive director of Girls Inc. of York Region. “Especially with STEM programs, girls are often overlooked, or if it’s hard they tend to give up, so we’re trying to make it really fun and cool … doing it in a large group builds momentum, gets them excited about it, but in a different way than [a traditional classroom].” Providing these opportunities levels the playing field, she says, and “lets them know there are other options out there — hopefully we’re breaking the cycle of poverty in some scenarios.”

So why is it so important to build self-esteem, build resilience and create opportunities?

“These young girls are going to be our future and we need to provide them with opportunities to learn outside of school, to open up their horizons so they become strong, independent members of society,” says Wallace. “[Otherwise] they might fall through the cracks [in the school system]. If they can’t stand up for themselves, they can’t advocate on their own behalf. We give them an opportunity to develop their self-esteem to stand up for themselves.”

Ways you can help:

A myth-busting Q&A on homelessness

It’s their own fault they’re homeless. They don’t want to get a job. They’re not willing to break the cycle.

These are some of the commonly held misconceptions about homelessness — an issue that is often misunderstood by the public. According to the State of Homelessness in Canada 2016 report by the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, 35,000 Canadians are homeless on any given night, and at least 235,000 Canadians experience homelessness in a year. While this unignorable issue is often associated with adult males, we’re seeing an uptick in women, families and youth experiencing homelessness, as well as older adults and seniors. Imagine a City talks to front-line workers and experts to bust some of these common myths.

Malika Favre art of white bench with black silhouette of homeless person on UNIGNORABLE colour

Myth #1: People experiencing homelessness choose to be homeless

Most people become homeless because of economic circumstances, such as unemployment or the inability to afford rising living costs, according to a Homeless in Canada report. “It’s degrading and stigmatizing to be homeless,” says Dr. Stephen Gaetz, director of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness. “There’s an incredible lack of safety, you’re more likely to be malnourished, you’re more likely to be a victim of crime, you’re more likely to be sexually assaulted, your health worsens, your mental health worsens. If you take a chronically homeless person [and] offer them housing with support, they’ll generally stay in housing.”

Myth #2: It’s their own fault they’re homeless

While it’s hard to pinpoint a “cause” of homelessness, most people end up experiencing homelessness because of poverty, according to the Homeless in Canada report. And poverty is affected by complex issues such as lifelong trauma, family breakdown or mental health issues, according to Alex Cheng, client services director with Blue Door Shelters, a United Way-supported agency in York Region that provides emergency housing for youth, families and adult men. “We see a lot of folks that have a mental health diagnosis or use substances to self-medicate, and those are all barriers for individuals who are homeless to move forward.”

Myth #3: They aren’t interested in being productive members of society

“We have seen in our setting, when we are able to provide supports to individuals and lower those barriers and connect them to community, they do want to get out of homelessness,” says Cheng. “But the reality is it’s a slow process. When you’re put in a position where you’ve been labelled for so long and your experience for the last few years or for the majority of [your life] has been trying to survive — and you don’t know anything but to survive — it becomes even harder to adjust to being integrated into the general community.”

Myth #4: They should just get a job

We sometimes hear that people experiencing homelessness should just “get a job.” They’re accused of being lazy or wanting to live off government assistance. “It’s hard to obtain and maintain a job when you don’t have stable housing,” says Gaetz. Employers look for applicants with a permanent address, high level of education and professional wardrobe. They tend to avoid applicants who have gaps in their work history, don’t have a permanent address or are living in a shelter.

Myth #5: Homeless youth are “delinquents” or addicts

When it comes to youth — particularly males — there’s often an assumption that they’ve ended up on the streets because they’re lazy, rebellious or on drugs. “The No. 1 reason is family conflict — and two-thirds of young people have experienced physical, sexual or emotional abuse. They leave for very good reasons,” says Gaetz.

“A large percentage are affected by family breakdowns and they’ve suffered a lot of trauma,” says Cheng. And at that age, finding independent housing is near impossible. “You’ve never had permanent employment; you probably haven’t finished high school. I don’t think people understand how vulnerable youth are. Youth need a different approach, they do need different supports, including some ways of rebuilding themselves.”

Myth #6: They’re taking advantage of the system

Not only is there a lack of low-income housing in the Greater Toronto Area, there are low vacancy rates, and anyone on disability or social assistance can’t afford market rent, says Cheng. If they’re not staying in a shelter, they’re renting a room (likely a shared room) and, even then, social assistance barely covers the cost. “Social assistance rates are such now … they would be spending upwards of almost 90 per cent of their income on rent,” says Cheng. “That’s just a recipe for disaster because they are being housed but they don’t have enough resources to even take care of themselves. You’re almost on a clock — you’re one small step away from losing your housing again.”

Myth #7: This would never happen to me

“Homelessness can happen to anyone,” says Cheng. “A lot of people are one paycheque away from being homeless. … We see that a lot with families — because of finances or job loss or extenuating circumstances, the entire family becomes homeless.”

The first step in tackling unignorable issues like homelessness, is understanding them. Acknowledging that these myths are, in fact, myths, can help to reduce stigma, increase empathy and move people out of homelessness.

Ways you can help:

Why loneliness in seniors is a health hazard

Seniors are living longer than ever, but that doesn’t mean they’re living life to the fullest. As society ages and families become more dispersed, loneliness and isolation are on the radar of healthcare professionals. While ‘isolation’ isn’t an illness, it’s a condition that can impact a senior’s physical, mental and psychological wellbeing. Imagine a City spoke to industry leaders about the impact of isolation and innovative, community-based solutions that can help seniors, their caregivers and, ultimately, the healthcare system.

illustration depicting seniors social isolation as a small house lost in a large maze

Why is seniors’ isolation on the radar of healthcare professionals?

“Seniors are living longer, and some of them with more complex care needs,” says Christina Bisanz, CEO of CHATS (Community & Home Assistance to Seniors), a United Way-supported agency that serves 8,300 seniors and their caregivers in York and Simcoe. Adult children move away; families are more dispersed. In some communities, grandparents are brought to Canada to raise their grandchildren, but are left without a purpose once the grandchildren grow up, especially if they don’t speak English or have social connections.

Isolation can also come about because of mobility or health issues. Perhaps they’ve lost their driver’s licence, don’t live close to public transit or require a cane or wheelchair to get around. If they have an initial diagnosis of dementia, they may isolate themselves socially, which also has an impact on their partner or caregiver, says Allison Sekuler, vice-president of research at Baycrest Health Sciences and managing director for the Centre for Aging and Brain Health Innovation.

Who is most at risk?

Those most at risk, according to a report  by the Government of Canada, are seniors 80 or older who live alone, have multiple health problems, have no children or contact with family, lack access to transportation and survive on a low income. Life transitions such as retirement or death of a spouse can further the risk of becoming socially isolated.

What is the impact of isolation on seniors?

“There’s growing concern about the health impacts of social isolation,” says Bisanz. “In the U.K., for example, they recently appointed a Minister for Loneliness, because they’ve recognized and acknowledged that loneliness is related to acute and chronic health challenges.” The Government of Canada report found that one in four seniors lives with a mental health problem ranging from depression to dementia, while 44 per cent of seniors living in residential care have been diagnosed with depression or show undiagnosed symptoms of depression.

“If you’re isolated and don’t have opportunities to interact with people, it can speed cognitive decline and lead to depression,” says Sekuler. “[Statistics Canada] estimated 1.4 million older Canadians suffer from loneliness right now—80 per cent of the time people 80 years and older feel lonely. The statistics are really crushing.”

What community-based supports are available?

From a mobility standpoint, transportation programs can help an isolated senior get out of the house for grocery shopping or medical appointments, as well as social outings. Adult day programs at healthcare facilities and community centres offer social and wellness activities for seniors—from crafts to field trips—along with companionship. Home-care services also play a role, from friendly visits to home upkeep and healthcare.

Along with adult day programs, CHATS also offers outreach programs for the region’s diverse communities, such as Iranian, Russian, Cantonese and Tamil. “We have a number of programs that we run for culturally and linguistically specific communities—some of those are funded through United Way,” says Bisanz. “They’re designed to bring people together in a situation where they feel cultural familiarity.”

Is the issue exacerbated for LGBTQ2+ seniors?

While all seniors are at risk of social isolation, LGBTQ2+ seniors face barriers to affirming support services and a great deal of social isolation and loneliness as they age, says Kate Hazell, coordinator of the LGBTQ2+ seniors programs at The 519. As part of its programming, the agency seeks to address social isolation in older adults, through programs like a weekly drop-in program. It also launched a pilot program called Pals Connect for LGBTQ2+ seniors experiencing high levels of social isolation, providing friendly visits to seniors who are unable to access group programming. “As it is a drop-in space, people aren’t required to disclose their name in order to get access to it, and that’s an important feature,” says Hazell.

How does this affect caregivers?

Adult day programs can promote independence and encourage social interaction; at Baycrest, programs include door-to-door transportation, therapeutic recreation, creative arts, counselling and support, as well as respite for caregivers. “At the same time, the caregivers can have a little bit of a break, and they have opportunities to interact with each other, which reduces their social isolation,” says Sekuler. “In fact, caregivers are more likely to develop dementia themselves than non-caregivers.”

Indeed, a report from Health Quality Ontario  found that one-third of caregivers looking after loved ones at home suffer from anger, distress or depression. Many caregivers ignore their own health while looking after a loved one, and experience emotional and physical distress such as low energy, headaches and chest pain. That’s why many programs that address senior isolation also provide respite for caregivers, including online support and peer meet-ups.

Can social robots really help?

While programs and services can help, so can new technologies. Baycrest’s Innovation, Technology and Design lab is working with the University of Toronto to develop a ‘social robot’ with emotion-sensing software to assist seniors with mild to moderate cognitive impairment. “The whole point is to address this issue of social isolation — it’s smart, it learns what you like,” says Sekuler.

Other projects include virtual reality applications that provide recreational and social support for homebound seniors with limited mobility — so they can go dancing or take a walk in the park via an avatar—and sensors that use artificial intelligence to detect falls and alert a caregiver. It’s early days, but it’s hoped new technologies can provide another option for isolated seniors.

Is there a GTA-wide strategy to address seniors’ isolation?

There are 14 local health integration networks (LHINs) around the province, which fund programs such as congregate dining, transportation services and adult day programs — along with cutting-edge research into new technologies that can reduce isolation and loneliness. “It’s about improving quality of life and quality of health so that hopefully we’re avoiding unnecessary hospitalization or more costly health care,” says Bisanz. “If social engagement supports that healthy well-being, physically, mentally and even spiritually, then seniors are able to remain as active members of their community.”

Ways you can help:

  • Donate to United Way today to help seniors experiencing social isolation
  • Learn more about this unignorable issue by visiting ShowYourLocalLove.ca
  • Subscribe to Imagine a City to learn more about the issues affecting our community

10 ways poverty affects kids

Child poverty is a widespread issue, with an alarming 17 per cent of Canadian children living on a low income, according to the 2016 census. In Toronto, the rate is even higher, and our region has the dubious distinction of being the child poverty capital of Canada. According to Unequal City: The Hidden Divide Among Toronto’s Children and Youth, a 2017 report from Social Planning Toronto, more than one in four children under the age of 18 live in poverty, making Toronto’s child and youth poverty rate the highest among major cities in Canada. Indigenous, newcomer and racialized children are more likely to be growing up in low-income households, creating an even wider gap in quality of life.

Child in pink hoodie and brown pants hugging knees

Across the board, kids who experience poverty are at a great disadvantage in life, with effects lasting well into adulthood. Here are 10 ways poverty holds kids back:

1. Food insecurity

When children don’t have enough to eat, they are more likely to have difficulty focusing at school. But it gets worse: hunger can actually impair cognitive functioning and brain development. Sugary and refined foods that are low in nutritional value can also have a negative effect on a kid’s ability to learn. That’s one reason children who have access to nutritious (and often, more expensive) food typically do better academically. “Food insecurity can play into certain mental health disorders and developmental disorders,” says Dr. Sloane Freeman, a pediatrician at St. Michael’s Hospital and founder of the Model Schools Pediatric Health Initiative, an in-school healthcare program that works in low-income communities. “If you’re not nourished a certain way, you’re at risk for developmental problems in childhood.”

Food insecurity also puts kids at a higher risk for developing other health issues—like diabetes and cardiovascular disease—later in life. According to a 2017 report from the University of Toronto, people with lower incomes typically consume less produce than those in food-secure households. “It’s not a question of not knowing you should be eating fruits and vegetables; it’s not being able to afford the fruits and vegetables,” says Raphael. “With poverty, you live under conditions of material deprivation.”

2. Affordable housing

As housing costs increase, lower-income families are forced into enclaves where there are usually fewer recreational resources—or lower-quality resources—for kids. “Inadequate housing may be located in high-risk neighbourhoods which have less access to quality services, infrastructure and vibrant communities, compared to housing in more secure locations,” says a report by Best Start Resource Centre. “Welfare rates and Ontario Disability Support Program are not enough to meet basic needs, making it impossible for families to save for a house or to increase their standard of living.”

Plus, when families are underhoused, they are often subject to overcrowding, says professor Raphael. This means it’s not uncommon for two or three families to live in a single apartment. “From a health perspective, this can cause infections and stress.” And it’s not a short-term problem: “the waiting list is 18 years [for subsidized housing],” he says.

3. Childcare

There’s a link between childcare and school success. Quality childcare helps early childhood development and boosts success later in life: it provides a safe, educational environment that fosters cognitive development and prepares kids for school. While affordable childcare is important to families from all economic backgrounds, access to this service is not equal across income brackets: a 2018 report from People for Education found that elementary schools with a higher percentage of university-educated parents are more likely to offer childcare, whereas at schools with fewer university-educated parents and higher rates of poverty, subsidized or affordable childcare services are lacking.

When low-income children don’t have access to this vital service, they’re put at risk, says Khanna. “Unfortunately, affordable, accessible, high-quality childcare is still a matter of chance, as children linger on the subsidy waitlist when they could be gaining foundational skills through play-based learning,” she says.

4. Extracurricular activities

According to the Unequal City report, access to recreational opportunities is key for children’s development and well-being, and prepares them for success in school. But when kids can’t join in for financial reasons, they lose out. Data from the Toronto District School Board shows that 48 per cent of children in families with incomes below $30,000 do not regularly take part in extracurricular activities. This is a huge contrast with children in households with incomes of $100,000 or more, where only 7 per cent do not attend out-of-school sports or lessons.

“Typically, children in low-income [households] have fewer opportunities for enrichment,” says Anita Khanna, the director of Social Action and Community Building at Family Service Toronto. “Experiences like going to an arts-based day camp or on trips to the zoo or science centre help bring in-class learning to life. This is why programs that promote access to summer programs for children in all income groups are so vital.”

5. Dental care

A 2014 Toronto Public Health outreach initiative found that kids from lower-income households are less likely to receive quality dental care, and are more likely to have cavities and need root canals than kids from higher-income families.

Those findings are backed up by a 2013 report from the Canadian Paediatric Society, which found that dental disease disproportionately affects low-income families, Indigenous children, new immigrants and kids with special health needs. On top of having poorer oral health, the report states that these populations are also less likely to have dental insurance, and tend to have limited or no access to oral health care.

This is all despite Healthy Smiles Ontario, an initiative aimed to provide government-covered dental care to low-income kids. According to the Ontario Dental Association, there’s still a critical funding gap that leaves many behind. A June 2018 press release calling for “meaningful action” on funding public dental health programs from Ontario’s new premier noted that dentists in Ontario treat about 200,000 kids under Healthy Smiles Ontario—but there are 500,000 eligible children. This means that even with current government support, many low-income kids still aren’t receiving quality care.

6. Educational opportunities

Findings from a 2013 Globe and Mail investigation showed that schools in affluent Toronto neighbourhoods had higher student literacy test scores and better educational resources than schools in lower-income areas. Not only do low-income kids tend to do worse on literacy tests, but research shows they’re less likely to succeed in the long term, too. One study published in the journal Paediatrics & Child Health revealed that kids from low-income households were less likely to graduate from high school and to attend university or college.

“In Canada, only 31 per cent of youth from the bottom income quartile attended
post-secondary education compared with 50.2 per cent in the top income quartile,” the report found. “Once again, the evidence indicates that students from low-income families are disadvantaged right through the education system to postsecondary training.”

7. Reading

There’s a strong correlation between socio-economic status and academic performance. That’s particularly evident when we’re looking at language development. A 2013 study by psychologists at Stanford University, for instance, showed that toddlers from low-income households knew fewer words and had weaker language processing skills than their more-affluent peers. They were also less likely to start school with early reading skills.

Another gap is in the simple—yet, for many, less achievable—act of reading aloud to and with kids. According to the Canadian Teachers’ Federation, kids who are regularly read to at home and have more positive parental interaction have higher levels of school readiness. But for a number of reasons, this tends to happen less often in lower-income households.

“Despite parents’ best efforts, the hunger, anxiety and social exclusion associated with poverty can have negative effects on children’s school readiness,” Khanna says. “Parents who have to juggle multiple low-wage or contract jobs may have less time to read to their children and build early literacy skills.” This barrier is even greater for new Canadian families if English is not their first language. Even if they’re able to spend time developing other skills with their children, English literacy is key to school success.

Kids from low-income households are also more likely to experience summer reading loss, a decline in literacy skills that can happen when children take a break from reading over summer vacation—and one that can have cumulative effects. “We all know that it is much harder to play catch-up when you start off on an unequal footing,” she says.

8. Swimming lessons

Knowing how to swim can save your life. Unfortunately, many low-income children aren’t enrolled in swimming lessons due to cost, much like other extra-curricular activities. When kids don’t learn to swim, they are literally more likely to die than those who can.

There are also cultural barriers that may prevent many low-income kids from learning how to swim—the need for gender-segregated lessons, for example. New Canadians are four times less likely to know how to swim than those born in Canada, and are therefore at a higher risk for drowning.

9. Healthcare

Children from lower-income households typically receive worse, and less frequent, medical attention than more-affluent kids do, which means they’re at a greater risk for physical and mental health problems. Plus, kids experiencing poverty are more likely to be hospitalized for acute conditions and are less likely to receive preventive care. According to Social Determinants of Health, a report co-authored by York University’s Raphael, the bottom 33 per cent of Canadian income earners are less likely to see a specialist when needed compared to the country’s top 33 per cent of earners.

“Poverty affects a number of the social determinants of health,” says Freeman. “There’s transportation barriers, financial barriers, parents have to take time off work to go see the doctor and there’s significant language barriers. There’s difficulty navigating our healthcare system in general. It’s more difficult than we may realize for families to access the care they need.”

10. Financial literacy

“Financial services are generally designed to cater to the needs of middle- and high-income individuals,” says a report by Prosper Canada. “This can result in financial information and advice that is unintentionally ill-suited or even harmful to people with low incomes.”

If a child comes from a family where there are financial barriers, like low levels of education or low-wage employment, they’re less likely to develop financial literacy as they grow up. Certain segments of the population that are more prone to poverty, including Indigenous people and new Canadians, are also less likely to learn how to make more informed financial choices. Things like applying for student loans and government grants, for example, are more challenging for kids whose parents don’t have the knowledge base.

It’s clear that poverty impacts the trajectory of a child’s entire life and accentuates the income gap across generations—which is why it’s important for society to do everything it can to counteract its effects. Advocating for change, getting involved in local politics, and volunteering in your community can help.

“All children should have the opportunity to reach their full potential and contribute to our communities,” says Khanna. “We all benefit from lower poverty and inequality, so we need to be fully invested in making positive change to improve the lives of children and families.”

Ways you can help:

Who cares for the caregivers?

More attention is being paid to mental health, but what about the impact on those caring for a family member or loved one who struggles with mental illness or has attempted suicide? Research shows that caregiving takes a toll — physically, mentally and emotionally, even financially. Imagine a City looks at the impact on families and how vital community-based supports and respite can provide much-needed care for caregivers.

By age 40, about 50% of Canadians will have or have had a mental illness

Informal caregivers provide critical support and care at home. And it’s becoming increasingly commonplace: As of 2012, 8 million Canadians — that’s 28 per cent of the population aged 15 and over — provided care to family members or friends, according to Statistics Canada.

But among regular caregivers, StatsCan found that 38 per cent of those who helped their child, 34 per cent who helped their spouse and 21 per cent who helped their parents reported feeling depressed. The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) also found that caregivers have higher rates of emotional and anxiety disorders, and are twice as likely as non-caregivers to use mental health services for their own problems.

Caregivers are not a homogenous group; caregiving runs the gamut from navigating the healthcare system and administering medication to providing personal assistance in the home, such as housework, feeding, bathing and toileting. In some cases, caregivers have to take time off work or quit their job — for example, to supervise a family member with dementia — which adds financial stress to the situation.

“Families can really be at risk for developing their own physical health issues or mental health issues as a result of chronic stress,” says Leanne Needham, family work lead at the Canadian Mental Health Association, Peel Dufferin, a United Way supported agency. “Some families can be exposed to this chronic level of stress for years and years.” Through her work, Needham has seen caregivers develop chronic pain, illness and depression as a result of ongoing worry and fear.

Add to this the fact there may be conflict in the home that can lead to trauma — having interventions with police or having their loved one disappear for days at a time, and “the grief around that and not knowing where to turn or when things are going to change,” says Needham.

Caregivers often have multiple responsibilities; the ‘sandwich-generation’ may be taking care of children and elderly parents at the same time. StatsCan found that 60 per cent of caregivers were working at a paid job or business, and 28 per cent had children under the age of 18.

“Sometimes [caregivers] just need a break,” says Wanda Morris, chief advocacy and engagement officer for the Canadian Association for Retired Persons. CARP’s Caring for Caregivers campaign is advocating for increased financial benefits for family caregivers in Canada, many of whom are on the verge of burnout. “People are being dropped off in emergency on a Friday night, and that sounds really heinous, but sometimes families are just at their wit’s end.”

Even in cases where government-funded care is provided, Morris says informal caregivers are frustrated with lack of continuity and flexibility. There’s a “revolving door” of government-funded caregivers, which impacts continuity of care. This is stressful for the person being supported, particularly when that care is intimate, such as bathing. “Imagine having that happen with different random strangers all of the time,” says Morris.

Caregivers are often so busy looking for supports for their loved ones, they forget to take care of themselves, says Needham. Or, they don’t know supports even exist. But it’s similar to the safety warning on airplanes: Put your own oxygen mask on first before helping the person next to you. “If you wear yourself out, then you’re not going to be able to be there for your loved ones,” she says.

CAMH has come up with a list of recommendations for caregivers, including income support to cover expenses and lost income; peer support where family members can share their fears and frustrations, and learn coping skills; and respite services to give caregivers a break from their responsibilities.

While much needs to be done on the legislative front to provide better income support and job protection to caregivers, there are a broad range of other supports, from skills-building workshops to adult daycare. Local CMHAs across Ontario, for example, offer family support, from educational workshops to counselling; there are also options through hospitals.

In the GTA, a number of non-profit family support organizations provide education, counselling and peer support groups, such as the Mood Disorders Association of Ontario, Family Association for Mental Health Everywhere (FAME), and the Family Outreach and Response Program (now affiliated with CMHA Toronto). The Sashbear Foundation runs a 12-week program called Family Connections, which provides skills training and support for people in a relationship with someone who has emotion dysregulation.

“[Caregiving] can be very draining — reaching out and getting support can help you understand better how to support somebody,” says Needham. “It can reduce conflict in the home and it can keep you going longer and stronger.”

Head to LocalLove.ca to learn more about preventing caregiver burnout and watch this inspiring video to hear a personal account of how community supports can help caregivers.

Going global to embrace local

Game-changers. They’re often necessary and certainly, transformative. They can make what may appear big —small, what’s complicated—easy and what’s global —local.

Closeup on a group of five young children leaning into the camera

That’s why at United Way, we’ve decided to get more deeply local with a global, mission-driven, digital platform: Salesforce Philanthropy Cloud (SPC), a change that will enhance what we do best, and that’s bringing people together to solve local issues.

Because like you, we believe community matters.

This is why we’ve partnered with Salesforce.org.

We’ve heard first-hand that you love your neighbourhoods—from Malvern to Mississauga, from Gerrard to Georgina—and you care about local issues. You’re passionate about unignorable problems like growing income inequality, poverty, and a labour market that isn’t providing a clear path to opportunity and good-paying jobs. We understand too that you want to be part of the change that makes the neighbourhood you live and work in a thriving, happy place.

SPC places you and what you care about most front-and-centre, provides more options at your fingertips, and allows you to personalize how and where you choose to give your support.

Now, you’ll be able to take action with just one click. SPC will help everyone—from donors to volunteers to community partners—to easily connect with each other, share inspiring content, and create a powerful network of change-makers, all working together to tackle local poverty.

Sometimes you have to go really big to get really small.

Find out more about SPC and and if it’s right for your workplace here.

5 reasons why mentorship matters

From childhood to early adulthood, mentorship matters — not just in the near-term, but for future success and prosperity. For vulnerable or at-risk children, in particular, mentorship can help to prevent possible challenges down the road, while building self-esteem and improving peer relationships, academic success and future employability. Imagine a City spoke to the experts on the lasting effects of mentorship and how it can change lives—and communities. Here are five reasons why mentorship matters:

sep3_mentorstat_718x350.jpg1. It improves educational outcomes

Vulnerable or at-risk youth can face challenges at school, as do children being raised by a single parent. In fact, kids from single-parent homes are at higher risk of growing up in poverty and facing emotional and behavioural problems, including strained parental and peer relationships, poor academic achievement and disengagement from school, according to the Canadian Institute of Child Health.

It’s one of the reasons Big Brothers Big Sisters of Canada (BBBSC) offers an in-school mentoring program, where an at-risk child meets with a mentor for an hour a week to talk, play games or hang out. Children are selected by school administrators based on need — perhaps they have fewer peer connections or they’re at risk of becoming disengaged with school, says Katie Lowes, program manager at Big Brothers Big Sisters of York, a United Way-supported agency. Kids with mentors, she adds, are less likely to skip school and display behavioural problems, and they are more confident in their academic abilities.

2. It helps develop self-esteem

Any child can benefit from having a ‘champion’ in their corner, but it’s particularly important for those who are at-risk or experiencing trauma. “This is more of a preventative program, as opposed to something that’s a nice to have,” says Lowes. “Our kids have experienced things most kids wouldn’t need to even think about. [Having a mentor allows them] to have an advocate in their corner, to show them that they’re worthy, that their opinion matters.”

A mentor isn’t a guardian or peer; a mentor is an adult role model. Through regular outings, a relationship is developed built on trust and common interests, where the child gets to be the priority — and have fun. “It’s not about resume building, it’s about building confidence,” says Lowes. “Giving them that confidence at a young age, there’s really nothing more powerful.”

3. It improves mental health

Seventy per cent of mental health problems show up during childhood or adolescence, according to a five-year study by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) commissioned by BBBSC. It found that boys and girls with mentors were two times less likely to exhibit conduct problems; girls with a mentor were four times less likely to bully, fight, lie or express anger than those without a mentor.

The study also revealed that girls with a mentor were two times less likely to be depressed, and boys with a mentor were two times less likely to have social anxiety. This is particularly noteworthy, since nearly one in four youth in the study reported depressive symptoms before being matched with a mentor.

4. It helps create professional networks

Mentorship teaches skills that extend beyond resume writing. Many jobs aren’t posted online; in fact a LinkedIn survey found that 85 per cent of jobs are filled via networking: “Before jobs are posted online they’re filled either internally or through a referral from a trusted source.” That means job-ready youth who don’t have a professional network are already at a disadvantage.

United Way’s netWORKS program was created to bridge that gap. “For [certain] groups of youth, they were not making the jump from education to employability,” says Annique Farrell, manager of youth initiatives at United Way. The missing piece? Access to professional networks. By collaborating with agencies and employers, the program connects young people with career-oriented mentoring connections. Research shows this approach is working: A Boston Consulting Group study found that adults who had a mentor in their youth earn $315,000 more income in their lifetime and are more likely to hold senior leadership positions (47 per cent versus 32 per cent) than non-mentored youth.

5. It inspires

For job-ready youth, a professional mentor can be a source of inspiration. The mentor can share their own journey, as well as what they’ve learned along the way. “The idea is really to inspire them to see beyond what they know, to open up their minds and demystify some of the misperceptions,” says Farrell.

This is particularly important for youth who haven’t had strong role models and don’t believe a VP at a major firm would want to meet with them for a coffee and a chat. That’s why netWORKS creates opportunities for both group networking sessions and structured one-on-one mentoring relationships. “If you’re willing to ask for advice, people are willing to give you advice,” says Farrell. “If you learn how to build relationships, that could potentially turn into an opportunity you didn’t even know existed.”

Responding to youth violence in the GTA

In recent weeks, youth violence has taken an alarming turn across the GTA. We must get at the root of the issue. Working with community has never been more important. United Way Greater Toronto President and CEO Daniele Zanotti offers his comments.

Youth Violence TO-Photo (Blog)

There has been a flurry of headlines, soundbites, tweets and blogs all trying to define, diagnose and dissect youth violence across the GTA. This is not a flashpoint in the heat of the summer. Behind the recent increase in youth violence is rising poverty and inequality, decades in the making, cementing and connecting itself in GTA neighbourhoods. And it requires decades of sustained investments and community collaboration to correct.

In the urgency of so many lives lost and hurt, it is too easy to be moved to reactive solutions. In the continuing tragedy being faced by communities, it is too easy to be overwhelmed by the scale of the challenges.

This is not an “either-or” issue. It is immediate action AND long-term solutions. It is prevention AND policy. It requires residents and agencies; faith and business; police and government. And it requires continuous and strategic acts of intervention and care.

That’s why United Way works every day, so often invisibly, on the ground, with community.

Partnership is at the heart of everything we do.

Over a decade ago, anchored in Poverty by Postal Code, we partnered in neighbourhoods across the city to build hubs, support resident action and solutions, mobilize policy and investment, and pioneer youth leadership initiatives through our Youth Challenge Fund. The work that we are doing together with donors, the City and so many other partners on a strong neighbourhood strategy remains one of the most comprehensive efforts to curb violence and youth poverty in the city.

And we continue to build on this foundation in Peel, Toronto and York Region.

Communities are at the centre of solutions.

It always starts with putting communities and people at the heart of driving solutions. That’s why we are continuing to invest in the people, places and priorities where the need is the greatest.

We are helping young people access good jobs.

We must get to the root causes of hopelessness by connecting young people to good jobs. That’s why we are working with young people facing multiple barriers and employers to create pathways to meaningful employment through our Career Navigator and netWORKS programs.

We are continuously improving how we work together to change outcomes for those most vulnerable to violence.

It requires taking a comprehensive approach to systemic solutions through partnerships like FOCUS (Furthering Our Community by Uniting Services), a table with the City of Toronto, Toronto Police Services, United Way and 90 community agencies—collaboratively managing some of our city’s most complex individual cases before they become community crises. That’s why we are committed to working as part of a joint effort to scale this innovative model and grow its preventative impact. And we continue to strengthen partnerships with young people, police forces, school boards and youth-serving agencies across Peel and York Region.

More news on this and other investments to come in the weeks ahead, as we work together with our partners.

But you have to know that we are here. In it. With community. Immediate and impactful. Long-term and intentional. Still one of the most comprehensive efforts in curbing violence and youth poverty in the GTA.

We’re in this together

Peel. Toronto. York Region. No matter where you live within the region, you know that poverty remains a real and ongoing threat. But, if the past year was any indication, there’s lots of proof of how we, as a community, are fighting back.

Today, we are pleased to share United Way Greater Toronto’s 2017–18 annual report. It highlights all the change that your generous donations, on-the-ground volunteer efforts and tireless work on the front lines helped to create—in the places, populations and priorities most impacted by poverty.

Watch this video for President & CEO Daniele Zanotti’s summary of an eventful 2017:

Then, for all the ways that your support fuelled our region-wide uprising of care, read the full report here.

Getting left behind

Professor Wayne Lewchuk, McMaster University and  Stephanie Procyk, Manager of Research, Public Policy and Evaluation, United Way Greater Toronto, are co-authors of Getting Left Behind: Who gained and who didn’t in an improving labour market, a newly-released report on precarious employment in the GTHA.

From people rocking their side hustle to talk of the gig economy – we know the working world has changed. But don’t let the cute terms fool you – this work is precarious and that’s a problem.

graphic of white stickpeople on red background with statistic about precarious employment

Precarious employment has imprinted itself on the GTHA job market: 37.2% of workers are still in some degree of precarious employment. That likely means they don’t have health benefits, don’t have pension plans and may not even know next week’s work schedule. They can’t plan for their future, let alone coordinate childcare for the start of the school year.

red stickperson holding stopwatch with statistic about employment anxiety

It’s more than stressful. One third of all workers still report poor mental health. 40% of workers report that, despite the improved economy, anxiety interferes with their personal and family lives.

While we’ve seen significant gains in the labour market in the past six years, we aren’t seeing the changes we would expect. While GTHA unemployment fell from 8.2% to 6.3% and Canadian real GDP per hour worked increased by 7.2%, wages didn’t keep pace. Real average weekly wages only grew by 1%. Temporary jobs grew almost double the rate of permanent jobs.

The labour market is becoming more polarized, not less. Those who had access to stable, secure jobs in 2011 gained even more access in 2017. And those who didn’t, were left behind.

dejected looking red stickwoman in graduation cap with diploma

When it comes to landing a secure job in a growing economy, a combination of gender, race and having a university degree determine whether or not someone gets left behind. Only white men and white women with university degrees and racialized men with university degrees gained job security between 2011 and 2017. Racialized women with university degrees and all workers without university degrees stagnated in terms of job security.

It’s clear that economic growth alone cannot solve the issues of precarious employment and labour market polarization. We need to take action to ensure that no one gets left behind. How? By expanding decent work through employment standards and ladders to opportunity. By creating a floor of basic income and social supports available to precarious workers. We need to ensure that background and circumstances are not barriers to the labour market.

If you’re running a business, running a household or even running your day, you know you need all hands on deck. In a growing economy we can’t afford for people to be left behind and we need everyone to play a role in addressing these challenges. Read our latest report, get informed and get engaged with the issues.

Taking an active role in reconciliation

Steve Teekens photoSteve Teekens, a member of the Nipissing First Nation, currently serves as Executive Director at Na-Me-Res (Native Men’s Residence), where he has worked since 2008. He has worked with the marginalized and homeless in Toronto since 1995 and now shares his professional experience volunteering with Aboriginal Legal Services Community Council Program, Toronto Police Services Aboriginal Consultative Committee and as Vice President of TASSC (Toronto Aboriginal Social Services Council). In all his work, Steve is driven to help people overcome barriers and succeed by finding resilience within themselves.

On4all_logo2

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) released their calls to action document in 2015 after touring the country to hear the first-hand experiences of Indigenous residential school survivors. Many of the truths shared by survivors were stories that some Ontarians had never heard before. As you might imagine, they were horrific, with various forms of abuse — physical, emotional, and sexual — committed against Indigenous children. In a move sanctioned by the federal government and various Christian religious denominations, these children had been forcefully removed from their parental homes and forced into the residential school system, where the abuse took place. The main mission of residential schools was to “kill the Indian in the child” — assimilating Indigenous children into Canadian society by indoctrinating them into the values of Christianity in an environment void of love and affection.

To this day, many Indigenous people still suffer from the legacy of residential schools. Statistics measuring the social determinants of health — things like income, status, education, social support networks and child development — demonstrate the detrimental effect on Indigenous people. They are evidence of the effects of intergenerational trauma.

Na-Me-Res (Native Men’s Residence), established in 1985, has been on the front lines in dealing with the fallout. Here, we have found renewed strength by reclaiming our culture and implementing culture-based programming at the Men’s Shelter, the Transitional Shelter (Sagatay), and in our outreach to Indigenous as well as non-Indigenous men in Toronto. As a result, we’ve had a number of success stories at Na-Me-Res, with many clients thriving, living a good life.

The Ontario government needs to take an active role in reconciliation. Just as I encourage you to read the TRC calls to action to see which you can bring to life in your own way, I urge you to ask political candidates and parties how they are going to realize the TRC calls to action.

What’s in it for Ontarians you ask? Well in order to move forward, we must reconcile these grievances. Ontarians need to be educated on the true history of Canada and why so many Indigenous people struggle today. The more understanding of Indigenous history and culture we all have; the fewer obstacles and less discrimination the Indigenous peoples of Ontario will face.

The residential schools experience is a part of our shared history — one that not many Ontarians understand. By working towards a better understanding of that history, we can lay the groundwork for Indigenous people to more fully participate in the prosperity of this province. And in turn, we will strengthen Indigenous and Non-Indigenous relations and the fabric of Ontario, as we build a better common future for all of us on this land we share.

Working to open doors for newcomers

Portrait of Newcomer Centre of Peel Executive Director Effat GhassemiEffat Ghassemi, Executive Director at Newcomer Centre of Peel, has served thousands of newcomer families upon their arrival in Canada by providing guidance and support with employment, continuing education, network building and other settlement issues. As a tireless advocate for gender equality and racial harmony, she has worked to increase social inclusion and innovation. She is firmly committed to compassion and social justice for the most disadvantaged in our community.

On4all_logo2

Newcomer Centre of Peel is proud to be part of Ontario for All – a collaborative convened by United Way with close to 90 organizations across the GTA and beyond. During the provincial election the collaborative is highlighting five priorities we know to be fundamental to a fair and inclusive Ontario. One of these priorities, Building an economy with fair and equitable opportunities and decent work for all, and the newcomer experience in general, are issues of keen interest for the Newcomer Centre of Peel and of personal interest to me.

My Story is Our Story. Ontario needs immigrants to mitigate its aging population and low birth rate as well as accommodating the labour shortage in Urban and Rural Areas. Peel, Toronto and York enjoy significantly higher rates of immigration relative to the rest of Canada. In all three regions, immigrants make up approximately half of the respective populations whereas immigrants represent just over a fifth (21.9 %) of the Canadian population.

To support and offset the negative economic and fiscal impacts of a labour force shortage, Ontario needs to make a great effort promoting and welcoming newcomers to its province. I came to Mississauga 3 decades ago with my family including 3 boys – worked very hard to settle and obtain my first job not even related to my education and experiences as a high school teacher. I was thrilled and happy to do it – I knew that if I did my best on my first job other doors would have opened to me. It happened – one door after another.  But I suffered so much – low pay jobs and not relevant to my education and facing discrimination as an immigrant woman.  Despite being highly educated and experienced, newcomers and immigrants are more likely to work in precarious employment and live in poverty. My goals at Newcomer Centre of Peel (NCP) are exactly related to my immigration trajectory – providing meaningful services to newcomer families for their economic and social integration with less discrimination and less distress. We are providing employment opportunities in an urban GTA area and recently focusing on rural employment.

Through the Rural Employment Initiative, which connects immigrants located in the GTA to employers in rural communities that have sustainable job opportunities, thereby facilitating their relocation from the metropolitan GTA to rural communities throughout Ontario.  This is being done while providing diversity training to employers, economic development officers, workforce planning boards and other community partners.

Building an economy with fair and equitable opportunities for newcomers is a systemic issue. To address it and make meaningful change – we need programs like the one above coupled with tangible policy solutions. Therefore, I am calling on all four parties to develop policy to support employment equity and access to quality jobs for recent immigrants, and clearer credential recognition for Internationally Educated Professionals.

Until then, my story continues to be the stories of newcomers who dreamt of being in a country where there are equitable opportunities for all.

4 ways to make office giving fun

man with whistle and pompom running through crowded banquet hall party

This week, as we feature a few of our generous corporate partners with the 5th annual Keeping Good Company, we thought it a perfect time to share these original ways to breathe new life into your office fundraising efforts. Raising funds for important causes is serious business. So you might as well make it fun, right?

Promote your pets

Social media has taught us that adorable animals have huge marketing potential, so why not capitalize on their cuteness? Try hosting a cutest pet contest, where employees pay an entry fee to share a best-in-class picture of their pet. Participants then vote on which furry companion is most adorable, and all proceeds go to the winner’s charity of choice. A variation on this event (despite throwing fairness straight out the window) might be allowing multiple photos and votes for a larger donation. Of course, that’s in lieu of bringing pets right into work for a meet and greet.

Captive for a cause

For a new take on supporting the arctic conservation mission of the World Wildlife Federation, advertising agency FCB stranded their employees on a virtual iceberg. They were instructed that the iceberg was shrinking due to global warming, and in order to save themselves, they needed to use their phones as lifelines: they had to convince family and friends—anyone—to donate $50 to the charity. Not only did the activity succeed in generating donations, but it informed both employees and their donors about the cause. With a few small changes, this “cool” activity could be applied to virtually anything!

Donate a day’s wages

It’s common for donors to share a slice of their earnings from every paycheque to support a cause they care about. However, in 2004 Dr. Jane Philpott (who is now Canada’s federal Minister of Indigenous Services, but was then a doctor at Markham Stouffville Hospital) conceived of a new idea: Give a Day to World AIDS. Through this fundraiser, she encouraged her colleagues to donate a day’s pay to the Stephen Lewis Foundation or Dignitas International. (Something that inspired Michael Fekete and his Toronto law firm, Osler, Hoskin and Harcourt, to follow suit. It’s a clear winner on the easy scale. All you have to do is pick a day.

Give gourmet

If the time-honoured tradition of the workplace bake sale has gotten, well, stale, why not step up your culinary efforts by hosting your own Iron Chef competition? Ask budding chefs to bring in their dishes, and charge everyone a flat fee to sample the deliciousness and vote for their favourite. A variation is an office potluck where everyone arrives with a non-perishable good for a local food bank. Whatever you do, it’s sure to take goodness to a whole to new level: in terms of lunch and charitable giving!

Food for thought on tackling food insecurity

Portrait of Joan Stonehocker executive director of York Region Food Network wearing glasses and black shirtJoan Stonehocker’s life-long passion for growing and eating healthy food aligns perfectly with her role as the Executive Director of York Region Food Network. Under her leadership, the committed team at YRFN advocates for sustainable solutions to food insecurity, demonstrates waste-free practices throughout the organization and continuously develops and promotes healthy food projects that are a catalyst for building strong and vibrant communities.

On4all_logo2

Like other members of Ontario for All the broad alliance of community partners convened by United Way, York Region Food Network is committed to addressing the debilitating problems that face people living in poverty. Together, we’re focusing debate and discussion this election on the five community priorities we consider essential to a fair and inclusive Ontario, including how to create pathways out of poverty that ensure everyone has the supports they need to live with dignity.

Our organization was started by the food banks in York Region in the late 1980s to raise awareness of hunger and poverty in our seemingly prosperous area. Although awareness is increasing, the problem of food insecurity continues. Modern-day food banks were created as a temporary solution for people struggling to purchase enough to eat. Now, the PROOF research project (proof.utoronto.ca) has shown that only 20 – 25% of people who are food insecure access food banks.

After more than 35 years of operating, food banks are more prevalent than ever, and the need continues to grow. At our agency, we get calls regularly from people looking for help to get food. Regional food bank hours are limited, and the vast geography of York Region can make access a challenge for many. While we try to bridge the gap by having grocery cards available for people who come directly to us seeking food, that’s not always possible. We know the desperation and distress of people in our community — neighbours — who have come face to face with hunger: bare cupboards and no simple solutions.

A diverse group of men and women volunteering as Community Cooks

We need to address these immediate needs effectively, but we cannot continue to do so without also taking on the systemic issues that keep people in poverty. The research around the social determinants of health is clear about the devastating effects of poverty and the by-products of poverty, like food insecurity and social isolation. And while community food programs bring people together to grow, share and cook healthy food, with great benefit, they alone are not enough.

To provide lasting change, we need to address the causes of food insecurity and to change the mindset that food programs or charity will solve the problem. We must acknowledge the true cost of poverty and invest in eliminating it. The provincial government’s Basic Income Pilot is one such encouraging attempt — an initiative that provides people with the essentials they need to build their own path out of poverty. Already, early reports from participants talk about the dramatic positive impacts on their health, well-being and self-esteem.

This provincial election is our chance to come together and let our elected representatives know what matters most to us: an Ontario that is fair, equitable and inclusive — for everyone.

Supportive Housing: One solution to homelessness

Portrait of Anne Babcock wearing black sweater and seated at brown benchAs President and CEO of WoodGreen Community Services, Anne Babcock has helped build WoodGreen from a single location with 40 staff members to a $50 million organization with 36 locations, 750 staff and 1,000 volunteers serving 37,000 people each year. With a deep understanding of community needs and services, she is also widely acknowledged as a leader in the development of innovative programming, including Homeward Bound, a best-in-class model of supportive housing that is now being successfully replicated in other communities across Ontario.

On4all_logo2

WoodGreen Community Services is proud to be part of Ontario for All. This new alliance convened by United Way is bringing old and new community partners together to make the most of this provincial election campaign by highlighting five priorities we know to be fundamental to a fair and inclusive Ontario. Ensuring that affordable, appropriate and safe housing is available to all is one of our Calls to Action — and an issue that WoodGreen can speak to from a place of experience and success.

We know supportive housing works to break the cycle of poverty and gives people the tools they need to move forward on a new path to opportunity. We’ve seen it, and we have the evidence to prove it.

An excellent example of supportive housing at WoodGreen is Homeward Bound. Piloted by WoodGreen and unique in Canada, Homeward Bound is an innovative program to help inadequately housed or homeless mother-led families earn college diplomas, start careers, and achieve economic self-sufficiency.

Made possible by funding from the Local Poverty Reduction Fund, WoodGreen engaged external evaluation experts at Constellation Consulting Group to objectively assess the impact of Homeward Bound on single mothers who have graduated since 2012.

The objective has been to better understand the outcomes, successes and challenges of Homeward Bound so that the program can be continuously improved and effectively scaled going forward.

We examined changes in housing status, employment, and income source from when survey respondents began Homeward Bound to where they reported they are today. The evaluation revealed important learning about the impact of Homeward Bound — and remarkable outcomes:

Infographic by woodgreen about percentage of people housed in homeless shelters

The wraparound supports the women at Homeward Bound receive are key to its success and, as the evidence shows, what really breaks the cycle of poverty for women and their children.

Woodgreen Homeward Bound infographic about wrap around supports

If we truly want to build an Ontario where everyone belongs, we must commit to affordable, appropriate and safe housing as a priority.

And, if we want to achieve lasting, meaningful change for all members of our society, no matter the barriers they face, we must invest in supportive housing.

Putting mental health on the agenda

Photo of Steve Lurie Executive Director of the Canadian Mental Health AssociationSteve Lurie is the Executive Director of the CMHA Toronto, a post he has held since 1979. Steve is a strong voice for improved services for individuals living with mental health challenges. In 2016, he was appointed as a Member of the Order of Canada, recognizing his contributions as a leading advocate and administrator in the field of mental health care.

On May 4 the Canadian Mental Health Association joined community organizations across the GTA for the launch of Ontario for All, a new alliance convened by United Way that’s working together this provincial election campaign to highlight five priorities that we believe are critical to a fair, equitable and prosperous Ontario.

On4all_logo2

Investing in inclusive, healthy communities with affordable and quality childcare and public education pharmacare and dental programs, transit and transportation, and community programs and services is an essential goal in our 5-point Call to Action.

Mental health is just one component of health in our communities. But as Canadian Mental Health Association branches across the country participate in Mental Health Week— an opportunity to promote awareness about mental illness, mental health and the supports we all need access to — it’s very much top of mind.

What should also be in the spotlight is the direct connection between poor health — mental and physical — and poverty.

In 2013 the CMA (Canadian Medical Association) published a report that showed that only 25% of a person’s health status is attributable to their access to health care. 50% is determined by the social determinants of health such as:  income, early child development, food security, employment, housing, race, aboriginal status and community belonging. The Hamilton Spectator/ McMaster collaboration Code Red which examined poverty in Hamilton showed a 21-year life expectancy gap between low and high income neighborhoods.

The CMA called for government action on: a poverty reduction action plan, a guaranteed annual income, affordable and supportive housing, development of a food security program, more investments in early childhood education, including parental support, collaboration between government and industry on a pharmacare program, and a comprehensive strategy for First Nations Health.

Around the world, cities are starting to work together to promote mental health and well-being. Strategies include: early intervention, closing treatment gaps, partnering with local citizens, neighborhoods, the corporate sector and fostering innovation.

Taken together, action on these fronts will result in healthier communities, reduced pressures on hospitals and improved quality of life for all of Ontario’s citizens — regardless of means. That’s the kind of province that the organizations behind Ontario for All envision, and that’s why we’re working together for a healthier Ontario.

Join us. Put healthy communities on the agenda in your own neighbourhood this election: ask candidates how they’re investing in healthy communities when you attend a local debate or they come knocking at your door.

In times of distress, make employees’ MindsMatter

headshot of Sevaun Palvetzian CEO of CivicAction

Sevaun Palvetzian is the CEO of CivicAction and as an expert on civic engagement, she focuses on inclusive cities. An authority on urban issues, Sevaun frequently speaks to media and is a member of groups like the Premier’s Community Hubs Advisory and Waterfront Toronto. Through her work with CivicAction, and her roles at the Ontario Public Service, she has worked to advance human resources practices such as diversifying leadership positions and supporting mental health in the workplace. In this guest post for Imagine a City, Sevaun talks about why workplace mental health matters and how employers can best support their employees to be mentally well.

 

Man sitting at desk before windows silhouetted by bright lens flare from sun

Torontonians are still reeling in the wake of the recent van attack on Yonge Street, grappling with feelings of vulnerability and grief caused by a violent act that happened so close to where they live or work. This distress can seep into many aspects of our daily lives, but some employees may also be facing mental health challenges outside of times of crisis. With this in mind, it’s important to remember how employers can make an ongoing effort to support their employees’ mental health.

During Mental Health Week, the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) is reminding us that mental health isn’t just about mental illness; it’s about a state of wellbeing. Workplaces have a huge impact on employees’ state of mind and can play a powerful role in contributing to good mental health and supporting employees who may be struggling.

Fifty per cent of all people in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA) workforce have experienced a mental health issue, and 82% of those experiencing a mental health issue say that it impacts their work. This is an issue we simply can’t afford to ignore.

But there is good news—employers want to take action. According to CMHA, 42% of senior leaders are interested in taking action to support mental health but haven’t yet due to a lack of time, resources, or knowledge.

To help that 42% turn intention into action, CivicAction launched MindsMatter—a free, first of its kind online assessment tool for organizations of any size or sector that provides three tailored actions to make that first or next step towards a mental health supportive workplace easier.

MHW-Shareable-Image

Many employers have already started, such as Dundee 360 President and CEO Brad Henderson. Henderson decided to make mental health a priority at the real estate management firm by strengthening mental wellness supports and highlighting what resources were available, leading to an impressive 57% increase in staff awareness of mental health supports.

President of CGI’s Canadian operations, Mark Boyajian, also realized the power of raising mental-health awareness through the overwhelming success of CGI’s Mental Health Month. More than 5,000 employees participate in the month’s activities and fundraising initiatives that have helped destigmatize mental health and create a supportive environment.

Ryerson University gave their employees tools to respond to colleagues in distress through a workshop series known as Notice, Engage, Refer. After taking the workshop, 84% of participants felt they had increased their ability to respond to mental-health distress.

These are just three organizations taking action, but 750 organizations representing 1.7 million people across Canada are on their own workplace mental health journey thanks to MindsMatter.

Take time to check in with your employees, and join this growing movement towards mental wellness by taking MindsMatter at http://mindsmatter.civicaction.ca.

Making progress on poverty

On4all_logo2

daniele-zanotti-2017Our guest blogger this week is Daniele Zanotti, President & CEO of United Way Greater Toronto. With more than 20 years of experience in the public and non-profit sectors, he has earned a reputation as an accomplished, strategic, and energetic leader. During his tenure, the organization has applied an increasingly regional lens to its work, collaborating with organizations and community partners in Peel, Toronto and York to fight local poverty in all its forms.

In 2008, something transformative happened in Ontario.  The provincial government introduced the Ontario Child Benefit, direct financial assistance to low-income families with children.  It was a cornerstone of the Poverty Reduction Strategy that was unanimously adopted by all three parties at Queens Park and supported by a wide network of community organizations across Ontario, including United Way. The OCB helped lift tens of thousands of children out of poverty at a time when the province was hit hard by one of the worst economic recessions in recent memory.  The OCB proved that when implemented right, bold policy and investments that put community at the heart of decision making can help build a stronger future.

Ten years later, the fight against poverty is still very much on.  Despite progress that has been made in reducing child poverty, much work remains to be accomplished.  Day after day, many community organizations are once again stepping up to raise their voices on the issues that matter to the residents they serve.  The movement is called Ontario for All – it has gained momentum across Toronto, Peel and York Region, and become a new front in the newly-merged United Way Greater Toronto’s fight against local poverty.  United Way has brought together many of its funded agencies and other community partners to work together on highlighting five priorities that are critical in creating an inclusive, connected and prosperous province where everyone belongs.  They are:

• Fully implement the Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission
• Build an economy with fair and equitable opportunities and decent work for all
• Create pathways out of poverty by ensuring that everyone has income security and the supports they need to live with dignity
• Ensure affordable, appropriate and safe housing is available to all
• Invest in inclusive, healthy communities with affordable and quality childcare and public education, pharmacare and dental programs, transit and transportation, and community programs and services

These five priorities have been shared with all four parties in Ontario, with the invitation for them to work with Ontario for All partners in including these in their election platforms.  But beyond helping to put a focus on poverty reduction during the campaign, this process has done something more powerful. It has built an uprising of care in neighbourhoods across the region, where at least 150 conversations have happened and more are underway. At least 80 organizations have endorsed the five priorities, and all political parties and their candidates are being encouraged to make poverty reduction a focus of their work.

United Way and many community organizations have co-created a plan to engage each other, their boards and staff, residents, volunteers, local election candidates and the media on why these five priorities are important for our communities.  So poverty reduction is making its way into agendas of board meetings, local resident circles, media interviews and online social media activity.

Because, our hope remains, any or all of these priorities could become the bold, transformative investments that the OCB was in 2008.  And that is one way to secure a brighter, more secure future for our communities.

4 (fun!) ways to volunteer with your friends

2I1A6810.jpg

We’d like to kick off National Volunteer Week by thanking all our incredible United Way volunteers who are at the heart of our region’s largest-ever Uprising of Care.

Whether it’s rolling up their sleeves to help out at a Day of Caring, rising at the crack of dawn to volunteer at UP, the CN Tower Climb for United Way, or lending their big brains as part of a volunteer committee or board, it takes all of us to fight local poverty and ensure that people and families across the GTA can build a good life.

As many of our volunteers will tell you, giving back feels great! Especially with a group of friends. We’ve put together this list of four group volunteer activities across the GTA where you are guaranteed to have fun and do good at the same time.

JUBILEE DESIGN 
Group with paints learning to silk screen at Jubilee Designs
Based out of the Yonge Street Mission’s Evergreen youth drop-in centre, Jubilee Design is a social enterprise that employs homeless and at-risk youth artists to lead crafting workshops as well as produce hand-made products that they then sell online. Jubilee offers fun group activities (with easy online registration), like a two-hour silk-screening workshop, where you can customize canvas bags, baby onesies and T-shirts with your own designs. They can also arrange tours of the centre so you can learn even more about the good work they do. In terms of costs, there is a minimum charge for groups to cover the cost of the supplies, as well as wages for the staff and youth artists. You can purchase pieces to silkscreen or bring your own from home for free.

DAILY BREAD FOOD BANK
Woman putting carrots into a bin at Daily Bread Foodbank
In addition to their research and advocacy work to reduce poverty in Toronto, Daily Bread collects food donations and distributes millions of pounds of food to more agencies supporting individuals and families across the city who are experiencing hunger. There are number of different group volunteer opportunities available that include everything from sorting food and repackaging bulk food into smaller portions, to helping out in the “clean room,” where donations of farm-fresh produce are prepared for distribution to the more than 200 food programs supplied by Daily Bread. These activities also include a tour of the facility so you can witness the behind-the-scenes workings of this Toronto landmark. Note: some of the volunteer opportunities on offer require heavy lifting, so be sure to let them know if that might be challenging for your group.

KNITTED KNOCKERS OF CANADA
6983412
If your group of friends enjoys knitting, or is looking for a good reason to try it out, this program provides breast cancer survivors with soft, comfortable knitted prosthetics. To get you started, Knitted Knockers of Canada provides patterns and wool requirements for the project. You just need to bring the knitting needles, knitters, and a fun setting for your knitting party. Then simply drop off or mail your finished, unstuffed knockers to yarn store partner locations, and Knitted Knockers will make sure they get to the people who need them. There are yarn store partners across Canada, including spots in Newmarket, Toronto and Mississauga, and some stores even offer yarn discounts for Knitted Knocker volunteers.

HABITAT FOR HUMANITY
Women-Build-images-provided-by-Habitat-for-Humanity
For those friends who may be construction-inclined, this well-known charity operates in Brampton, Caledon, Toronto and York Region. If you’re looking for a volunteer activity where you can really see the impact your group is making, there are few opportunities like building houses for low-income families. As most building sites need volunteer help during the week, this is an ideal team building idea for an organization that is looking to do some good in the community by creating not just houses, but homes, for families in need.

How our merger makes us stronger

Peel. Toronto. York Region. No matter what part of the GTA we call home, we’re all facing the same challenges: deep-rooted poverty in all its forms.

That’s why United Way Peel Region and United Way Toronto & York Region have merged—effective April 1, 2018. As the backbone of our local community-services sector, the new United Way Greater Toronto will be better positioned to fight local poverty with even more fervor. Here’s how:

More donors, volunteers and partners: More thinking—and acting—on solutions to social challenges is inherently beneficial: combined resources. But, with that also comes the cross-pollination of ideas; for instance, solutions that work for a community in Mississauga might be the “missing ingredient” for a community in Markham facing similar challenges. It’s a regional lens that brings even stronger local impact.

Watch the video to hear from Daniele Zanotti, President & CEO, on how the merger will fuel a more powerful Uprising of Care within our region.

More supports for people, close to home: Just as Steeles Avenue delineates the “divide” between Toronto and York Region, there are prescribed—but otherwise invisible—boundaries that separate Peel from Toronto and York Region. The merger will only deepen the connection between our 200+ funded agencies across the region, helping them work more collaboratively and efficiently on the front lines of our communities.

More innovation and impact: Our groundbreaking research often encompasses Greater Toronto, revealing shared and urgent issues that we must collectively overcome. Working together, we can be more holistic and innovative in our response to these issues. Examples include our ongoing support of Community Benefits Agreements—ensuring that local residents are employed on local infrastructure projects—and the expansion of our Career Navigator program (as well as our partnership with NPower Canada), which gives young people the education, training and support they need to build meaningful careers.

Ways to make a difference in the GTA this March Break

When kids do their part to get involved with their communities, the benefits go way beyond the people they’re helping. They’re also more likely to get good grades, experience a self-esteem boost and even prioritize civic engagement in the future. But kids may not always see why volunteering is so important, for themselves or their communities.

Luckily, there’s a solution: use March Break as an opportunity to combine fun activities with a lesson on the joys of giving back. Encourage them to participate in activities that allow them to engage with their local community, and they’ll soon learn exciting new things and a little about themselves, too—like how full their hearts can feel when they do something good for others. Here are our best bets for ways to make a difference.

Combine collaboration and innovation—with camp

MakerKids is the perfect organization for kids who are ready to kick-start their journeys as changemakers. The organization, which uses STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) to teach kids to innovate and inspires them to make a positive difference in the world, is hosting its annual March Break day camp at the Toronto MakerSpace in Bloor West Village. All week long, kids aged eight to 12 will discover how to be creators, not consumers. They’ll work in teams to solve problems and also have a chance to create their own mind-blowing designs and inventions. The camp advances kids’ skills in communication, leadership and critical thinking—and, best of all, they get to dabble in gaming, coding and robotics.

Create eco-aware kiddos

Show kids how they can help the environment by creating their own drop-off boxes for hard-to-dispose-of items. Let neighbours know that this March Break, you’ll take recyclables like batteries, electronics, light bulbs and other items that can’t go in the regular blue bin. Mark each box clearly so everyone knows which items go in which box. At the end of the week, take the kids on a trip to drop off the boxes at local depots, big box stores or other facilities that will take the items. Make a game of it and see who can collect the most for a prize of their choice. Maybe an afternoon matinee or a bowling bash?

Embrace a new neighbour

Helping newcomers to Canada learn about the events, resources and activities available to them is a great way to help new neighbours feel included in the community—and this is the perfect week to get started. From taking a family of newcomers to a maple syrup festival to bonding over superheroes at ComicCon to simply helping them access services, there are plenty of ways to help.

Take part in the #marchbreakcharitychallenge

Challenge your kids to support their favourite local charity. It’s a great opportunity for them to get creative or learn a new skill while supporting a local cause—and they get a prize at the end! Participants sign up for the Wish and Give March Break Charity Challenge, which allows kids to set their own goal and choose what charity they want to support. Maybe they want to try to read five books? Create a masterpiece? Or learn to make a new recipe? Whatever the goal, they must collect pledges and complete their task by end of March Break. That’s when the charity gets their donation and the kids get their prize. What a great way to wrap up the week!

Women who lead

It’s International Women’s Day! To celebrate, we put together a list of some awesome women who inspire us. These remarkable individuals live right here in the GTA—leading the charge on changing lives and making our community a better place to live each and every day.

1. Maayan Ziv, 27 | CEO & Founder of Access Now

What started as her Master’s thesis project at Ryerson University has grown into an internationally crowd-sourced app that maps more than 16,000 locations spanning 32 countries, telling users whether they’re accessible—or not. Access Now, an app that maps the accessibility (or lack thereof) of locations like bars, stores, coffee shops and train stations, isn’t just for people with disabilities. “Whether you sprain your ankle and are on crutches for a couple weeks, or you want to go somewhere with a grandparent who uses a walker, we all have a relationship with accessibility,” says Maayan, who lives with muscular dystrophy. “Maybe you’re a new parent with a stroller—you’ll suddenly see the subway system differently because you realize only half the stations are accessible.”

2. Ceta Ramkhalawansingh | Retired civil servant, active volunteer

As a 19-year-old undergrad in 1970, Ceta became a driving force behind the creation of a Women’s Studies program at the University of Toronto. From there, the immigrant from Trinidad and Tobago devoted her career to fighting for social justice and human rights at City Hall, where she worked for 30 years championing causes like breastfeeding on city grounds, zero tolerance for racial profiling in policing and better access to social housing. As a councillor for Ward 20 in 2014, she put forward a motion to change the words of “O Canada” to be more inclusive, and in 2015 she co-founded the Campaign for Gender Equality in the Senate, urging the PM to fill 22 vacant seats with women. Today, when she’s not spearheading efforts to revitalize Grange Park, she’s volunteering at her alma mater as an honorary member of the Women and Gender Studies Institute.

3. Crystal Sinclair, 53 | Social Worker

“Most of my work involves empowering others, particularly the Indigenous community.” Crystal founded the Toronto chapter of Idle No More to protect Indigenous rights and, as a social worker, has worked with women and Indigenous men in the shelter system, as well as with homeless youth at Covenant House. She’s currently a board member with FoodShare,  a United Way-supported agency, where she assists Northern communities to help make fresh food accessible and affordable.

Want to meet more inspiring, changemaking women? Head over to Local Love—your guide to living well and doing good.

A love letter…

valentines-day-twitter

Dear Community,

There are a lot of reasons we love you. Maybe even too many to count? But if there was ever a day to try and list them, today is it.

We love your diversity. We celebrate all the many different languages, ways of thinking, abilities, ideas, and yes, the food, that makes us proud to call you home.

We love the agencies working in your every neighbourhood, caring for us all in the selfless ways they do. And the art galleries, museums, community festivals, stores and local restaurants that make you a vibrant and exciting place to be.

We love the streets, alleys, parks, buildings and houses that combine to make you. You feel like a place we want to be, to raise our kids and go to work and visit with friends.

We love that everyone that is part of you cares about one another. There is a sense of belonging in you and enough abundance that everyone can have a good life.

We love the people who walk your streets, who take a stand for what they believe is right, who fight for the things we value as Canadians, and who don’t stand as individuals but as a connected whole.

We love you despite the problems, the challenges, those things that can seem hard and unsolvable. In fact, it makes us love you more. Love you harder.

So, to you on Valentine’s Day, we send our love. We think you’re amazing, Community. And that’s not just today. It’s every day, and, in the years ahead we’ll show our love in everything we do.

Xo

United Way

 

 

 

Homelessness from a filmmaker’s lens

 

Krista Loughton
Writer & Director
Us & Them

Us & Them is a powerful documentary that delves into one of the most pressing issues facing our region: homelessness. Imagine a City spoke with Victoria-based writer and director, Krista Loughton, to learn about her journey creating an emotionally rich film that shatters misconceptions and demands change.

1. Where did the idea for Us & Them originate? What inspired you to shine a light on the issue of homelessness and poverty?

My interest in shining a light on the issue of poverty goes way back. At 18, I visited Zimbabwe and was disheartened that 80% of the population was sleeping on dirt floors every night. I wanted to return to Africa to help, but life didn’t take me back to Harare. Several years later, I realized I didn’t have to go back to Africa to help people—I just had to go downtown.

2. Us & Them was a labour of love 10 years in-the-making. After being immersed in the issue of homelessness for over a decade, what would you say is the most surprising thing you learned from the experience?

I was surprised by the depth of insight and compassion the people whose lives I followed—people who quickly became friends—had when it came to dealing with pain and trauma. It was eye-opening for me—showing me just how much work I had to do on myself in order to address the pain I was experiencing as well.

3. What are some common misconceptions about how people end up on the streets and why was it important for you to shatter those misconceptions?

From the start, I knew these people were struggling and that my film would show the pain they were experiencing. But, while making the film, more layers were uncovered. The stereotypes are all wrong. People experiencing homelessness are not lazy. For many, childhood trauma, mental health challenges and substance abuse as a means of coping with trauma, come into play. This creates a situation where managing life becomes extremely difficult. A vulnerable person can’t just get a job or pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Systemic issues, like a lack of affordable housing, also keep them on the street.

4. What is the one key takeaway you hope viewers walk away with after watching your film?

I want people to leave the theatre and never look at a person who lives on the street the same way again.

5. Many people feel unequipped to help people experiencing poverty. Do you have advice for people who want to help, but don’t know where to start?

There’s lots of simple ways to help, including:

  1. Smile or say hello to people who are living on the street.
  2. Educate yourself about the issues in your community.
  3. Talk to people involved in local advocacy efforts to see how you can lend your voice. Everyone can advocate in their own way. You’ll know you’ve found the right platform by how it makes you feel.
  4. Volunteer. Any amount of time you can spare will help—just do what you can.
  5. Donate. Whether it’s donating slightly used clothing to a local shelter or money to United Way or one of its community agencies, you can help provide crucial supports to people experiencing homelessness.

How has this experience personally changed you as a filmmaker—but also as a person?

The experience has shown me how powerful the medium of film is to educate people and raise awareness about important issues. As a person, it has also helped me uncover the dogged tenacity at my core to tell stories about issues where there is a blatant injustice. I will undoubtedly take these learnings with me into my next project.

Ask the Expert: What should I say when my child comes out?

How parents react when their children come out makes a huge difference to kids’ feelings of self-worth, says Afi Browne, provincial LGBTQ+ youth outreach worker for Skylark Children, Youth & Families in Toronto. There are plenty of positive things you can say to your kid, but there are definitely things you shouldn’t say, including “Are you crazy?” or “Don’t worry, it’s just a phase”—two common responses on the less-supportive side of the parental-reaction spectrum.

Instead, validate your child’s experiences and express your support. “The best thing to say is, ‘Thank you for telling me. Thank you for trusting me. I love you unconditionally,’” says Browne.

Many parents aren’t sure how to respond simply because they don’t really understand what their children are going through. “They may need to start by untangling ideas around gender and sexuality,” says Browne. “Gender is a social construct—it lives in our heads, not in our bodies—while sexuality is about who you’re attracted to and has nothing to do with gender. It helps to understand all these concepts and to confront any preconceived ideas of what ‘normal’ means.”

It’s also OK to admit that you need some time to breathe. “A lot of parents go through a range of emotions, and there’s often some disavowed grief because they aren’t able to get support from their own communities,” says Browne.

Browne suggests that parents read blog posts by LGBTQ+ youth to gain some insight into what their own children might be going through. Another great resource is Central Toronto Youth Services, which offers a variety of programs to support families with LGBTQ+ children. It offers an online resource booklet called Families in Transition that Browne says is a must-read for families of youth who are transitioning.

Supporting your child may also mean standing up for them in the community. “People will talk, and often parents don’t do a good enough job of defending their kids,” says Browne. The best approach is to take the time to educate yourself so you can help educate others.

LGBTQ+ youth often experience depression and other mental health issues, which are a result of the trauma they often face. That’s why it’s especially important to make certain your child doesn’t feel isolated or alone. Ensure that they still feel engaged and accepted within the family and provide them with counselling resources if they need them. For example, Skylark offers walk-in and ongoing counselling options. You can also encourage your child to join an LGTBQ+ support group with their peers, such as those offered by The 519 and YouthLink. Skylark offers two great options: First Fridays for LGBTQ+ youth at The Studio and a newly opened group for LGBTQ+ tweens. “Just let kids determine what they want to be doing and support them in doing it,” says Browne.

For more information on supporting your child when they come out—and to find places where you can access LGBTQ+ youth resources—visit Supporting Our Youth, a community development program at Sherbourne Health Centre for queer and trans youth. Or visit Central Toronto Youth Services for their Pride & Prejudice and Families in TRANSition programs.

Do you really know how to listen?

If you’re like most people, you probably consider yourself a pretty good listener. But you might not be as good as you think you are. It’s true—in their 2013 book, The Plateau Effect, authors Bob Sullivan and Hugh Thompson point to several studies that show most of us actually “stink at listening.”

But there’s good news, says Jerilyn Dressler, Executive Director at Distress Centre Calgary: We can all become better. She should know—the Centre provides support through crisis and 211 lines, crisis chat and a professional crisis counselling program, so listening, and training people to listen, is a big part of her job.

“When we first start training new volunteers for our help lines, we see a natural tendency to jump to solutions with callers or with each other,” she says. That usually means the listener has jumped to conclusions based on personal experience or preconceived notions. There’s an unfortunate outcome to that misstep: it may inadvertently alienate the person they’re trying to help.

So, how do you really listen? Dressler says it’s important to have your friend focus on the main problem, and really allow them time to talk about its impact. You want to ask questions that will further shed light on the situation: What was the last straw? What was the thing that caused you to bring this to my attention? “You want to focus on the feelings and emotions surrounding the situation and make sure you’re demonstrating empathy,” says Dressler.

Once you think you have a grasp of the issue, you can start paraphrasing some of the problems and how they are creating issues in the person’s life—but continually check in to ensure what you’re saying is accurate. “Always offer an opportunity for the other person to correct you, because you may have gotten it wrong,” says Dressler.

Even once you understand the person’s issue, it’s best to be careful when dispensing advice. Instead, have friends come to their own conclusions. This is because suggesting change before someone is ready can be damaging. “People might not be ready to think about making changes, and by suggesting one, you are actually pushing them into an uncomfortable place,” says Dressler. “This can make them back away from you as a confidant.”

People who are in distress often feel alone and unheard, especially when dealing with sensitive topics like suicide or abuse. If that’s what your friend is going through, keep in mind that his or her family or other friends may react strongly, or even judgmentally, which makes them feel like no one is really listening. In these cases, it’s important to respond in a non-judgmental way and direct the person to a professional service like the Distress Centre’s crisis line or 211 program to get help.

And don’t think of crisis support as a last resort, says Dressler. It’s a service that’s open to anyone who needs an impartial or non-judgmental perspective, and it can make a huge impact.

Ask the Expert: What happens when kids don’t get the best start in life?

anita-khanna-head-shot

Anita Khanna
Director, Social Action & Community Building
Family Service Toronto

Anita Khanna is the Director of Social Action and Community Building at Family Service Toronto, a United Way-supported agency that helps promote the health and wellbeing of children and families. She’s also the National Coordinator of Campaign 2000, a cross-Canada coalition that works to build awareness and support for ending child poverty. Imagine a City spoke with Anita for our ‘Ask the Expert’ series to learn what happens when kids don’t get the best start in life.

1. What sort of supports do children require in order to get the best start in life?

Prenatal programs, access to nutritious food, a stable home environment and opportunities to develop language, cognitive and social skills are just some of the supports that help children start life on a high note. Community connections are also important. From a very young age, children pick up on whether their families are reflected and respected in their community. Whether a family is racialized, Indigenous, are newcomers, LGBTQ+ or led by single parents, they need to be appreciated and accepted.

dsc_3188

2. How important are the early years (ages 0-6) when it comes to childhood development?

The early years are the most important time in our life for brain development, learning, behaviour and health. These years are crucial to a child’s future wellbeing, self-esteem and physical and mental health. Spending quality time with family, one-on-one interaction with caregivers and educators in childcare settings, stimulating learning opportunities and affirmation of one’s value are vital in laying a solid foundation.

3. Across Canada, nearly 1 in 5 children—and their families—lives below the poverty line. How does poverty create gaps, or inequities, when it comes to the early years?

Side effects of poverty related to inadequate or unsafe housing, stress within a household and a lack of proper nutrition have a major impact on a child’s health, as well as their performance in school. If a child moves from school to school because of an unstable housing situation or because their parents are precariously employed, it puts a lot of stress on the child.

dsc_4286

4. What are some of the lasting effects across a child’s life-span when they don’t get the best start in life?

Limited access to stimulating learning opportunities can delay literacy and vocabulary development. Disruptions in school may occur because a child is unable to focus because of poor nutrition. Both of these scenarios can lead to lower levels of education and can be precursors to having difficulty securing work as an adult. Constant stress can also lead to long-term physical and mental health conditions. Not only can these issues persist into adulthood, but sometimes they can never be undone.

5. What role can the non-profit sector play in ensuring children (including those living in poverty) get the best start in life?

The non-profit sector plays a vital role in helping children get a strong start in life. Creative play and literacy programs, as well as after school supports are often the first things that come to mind, however, wide-ranging supports for families are also important. Employment programs, parent groups and newcomer settlement supports can help families find more solid footing, helping to address core issues they face as a result of living on a low income. Non-profits are nimble and close to the ground and we should ensure community members have a voice in shaping programming. We should also keep track of emerging trends and requests from the community to help shape our services and inform our advocacy for social justice. It is important that we raise our voices to talk about policy and program changes that can improve the lives of the families we work with every day.

dsc_3255

6. How can investing in children make an important, lasting impact on the social, economic and physical wellbeing of our community?

Children are sponges that reflect the environment they’re in, and as the next generation of thinkers, workers and creators a lot is riding on their wellbeing. Activities that boost confidence and encourage problem solving help kids develop important skills and confidence. When we foster those skills, and adequately support their families through smart public policies, we help build children up for success. Ultimately, healthier children grow into healthier adults. Investing in children’s well-being and reducing poverty is a foundational investment in strengthening our communities and our country.

How to talk to your child about developmental differences

At some point, it’ll happen—as a parent, you’ll have to talk about developmental differences with your child. Maybe a new classmate will have a physical or intellectual disability, or your family will see someone in a wheelchair, or it’ll come up on TV. (Sesame Street recently introduced a new Muppet, Julia, who has autism, so maybe it already has!) It might not be a comfortable conversation—after all, even talking about developmental differences among adults can feel awkward at times—but it’s a necessary one when raising compassionate kids. Here’s what you should keep in mind.

1. Use the Right Words

Your child will speak about developmental differences the same way that you do, so be sure to use inclusive language that’s up-to-date.

“When we talk to parents who’ve received a diagnosis, we have to be careful about word choices. We always talk to them from a place of positivity,” says Sasha Delgado, manager of the preschool speech and language program at Macaulay Child Development Centre, a United Way agency that supports children and their families in Toronto.

That’s the ideal way to talk to your kids about a friend or classmate’s developmental difference, too, says Delgado. Explain that certain terms can make people feel left out and unhappy, and that using the right words helps you avoid hurting their feelings.

2. Focus on Ability

Terri Hewitt, vice-president of developmental services at Toronto’s Surrey Place Centre, which serves children and adults with developmental disabilities, also thinks it’s a good idea to emphasize abilities. “I advise parents to highlight what a person can do rather than focusing on what they can’t,” she says.

Hewitt often talks to elementary school children about cognitive differences and always starts with a general discussion about what makes each person special, making sure to highlight positive traits rather than negative ones.

When you’re talking to your kids at home, follow Hewitt’s lead. Start the conversation by asking your kids what makes them unique, and have them identify their own physical abilities and personality traits. Then, if your child has a classmate or friend with an intellectual disability, talk about challenges he or she might have with learning, whether its reading, doing math or speaking up in class.

3. Encourage Compassion

After you’ve talked about some of the challenges that developmental differences can cause, it’s important to emphasize the importance of empathy. First, talk to your children about their own strengths and weaknesses; then help them see that they’d want help from others in areas where they struggle, too.

Delgado says that when it comes to children, it’s important to remember that progress is always possible, so long as adults play to their strengths.

Hewitt adds that separating cognitive skill from personality is also helpful. Being a kind, thoughtful and helpful person has nothing to do with a person’s developmental differences. By considering the way you talk to your child about people with disabilities, you might find that you’ll change the way you think about them as well.

For more information and resources, visit Macaulay Child Development Centre, which specializes in helping all children reach their full potential. Services include early education, literacy and support for kids with special needs and their families.

What should I do if I see someone “sleeping rough” this winter?

More than 5,000 people spend their nights in shelters, or out in the open, in the city of Toronto. That’s the official number, but the actual number is probably a lot higher, says Sanda Kazazic, drop-in coordinator for St. Stephen’s Community House, a multi-service United Way agency that offers employment and housing supports, among other resources, to local residents. And when you spot someone sleeping outside in the cold, it’s natural to want to help. But what should you do? Here are three suggestions:

Want to make a difference for someone experiencing homelessness or poverty? Give the gift of winter warmth by clicking on the image.

1. If you see someone on the street who looks as though they’d be comfortable being approached, offer to buy them a hot cup of tea, coffee or cocoa. “Not everyone will accept something directly from a stranger on the street,” says Kazazic. “But often if you ask them what they need, whether it’s a hot drink or a sandwich, they will tell you.” She says to start with a simple “hi” and take it from there.

2. Always look people in the eye and acknowledge them. “You don’t know the circumstances that brought them to the street,” says Kazazic. “And they’re no different from anyone else you might meet on the sidewalk.” Sometimes, just a smile goes a long way. On really cold nights, you can ask if they know where to go to get warm, and direct them to the nearest shelter or Out of the Cold drop-in program. This is especially helpful for newcomers, who may not know what resources are available in the city, says Kazazic.

3. Volunteer your time or make a donation. During the winter, shelters often operate at capacity and are desperate for help. Let the experience of meeting someone on the street inspire you to do more. “Contact an agency or drop-in program to find out how you can get involved,” says Kazazic. “It’s a great way to put a human face to a pressing social problem and to bridge a big gap in our community.” If time is an issue, donate toiletries or cold-weather gear—sleeping bags, gloves, hats and warm socks are almost always in demand, although it’s best to call your local shelter to see what they need most.

If you see someone on the streets who looks like they could use some help, call 311 to reach Toronto’s non-emergency line for access to the city’s outreach services or contact Streets to Homes, a 24-hour, city-run program that offers street respite. If the person is unresponsive or seems to be in an emergency, never hesitate to call 911. For additional information, call 211 or visit the website to find community supports in your neighbourhood.

Ask the Expert: Is volunteering good for my health?

Every day, Jeff D’Silva, chief storyteller for Propellus, the volunteer and non-profit resource centre of Calgary, hears stories of people selflessly serving others. Take Gertie, who is 102 and volunteers her time to read to schoolchildren. Or James, 45, who was born with congenital cerebral malformations and is now devoting his life to volunteering. (He’s already at 5,800 hours and counting.)

People like Gertie and James are passionate about why they do what they do, but don’t expect—or want—recognition. “Volunteering gives people confidence, community and a sense of purpose,” says D’Silva. “And, when you do good things, you feel good.”

Volunteering can enrich every aspect of people’s lives, he says, from reducing social isolation for seniors and helping them feel engaged and connected, to offering new Canadians an opportunity to build networks in their communities. “No matter what you end up doing, it’s a chance to meet people and learn new skills,” he says. “In the end, you get back more than you could ever possibly give.”

Researchers have found plenty of evidence that he’s right. A 2015 study from the University of British Columbia found that doing good deeds could reduce your social anxiety levels, while a report by University of Toronto researcher Dr. Nicole Anderson found that seniors who volunteer are happier and healthier. In Anderson’s report, volunteers had fewer signs of depression, fewer functional limitations and better overall health. They even lived longer!

If you’re not sure what kind of volunteering is right for you, D’Silva says a good way to get started is to think about what is most meaningful for you, and look for opportunities that reflect that. If you’re an avid reader, consider volunteering with a literacy program for newcomers. If you’re a foodie, sign up to prepare or serve lunch or dinner at a local community centre. “It’s less about the role or specific task you’d be doing and more about what you’re most passionate about,” he says. “When you tap into what you love, it leads to more meaningful and lasting connections.”

10 unexpected ways to volunteer this winter

Camara Chambers has been giving back since she was 16, when she volunteered in a local charity shop in the United Kingdom. “I realized then that volunteering isn’t just a chance to make a difference; it also gives you skills and learning opportunities you might not find anywhere else,” says Chambers, who is Executive Director of Volunteer Toronto, a United Way–supported agency. And it’s a fantastic thing for families to do together, she adds, especially once the holidays are over, since the need is greater at other times of the year. Here are 10 ways you and your family can change someone’s life for the better.

1. Supporting seniors: Sometimes families have a harder time finding volunteer opportunities that are a good fit for younger children. Chambers recommends looking into your local Meals on Wheels  or Friendly Visiting services. “Elderly people, especially those living in long-term retirement homes, can feel especially isolated, and spending time with them is a lovely opportunity for everyone involved,” she says. “It’s a nice way for children to meet the people they’re helping.” You can connect directly with long-term care homes in your neighbourhood by checking out the volunteer pages on their websites, or by going to local community sites, such as York Region’s CIVICYork page. Search for “long-term care facility volunteer positions” to learn about opportunities.

2. Kids helping kids: A great way to get teens involved—and give high-school students their requisite hours of volunteer service—is to encourage them to give after-school tutoring a try.

3. Call a shelter: Tight on time but driven to do something? Contact your local shelter and ask them what they need. “In the colder months, shelters are often desperate for socks, warm coats and blankets,” says Chambers. Personal-hygiene kits with toothbrushes and shampoo are almost always in demand, too. You can also visit Warmest Wishes to give the gift of warmth to someone in need.

4. Share a meal: If you enjoy entertaining, why not invite a family that’s new to Canada over for a holiday feast? You can do it independently or through an organization like Share Thanksgiving, which pairs newcomers with Canadian hosts to share a festive evening with new friends and family.

5. Everyone loves books: Free libraries continue to crop up all over the city, and they’re great places to donate your used books. “It’s such a wonderful way to make books available to people who may not have access to them otherwise,” says Chambers.

6. Be their guest: Some of the city’s Syrian refugee women have started up a grassroots “newcomer kitchen” to share their passion for cooking Syrian cuisine with Canadians. “It’s an opportunity to meet some of the country’s newest citizens and to experience their food and culture,” says Chambers. Even Justin Trudeau has dropped by for a newcomer brunch.

7. Build a gingerbread house: Every winter, Habitat for Humanity GTA hosts a gingerbread house-building workshop for kids. Participants pay $50 for a kit, which comes complete with assembled or unassembled house (depending on how ambitious you feel!), icing and plenty of candy. Proceeds fund the organization’s building projects.

8. Pass on your points: Did you know you can donate your Airmiles points to charity? Most people don’t, Chambers says, but it’s a quick and easy way to give back.

9. Out of the Cold: Every winter, many of the city’s churches open their doors to the homeless, offering some respite from the bitter temperatures outside. And there are lots of ways you can help, from simply being on hand to greet people and answer questions to handing out hot drinks. Log on to the Out of the Cold website to find a program near you.

10. Hit the ice: Evergreen Brick Works is a volunteer mecca year-round, but in the winter the organization needs extra help once its skating rink is up and running. You can pitch in lots of ways, from helping out in the skate shop to being a rink ambassador.

If you’d like to find more ways to volunteer with your kids, check out Volunteer Toronto’s site; their Suitable for Families (with Kids under 14) page is routinely updated with non-profit organizations that could use your help. You can also find additional winter volunteer opportunities on the site’s Holiday volunteering page.

4 ways Community Hubs can help a friend in need

If a friend mentions they need job hunting tips, legal advice, or even housing help, do you know where they can access resources? In many cases, the answer is the same for each of these issues: their local Community Hub.

Community Hubs provide everything from seniors’ programming to English classes for newcomers to information for parents, all within one space.

“Many people might not even realize that their neighbourhood has this wealth of resources all under one roof,” says Alex Dow, United Way’s Director of Neighbourhoods. And even if they can’t directly help, Community Hubs can connect an individual with further resources.

Here are four reasons why it’s worth checking out your local Hub:

1. Hubs address multiple needs

Often someone who needs help in one area could use a hand in other ways as well. A newcomer who needs English classes can also access employment support. Someone who is struggling with parenting can get support along with counselling services. In fact, these “wraparound” supports provided by Community Hubs are vital to overall well-being and help create a strong social safety net across our neighbourhoods. United Way’s Hub in Rexdale, for example, provides everything from health services to social programs, as well as legal help and cultural assistance.

2. The whole family can find support

All of the hubs offer a variety of programming specially tailored to local residents. Go to United Way’s Bathurst-Finch Community Hub and you’ll find seniors’ programs, breastfeeding support and childcare. AccessPoint on Danforth provides health care, LGBTQ+ programs and youth peer mentoring. “The Hubs are really designed for people of all ages,” says Dow. “You might come in looking for a program or a service for your child, but if an elderly parent lives with you, you’ll find activities for them, too.”

3. They create opportunities to volunteer

Don’t be surprised if your friend wants to continue going to the local Hub after receiving the help they needed. “After accessing services, many people like to give back,” says Dow, and there are many different types of opportunities to pitch in, including working in a community garden, running classes, helping with promotions, participating in workshops, or leading cooking classes or playgroups.

4. Hubs help people connect

The connections and friendships that can come from Community Hubs are one of their biggest advantages, says Dow. That’s because meeting neighbours and learning more about the community’s needs can lead to increased engagement with the neighbourhood and a better understanding of the issues that are affecting it—not to mention a desire to help.

Looking to access services at a Community Hub near you? Try calling 211, a helpline supported by United Way, to connect with one of these vital community resources in your neighbourhood.

Surprising ways community centres can help

When you’re searching for help—whether you need legal advice, mental health resources or financial aid—Cynthia Drebot, Executive Director of the North End Women’s Centre in Winnipeg, says you should look first in your own community. “It’s not just a matter of convenience,” she says, “it’s because the organizations often understand the needs of their community and tailor their resources to suit them.”

One of the best ways to find these resources, she says, is by asking other people in your network. In fact, community organizations get most of their clientele by word of mouth, and that can often lead to resources that you may not realize are right in your own backyard. Case in point: family resource centres, which offer a variety of services, from helping people access food and housing to programs for literacy and social activities.

And once you find an appropriate organization, you may be surprised by the extent to which they can help, says Drebot. Many of the organizations work to decrease the barriers that prevent people from being able to get help in the first place—for example, the North End Women’s Centre provides transit tokens for those who need help getting to the Centre to attend workshops, and free on-site childcare for women who are accessing its programs. Through the Centre, women can work at a thrift shop in exchange for the organization paying their damage deposit or their hydro or phone bill.

“We have women who come to our drop-in who may have originally walked in the door not knowing what we do, but we can set them up with up to a year of free counselling to work through the challenges they may be facing, such as domestic violence. They can also sign up to take a mindfulness or self-esteem workshop with a group of other women,” says Drebot. “And that idea of connecting with other women is huge—it reduces that sense of isolation.” That’s something that is valuable to everyone.

By connecting with others in your neighbourhood, you may receive far more than you expect—not just a solution to that original problem, but a circle of support that will help in all areas of your life.

A game-changer for affordable housing

Pedro Barata, 
SVP, Strategic Initiatives & Public Affairs, United Way Toronto & York Region

Our guest blogger this week is Pedro Barata, Senior Vice President of Strategic Initiatives & Public Affairs at United Way Toronto & York Region. He has experience working within, and across community-based organizations, strategic philanthropy, and various levels of government.

Toronto has some titles that we’ve got to shake. The GTA is the child poverty capital, income inequality capital and housing poverty capital of Canada. These trends must be reversed. And the solutions start with housing.

In 2016, Toronto had some 200,000 households in core housing need, struggling to pay the rent, living in under-repaired homes or in crowded or dangerous conditions.

Our own research has shown that the GTA is more divided along income lines than ever. Increasingly, you’re either “have” or “have not”. While the incomes of the highest-earners in the GTA have risen, the lowest incomes have flat-lined. The opportunity equation is broken, and we need to make a change.

Housing affordability is at the heart of shifting income standards in our region. In Toronto, close to one in five households spend more than one third of their before tax income on housing—that’s the highest rate in the country, ahead of all other major urban centres.

Average rent for a 2-bedroom apartment in Toronto:
1990: $689
2015: $1326 (92% increase)

Toronto average annual income (in 2015 dollars):
1990: $46,107
2015 $50,479 (9% increase)

The numbers tell the story. More people in the GTA are spending more of their income on simply getting a roof over the head. Pathways to opportunity must be built on a basic foundation of economic security. But how can you succeed if you can’t secure a home? If you can’t make rent, you can’t afford the other necessities to thrive in life: food, warm clothes, child care, a phone.

Fortunately, today the Federal Government announced a game-changer: a Canada Housing Benefit. That’s a cash subsidy to help people close the gap between lower incomes and rising rental costs. And it’s the missing piece—along with new builds and repair of existing housing—to help lift more families out of poverty.

This benefit—focused on renters—will reduce homelessness and make housing affordable, and faster, for renters in crisis and those without shelter. The ”portable” in this benefit means that tenants can carry it with them through the private, social or co-op market. It’s innovative and it means that people can go where work and personal needs take them. It’s also an important piece to avoid rent inflation.

The portable housing benefit just makes sense. Most other Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) member countries have balanced strategies that support both supply and rent supplements. It’s really good news that Canada is doing the same. We know that income is not keeping pace with housing affordability, and we know that inequality in our region is only going in one direction—up.

Rent supplements are essential in the fight against homelessness. The growing success of the Housing First approach to tackling homelessness depends on access to rental supports than can be quickly deployed and can help a new renter hold their housing during the key transition period out of homelessness. Coordinated with provincial and local governments, a new housing benefit gets at the heart of poverty and income inequality by filling the gap for those who need it the most.

66% of people experiencing homelessness say that what they really need to end their homelessness is help to pay Toronto’s high rents.

These kind of policies are crucial to compliment the local community work that United Way and our partner organizations do every day. We welcome the federal government’s leadership today. Together with the recent increases to the Canada Child Benefit and enhancement to work income supplements, the federal government is making great strides toward a national poverty reduction strategy.

In the face of our own findings of the growing gaps in our region, this is the kind of approach that can give us hope for long-term change.

5 ways to trick yourself into saving

When it comes to saving money, it can sometimes feel like you have to give something up in order to make any progress—but it’s hard to maintain motivation if you feel like you’re constantly depriving yourself. Luckily, “there are ways to save without feeling the pinch,” says Michelle Dagnino, Executive Director of the Jane/Finch Community & Family Centre, a United Way–supported agency. She works with families, many of whom are living on a low income, to help them find ways to save while still paying the bills. Here are her tips for making saving easier on all of us.

1. Thwart add-on costs

Dagnino often sees issues arise when people purchase big-ticket items that have recurring costs they didn’t factor into their budgets. “They think of a major purchase as a one-time cost, when, in fact, there may be additional associated fees attached,” she says. Think kids’ activities that require uniforms or equipment, or a new vehicle that needs insurance and gas. She suggests doing some research and making a budget that includes all of those costs. Ultimately, you may have to decide on a vehicle that uses less gas, or choose sports that have fewer add-on expenses, but then you won’t have to dip into savings when bills come due.

2. Start saving automatically

You can’t spend money you don’t have, right? So pretend that you don’t have it. Set up a savings program with your bank that automatically diverts a percentage of your paycheque to a savings account you can’t access with your debit card. Chances are you won’t even miss that spending money, and you’ll see your savings grow.

3. Pay down your debt

The old adage is true: it is important to pay yourself first. That is, unless you have significant debt. Accumulating interest can hobble your ability to save long-term, so it’s worth diverting funds to debt repayment. First you need a plan, which should include switching to low-interest credit cards. Once your debt is gone, set up an automatic withdrawal that deposits the money that would have gone toward it into your savings.

4. Learn what you don’t know

Think you’re financially savvy? You may be missing crucial information that could help you get ahead. And no, you don’t have to spend money to get educated. “Communities offer free resources that provide excellent opportunities for saving,” says Dagnino. “The library is a great place to start for courses on financial literacy.”

5. Shop smarter

Bad shopping habits can zap your savings. “Establishing healthy patterns around purchasing can help you spend less,” says Dagnino. Planning ahead is key. If you’re running out to the corner store because you forgot to pick up dish soap on your weekly grocery shop, you’re paying higher prices for convenience. Shopping around for the best prices will also help you save. For example, farmers’ markets or urban farms sell fresh, healthy, organic food without the high price sometimes found in big-name grocery stores. Case in point: Black Creek Community Farm at Jane and Steeles sells produce without the markup.

To learn more about some of the difficult financial decisions faced by people living on a low income, try our online poverty simulator and challenge your perspectives on poverty. You can also brush up on your financial skills or find additional support in your neighbourhood by calling 211 or visiting the Jane/Finch Community & Family Centre, an agency committed to advancing financial literacy through support services, such as income tax clinics and workshops.

5 surprising resources for young job hunters

Landing that first real gig hasn’t ever been easy, but experts agree that today’s youth are facing a more challenging economic landscape than their parents did. Employers receive hundreds of applications for every posting, and young job hunters might have plenty of education, but often lack necessary office experience and soft skills. What’s more, the labour market is increasingly digitized, says Vass Bednar, who chaired the Federal Expert Panel on Youth Employment. “Not only is the nature of work different for this generation, but the job search is fundamentally different, too, because it’s online,” she says. “This means that there is more labour market information than ever before, but increased demand for entry-level jobs, which makes it harder for young people to transition from school to work.” So while contacting job banks and people within your personal networks is a good start, starting a satisfying career often takes more.

Here are five underrated career resources and strategies you may not have thought of trying.

1. Try a community agency

Job banks, the online sites where employers post available opportunities, can be useful for finding work quickly, but they don’t always reflect all the available opportunities.

“About 80 to 90 per cent of jobs are not publicly posted,” says Annique Farrell, Manager, Community of Practice at United Way Toronto & York Region. “If you don’t have a strong résumé and cover letter, and if you’re not connected, your chances of being hired are not as high.”

But, Farrell says, there’s another option: community agencies. There are a variety of agencies across Toronto and York Region that offer employment services for youth. In many cases, young job hunters aren’t always aware of the programs available, but they’re well worth investigating.

United Way, for instance, supports a program called netWORKS, which offers career-oriented mentoring and networking opportunities for young people in partnership with employers across Toronto and York Region. The program also helps youth facing barriers to employment, including newcomer status and poverty, get job-ready with résumé workshops and mock interviews.

2. Match with Magnet

Rather than combing through hundreds of job postings online, Bednar suggests using Magnet. This online career search tool, created by Ryerson University, integrates with job sites like LinkedIn, Monster and Workopolis, and matches users with potential jobs based on skills, experience and preferences.

3. Build a strong online presence

It’s likely the youth in your life already have social media accounts, but it may be worth taking a second look at their online personas. That’s because a strong online presence tailored to professional opportunities can help job hunters stand out. On Twitter, youth should follow companies and people whose careers align with their interests, because job openings are often announced on their social media accounts first. Facebook can also be a good place to search for career groups that regularly host networking opportunities for people in specific industries.

4. Step into VR

Virtual reality isn’t just for gamers and tech junkies. Now it can give job hunters exposure to job experiences and environments to help them decide if they’ve chosen the right career. The Learning Partnership has created dozens of 360-degree videos of specific jobs in all sorts of industries, from construction to hospitality.

Bednar says that virtual-reality job testing is always productive, but it is most useful for people interested in skilled trades. “The skilled trades are great jobs, but have very distinct pathways, and if you start training to be a welder or a roofer and suddenly find out you’re afraid of heights, there’s a lot of sunk costs with that,” she says.

5. Try Tinder—for jobs

There are several job apps that mimic Tinder’s swipe-to-like model. Jobr pulls information from your LinkedIn page, not Facebook. Blonk, on the other hand, requires users to upload a short video of themselves answering entrepreneur Peter Thiel’s favourite interview question: “What is one thing I believe everybody disagrees with me about?”

Learn more about career programs for young people at Youth Job Link and Youth Job Connection. You can also visit United Way’s netWORKS page to learn about professional networking and mentorship opportunities.

A tale of two Torontos

David Hulchanski & Michelynn Laflèche

David Hulchanski is the Dr. Chow Yei Ching Chair in Housing at the University of Toronto and Michelynn Laflèche is Vice President, Strategy, Research and Policy at United Way Toronto & York Region.

For a few years, Toronto has worn the tarnished crown of the inequality capital of Canada. Today—without serious action—we are at risk of getting stuck with it.

In our latest research report, an update to The Opportunity Equation in the Greater Toronto Area, we took income data from the latest census to reveal a picture of neighbourhood income inequality and polarization in the GTA. Spoiler alert: it’s not pretty. The story of our region is becoming a tale of two cities as neighbourhoods are increasingly segregated into high- and low-income. Middle-income neighbourhoods are vanishing.

Within the GTA, the gap between rich and poor is most pronounced in Toronto. The city of Toronto’s levels of neighbourhood inequality and polarization are almost double those of the adjacent regional municipalities.

Toronto is no longer a city of neighbourhoods—it’s a collection of islands segregated by income. These are the two Torontos—one where residents buy the soon-to-expire produce of discount grocers, embark on epic commutes and decide to invest in a decent car, rather than try to attain housing near transit routes. There are more low-income neighbourhoods in Toronto—in 1980 there were only five very-low-income neighbourhoods and in 2015, there were 88.

Then, there’s high-income Toronto. Snuggled up to the transit line, these neighbourhoods fill their fridges at premium grocers. A garage that once held one midsize car, now squeezes in two luxury SUVs. Rich neighbourhoods in Toronto are getting even richer. In real terms, the average income in Toronto’s highest income neighbourhood more than doubled from 1980–2015.

This report confirms a growing danger—since 1990, the gap between rich and poor has grown dramatically across our region. In 1980, the GTA was dominated by middle-income neighbourhoods. By 2015, this pattern completely reversed: the majority of neighbourhoods are now either low or high income. If you’re a middle-income earner in the GTA—there’s very little room for you.

Toronto’s levels of income inequality and neighbourhood income polarization are proof of a broken opportunity equation. Access to opportunity plus hard work no longer equals success. In a region marked by islands of wealth and poverty, where you live increasingly determines your access to opportunity—and a better life.

The GTA needs to close the gaps between people and between neighbourhoods. It is clear that these three priorities for collective action are as central and relevant today as they were when United Way published the 2015 The Opportunity Equation report:

  1. That young people have the opportunities they need to build a good future.
  2. That job opportunities are real pathways to stability and security.
  3. That background and circumstances are never barriers to opportunity.

It’s time to rally together and break the divides that have crowned Toronto as a national capital for inequality—our future prosperity depends on it.

How to help your young adult land their first job

Parents who want to support their kids in their first job hunt may be tempted to think back to lessons learned from their own moms and dads. This might elicit eye rolls and audible sighs from your 20-somethings—and they’d be justified. According to Timothy Lang, CEO and president of Youth Employment Services (YES), the job market has changed drastically since you started your career.

“There are fewer jobs, and many employers are only offering part-time or contract positions,” says Lang. Young people will have to change jobs many times throughout their careers as a result. And even securing a position in the first place is often more challenging than it was in the past.

But there are several ways that parents can help their children set themselves up for job-hunting success. Here’s how.

1. Support experimentation

Encourage youth to “cast a wide net” when thinking about where to start their career, Lang suggests. Young job seekers should explore options that they may not have considered in the past, even in areas that they don’t initially find interesting. “We have seen thousands of examples where people end up having very fulfilling careers in areas they did not know they would even enjoy,” says Lang. And, he continues, even if that experimentation doesn’t lead to a career, the skills and experience gained will help when looking for the next job.

2. Help them understand their skills

One of the biggest missteps for those new to the workforce is not understanding how their previous experience could relate to the job they want. As a result, many young people stumble when writing their resumés. They may not realize that retail experience, for example, provides them with soft skills, including communication and customer service, which are attractive to employers of all kinds. “Youth today are also very adaptable, and that’s a huge benefit for those coming into a workforce where they will constantly need to upgrade their skills and knowledge,” says Lang. “Parents can help them articulate these attributes on resumés and in interviews.”

3. Restrain yourself

Don’t be overzealous in your desire to help or protect your adult children, though. Lang says occasionally he’s seen parents go so far as to attend job interviews with their kids. “That never ends well,” he says.

4. Stay positive

This is, perhaps, the most important way you can support your young job hunter. While putting out 30 resumés and receiving rejections for all of them can be incredibly discouraging, parents can help youth see the big picture. “At the end of the day, yes, people want experience from a new hire. But they really want people that will fit in well, are positive and have a good work ethic. I have personally hired people who sometimes have less experience, but show they are good team players and learn quickly,” says Lang.

If the young person in your life need help with their job hunt, look to resources like Youth Employment Services. YES has career counsellors available, skill-building workshops and even a job development team that helps youth find employment. And check out Canada’s Top 100 Employers’ annual list of the country’s top employers for young people.

3 ways to spend more time with seniors

As we age, one of the biggest threats to our independence is social isolation. And the need to keep seniors mentally engaged in their communities has never been greater. Kahir Lalji, the provincial program manager of Better at Home and Active Aging, an organization dedicated to helping senior citizens with day-to-day tasks so they can continue to live independently in their own homes, says there are close to 900,000 seniors in British Columbia alone, and by 2031 one in four of us will be an older adult. “No one wants to be forced to leave their community because they can’t access the services they need,” says Lalji. “But this is something we see happening in communities across the province.” That’s where the rest of us come in. Connecting with seniors provides a meaningful—and mutual—learning experience—and it doesn’t take much. “We’ve seen volunteers and clients build lasting friendships, and we’ve seen transformations in communities, too,” says Lalji. Here are three things you can do to connect:

1. Be a good neighbour

Lalji recommends becoming part of a “natural system of social support,” which means you’re getting involved not because it’s your job, but because you genuinely care about your neighbours. For instance, if you’re going to the grocery store, pop by to check in on a senior down the street to see if he or she could use a carton of milk. “It’s a way for neighbours to monitor the health of older adults in the community,” says Lalji.

2. Leverage your skills

Think about what you do best and use your skills as a way to get involved. Great at knitting? Start a club at a local seniors’ residence or community centre. If you’re an accountant, set up a financial planning clinic for older people. Using your own interests as a starting point for volunteering makes the experience more meaningful for everyone. “It’s a great opportunity to bring your understanding, knowledge and skills to the community,” says Lalji.

3. Strike the right balance

It’s not always about doing things for seniors; it’s about doing things with them, says Lalji. Often the best relationships start with providing a service (such as shopping, yard work, minor repairs or transportation) in order to develop a more meaningful relationship. “Providing these types of services is a place from which to build a rapport,” says Lalji. “Then it can be about having a cup of tea, playing cards or going for walks together.”

The benefits of eating together

Imagine there was one simple thing you could do to ensure your kids ate less junk food and got better grades, your parents stayed healthier longer and you felt less stressed. Sounds like magic, right? Actually, it’s something a bit more commonplace than that: dinner.

Though researchers aren’t sure exactly why it works, several studies have found a connection between eating a meal together and our physical and mental health. The advantages seem particularly strong for kids, who benefit from seeing healthy eating habits and positive communication modelled at the dinner table, but, according to Twyla Nichols, the coordinator of YWCA Halifax’s Food First program, we all stand to gain something when we make time to eat together. “When you sit down and eat, you’re relaxing,” she notes. “You slow down.”

This is especially true for seniors, who tend to be at a higher risk for social isolation. Communal meals help by taking the focus off eating and placing it on conversation, community and enjoyment.

Nichols has seen some of the benefits firsthand. She hosts a Food First program complete with a free lunch at YWCA Halifax every other week for around a dozen women. It’s open to all ages, but is mainly attended by seniors. Nichols says that without the communal meal, many of these women would likely be lonely, which can have a serious impact on mental health. “A lot of them are also widows, so if they didn’t have that type of thing to do, they would be alone,” she says. (Many are also low-income, which is why she also puts together a monthly calendar with food-related activities ranging from a trip to the food bank to farmers’ market visits.)

But for most of the women in the group, the biggest benefit is social. Many have developed lasting friendships, Nichols says, which makes breaking bread together all the more important.

Learn more about how food security affects all Canadians on the Food Secure Canada website. If you or someone you know is struggling with food security, visit Food Banks Canada to find one near you. If you’d like to help serve a community meal, volunteer to prepare and serve a meal at your local homeless shelter.

5 tips for hosting a community supper

If you’re looking for a way to foster community among your neighbours, a communal meal—done well—is ideal.

That’s because food is a universal language that breaks down barriers and unites people of different backgrounds, says food and social justice activist Nick Saul. “There is something about food that has been bringing people together since we started to walk, forage and communicate with one another,” he says. “We could light a fire, and people would eat and tell stories and share—I think it’s something in our DNA.”

Saul has seen the value of a community supper countless times as co-founder, president and CEO of Community Food Centres Canada, a national organization that builds and supports food-focused community centres in low-income neighbourhoods. At these centres, community members can get involved in the production and preparation of healthy food that is served respectfully.

According to Saul, food can either stigmatize and embarrass people, or empower and connect them. But any community can benefit from having people come together over a meal, he says. Here are his best tips for hosting your own community supper.

1. Get the word out well in advance

Have a small organizing team that is as diverse as possible and reflective of the community. This ensures that people of all backgrounds will hear about your event and feel included in the planning.

2. Take inspiration from the community

Your plans, from the food to the decorations, should reflect the many different people in the neighbourhood. Saul suggests having different cultural food options, plus vegetarian dishes and those without diary or gluten to ensure everyone can enjoy the meal.

3. Make sure everyone feels welcome

If you are planning on discussing community issues, making the event adults-only makes sense. But there is no need to be hasty when making that decision. There are several options, says Saul, such as organizing childcare or providing children’s activities at the same location as the meal.

4. Decide what your goals are

Saul says the event could be planned around a theme or a type of food. People could discuss a certain issue, such as gentrification, affordable housing or community gardens. Or it could just be about bringing people together.

5. Splurge on real dishes

Through his work with food centres, Saul has seen the difference small things like cutlery, plates and glasses can make for many people. “They should not be plastic and disposable. I think that sends a message to people that they are disposable,” he says. “In our context of working with a lot of low-income people, we have learned that they often feel isolated, alone and not cared about. So I am really convinced that if you make that meal with love, people feel that—and, as a result, they feel that they matter, too, because someone took a lot of care.”

Another great way to be involved in your community is to volunteer with a food centre. Community Food Centres Canada has eight centres that offer volunteer opportunities in many areas, including fundraising, helping prep communal meals, community garden support or kitchen help.

How to host a refugee welcome dinner

Since the first plane of Syrian refugees landed in Canada, people from coast to coast have welcomed them with open arms. We’ve donated furniture and clothing, raised money to sponsor families and introduced them to this country we all call home. But one of the most popular (and fun!) ways to lend support is to host a refugee welcome dinner, where newcomers are invited to share a meal with Canadian hosts at their home or community centre.

Curious about how to host a dinner of your own? While these meals are just like any other dinner party in many ways, there are some important things you should keep in mind.

1. Canadians old and new

When it comes to inviting guests, make sure there’s a diverse group. Sara Shahsiah, who works with settlement agencies in her role as project coordinator at the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants, a United Way agency, suggests inviting not only newcomers but established Canadians, too.

It would be even better if some of the established Canadians have a newcomer background, as well. Many refugees arrive without family members or friends, which can be very isolating. Ensuring that there are Canadians present who have gone through similar experiences not only gives the group things to bond over, but also shows newcomers that there is hope for getting settled in a new country.

2. Don’t assume anything

Refugees have diverse backgrounds and customs. For example, while some Syrians are Muslim and follow certain religious customs, it’s wrong to expect all Syrians to share this identity. “Just as Canadians are such a diverse people, Syrians, and other newcomers, are also very diverse,” says Shahsiah.

Regardless of where the newcomers you’re hosting hail from, Shahsiah recommends asking guests if they have any dietary preferences or allergies. In the case of customs, such as shaking hands or saying a prayer before the meal, follow your guests’ lead. And when in doubt, just ask!

3. Ask before snapping

Many Canadians might not think twice about taking photos and sharing them on social media, but Shahsiah advises asking guests if they’re comfortable with that beforehand, and sharing those preferences with all dinner guests.

“Some refugees still have family back home. Pictures on social media spread quickly, and, if a person is identified, it could put others at risk,” she explains. “Don’t just assume taking pictures is OK.”

4. Keep conversation light

In addition to thinking of some icebreakers or activities, Shahsiah recommends steering all conversations toward cultural commonalities, the future in Canada and fun topics like music, pop culture or hobbies. Avoid asking refugees about their past or experiences in war, no matter how well-intentioned your questions might be.

“We don’t know how much trauma the newcomers who are invited have experienced,” she says. “Those questions can trigger people or cause a situation that the host is not equipped to deal with.”

Instead, show interest in the newcomers’ culture, such as their favourite foods or types of entertainment, rather than their lived experiences as refugees.

Follow these simple guidelines and you’ll pull off a special and welcoming event—and one that benefits all your guests. For refugees who arrive in Canada alone, a welcome dinner can signal a fresh start in their new home. And for established Canadians, a meal shared can help build lasting friendships.

Learn more about how to host a refugee welcome dinner on the Refugees Welcome to Dinner website or connect with an OCASI staff member to discover other volunteer opportunities.

6 things newcomers to Canada need

Imagine trying to do your weekly grocery shop, but the store is totally unfamiliar: you’ve never seen some of these vegetables before, you’re not sure where to find the prices on anything and your favourite brand of, well, everything is nowhere to be found. Moving to a new country has a way of turning even the most everyday tasks into struggles.

Whether it’s social customs, navigating the health-care system, finding a place to live or buying groceries, the people who come here to start new lives face the daunting task of adjusting to Canadian society quickly. (And the 40,000 refugees who sought asylum here in 2016 are likely to face even bigger challenges.) But the six most common things new Canadians struggle with are far less intimidating when neighbours lend a hand. Here’s how to help.

1. Finding community

One of the hardest parts of immigrating to a new home is leaving behind friends and loved ones. Newcomers often feel isolated because of where they live—less-expensive housing is typically farther away from city centres—and building new social circles take time. But connecting people from the same ethnic group or faith is a quick shortcut to new friends, says Claudine Uwangabaye, a social worker and French-class coordinator at ALPA, a non-profit organization that helps resettle newcomers to Canada. Keep your eyes out for welcome events at your local community centre or consider organizing one yourself. Or volunteer with organizations like CSAI, which has a program that matches women who are new to the country with a native Montrealer who can show her around the city—or just hang out for an hour or two.

2. Navigating the grocery store

Grocery stores in North America can be overwhelming, but you can help a newly arrived family out by playing host on their next trip to the store. Connect with newcomers via settlement agencies or charities that support newcomers, like Centre d’appui aux communautés immigrantes (CACI), and plan to go during off-hours so you have plenty of time and space to slowly wander the aisles. Explain products and food labels that may be confusing to someone new to Canada, and point out foods that are typically Canadian, such as maple syrup on pancakes. Better still, host an impromptu cooking class to show newcomers how unfamiliar foods are cooked and enjoyed—and ask for lessons on their food cultures in return.

3. Learning the language

Anyone who has tried to learn a new language knows it’s a hard-won skill. But newcomers have the added challenge of needing communication skills quickly to find work and do everyday tasks like ride the bus. “Some people know French but they want to learn to speak a little bit faster, so I set them up with families who will host them for weekend stays,” says Uwangabaye. “Being immersed in the language is a huge help.”

If English or French is your first language, contact settlement agencies to volunteer as a conversation coach. Many community centres offer spaces to practice speaking skills. Added bonus: you could end up learning a new language, too!

4. Preparing for winter

Canadian snowstorms can be brutal for many newcomers who don’t have the right cold-weather clothes. Before winter starts in Montreal, ALPA begins referring them to agencies and local charities that can provide warm clothing at little or no cost. Donating your gently worn parkas and mitts to settlement agencies and thrift stores can help ensure that newcomers stay warm during the cold months—because it’s much easier to enjoy a real Canadian winter with the right gear.

5. Accessing community resources

Applying for a social insurance number, opening a bank account and even getting their first library cards can be difficult for newcomers who don’t yet speak fluent English or French. Offer to help fill out the correct forms or, even better, accompany your new neighbours to the bank or Service Canada Centre.

6. Having a hobby

Once newcomers are somewhat settled in their new home, Uwangabaye says that figuring out what to do for fun becomes a higher priority on their list. “The thing they say most is ‘We don’t know what to do on the weekends,’ or ‘We have kids and we don’t know where to go,’” she says. Neighbours can help by throwing a block party, or introducing newcomers to zoos, parks, museums and art galleries. And be sure to ask what newcomers used to enjoy doing for fun in their last home. You may even find a common interest to enjoy together.

How to become a mentor

Candace was seven when she met Marion. Her mom, a single parent, worked full-time and figured Candace and her two younger sisters could benefit from having another role model around. But Marion, who was a volunteer with Big Brothers Big Sisters, would eventually become more than a mentor; she’d become a lifelong friend.

“I don’t remember having too many hesitations about having a Big Sister,” Candace wrote in a blog post on the Big Brothers Big Sisters website. “Marion welcomed me into her life with open arms. There was almost an immediate level of comfort with us.”

There’s no question that kids benefit from mentorship. Young people need role models and someone they can count on, and mentors can provide friendship, a listening ear and kindness. But because the stakes feel so high, potential mentors are often unsure if they have what it takes.

It is a big commitment, says Allison Haskins, volunteer coordinator at Big Brothers Big Sisters of York, a United Way–supported agency. But potential mentors receive plenty of support. Haskins is there for every step of the application process, answering questions and making sure each candidate is suitable.

“Mentorship is all about being a positive role model and friend. Modelling good character traits and following through on the commitment are key,” she explains. “There’s no expectation to be or do anything other than that.”

At Big Brothers Big Sisters, mentors go through a comprehensive screening process that includes an interview, reference check, police vulnerable sector screening and interview before they’re matched with children. Mentors can request a particular age group (Big Brothers Big Sisters serves kids aged six to 18) and can choose a volunteer program that best suits their schedule. In one-on-one community-based programs, mentors spend three to four hours every week or every other week with their mentee, doing things like going to the park, playing video games or hanging out at the library. There are also one-on-one school programs, in which mentors can spend one lunch hour a week playing sports, crafting or reading. And finally, volunteers can sign up for group programming. Big Brothers Big Sisters plans the activities for these group sessions, which require an hour or two a week. Volunteers are expected to commit to at least one year, but many continue volunteering beyond that—and often, volunteers in the one-on-one programs remain friends with their mentees for life.

The growth seen in children with mentors is tremendous and can have lifelong benefits for them. Their behaviour improves in school and at home, they build positive character traits of their own, and they share their growth with family, friends and classmates. Their school work improves, and they tend to stay in school longer. Mentees also set goals and make better life choices. “There is an awesome ripple effect in the community,” says Haskins. “Children thrive with positive mentors!”

But the value to the mentor can be just as profound.

“There’s huge and incredible opportunity for growth as a human being when you act as a mentor,” she says. “Volunteers have a fantastic opportunity to gain experience and build character, sound judgment and personal discipline. Mentoring brings about personal fulfillment, and a great sense of pride and accomplishment. It is a great boost to one’s self-confidence.”

The decision to become a mentor shouldn’t be taken lightly, but the benefits to both mentor and mentee are worth it. Just ask Candace—after experiencing the ways in which having a Big Sister changed her life, she recently became a Big Sister herself. She’s excited to make a difference in a child’s life and share memories that will last a lifetime.

Learn more about how to become a mentor on the Big Brothers Big Sisters website, where you can connect with a local chapter or talk to a staff member about other volunteer opportunities.

How to find affordable after-school activities

From mom-and-baby classes to post-kindergarten playdates, there’s lots of stuff for little kids to do to keep them busy and socially engaged before nap time. But once they start school, opportunities for extracurricular engagement start to drop. “There’s a complete mismatch between the end of the school day and the end of parents’ workdays,” says Daljit Gill-Badesha, Healthy Communities & Children’s Manager at the City of Surrey Parks, Recreation and Culture. “And children in the six-to-12 age group are more vulnerable at this time than any other. Unfortunately, many kids lack opportunities to be meaningfully engaged and active after school.”

That’s a problem because “kids need after-school time to develop socially, to explore their limits and to manage peer relationships in a creative, open environment,” says Emma Sutherland, Executive Director of Red Fox Healthy Living Society, a United Way agency in Vancouver that gives Indigenous and inner-city children access to recreation, food and cultural programs designed to foster healthy living, leadership and employment training.

And quality after-school programming doesn’t just benefit kids. “For some parents, especially the working poor, these few hours of childcare, where they know their kids are safe, happy and supervised, can make all the difference,” says Sutherland. “These programs also create opportunities for community bonding for parents who need a little extra social support.” Here’s how to find the best after-school programs in your area.

1. Ask kids for input

Gill-Badesha recommends asking kids what they want to do. “When we’re talking to kids, they’ll say, ‘We have ideas, we know what we want. You need to work with us more.’” she says. “These kids have so much potential, and they want places to act on that potential.” Just a trip to your local library can offer them an array of choices, from book and Lego clubs to homework help to games and crafts days.

2. Find a team

Most communities offer organized sports teams, but there are also multisport leadership programs funded by non-profit organizations, as well as programs designed to keep kids physically active available through city recreation centres, arenas and pools. “Whether it’s sports-oriented or a form of creative play, play in itself gives children opportunities that lead to mastery, which is so important for self-esteem,” says Sutherland.

3. Let them lead

Look for organizations that get kids involved in community leadership projects, giving them the chance to develop their leadership potential. Some great options include Scouts, Guides, and United Way-supported Boys & Girls’ Clubs and community-school partnership programs. At Red Fox, programs geared toward physical literacy are led by Indigenous youth who may then progress to supervisors and, eventually, become staff members. “It’s an important opportunity for all children to see Indigenous youth in leadership positions,” says Sutherland.

Changemakers to watch: Jesse Thistle

Homelessness. It’s not simply an issue of not having a place to live. It’s complex, interconnected with other issues like mental health and addiction that combine to trap people in an endless cycle. People experiencing homelessness become disconnected, isolated and left on the fringes of our community. But, according to Jesse Thistle, this week’s Changemaker, understanding homelessness—particularly for Indigenous people—gets us all one step closer to finding a way to tackle it that goes beyond a hot meal and a place to sleep.

WHO: When it comes to understanding Indigenous homelessness, Jesse is more connected to his work than most. “For 10 years I experienced episodic homelessness,” says Jesse, who is Métis-Cree. “I was struggling with addiction and was in and out of jail. I started to notice that there were a lot of people like me in prison, on the streets and in shelters.” In fact, in Toronto alone, approximately 15 per cent of all homeless individuals are Indigenous, yet they make up less than 1 per cent of the city’s population. After overcoming addiction, and with sheer will, determination, and tons of support from his mentor, Carolyn Podruchny, and wife, Lucie, Jesse made it his life’s mission to study the issue in an effort to use his experience to help others. He’s become a top Canadian academic and has received a slew of awards for his work including being named a Trudeau and Vanier Scholar. In 2016, the PhD student became the National Representative for Indigenous Homelessness for the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness (COH).

WHY: Jesse is helping to literally “write the definition” of Indigenous homelessness for the COH. Plus, through scholarly work, advocacy and storytelling, he’s working to help all Canadians better understand the issue and collectively move us closer to finding long-term solutions. “Indigenous homelessness really isn’t about not having a place to live—it’s about a loss of relationships,” he says. “If people don’t have good relationships, they become disconnected from society. Growing up, I didn’t have those supports and it led to my homelessness.” Jesse’s lived experience, academic insight and passion to help others has not only made him one of the leading experts on how social issues like homelessness stem from historical trauma—it’s made him one of Canada’s most impactful voices of Indigenous advocacy. “When I look at the person that I once was—an addict, criminal, homeless, without an identity—I can’t help but want to help others out of that position.”

WHAT’S NEXT: You’ll be seeing a lot of Jesse this year. In March, he was featured in a CBC Radio interview exploring his ancestry, as well as his current work studying 20th century road allowance communities—makeshift Métis settlements built along roads and railways in northern Saskatchewan. In October, he’s hoping to release the definition of Indigenous homelessness at the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness Conference, and will also be featured in a TVO special that offers an in-depth look into his Métis-Cree family history.

GOOD ADVICE: 

ICYMI: 3 must-read blog posts

Summer is in full swing! That’s why we’ve put together a list of easy summer reads that will inform, inspire and delight no matter where you are. Whether you’re on the dock or in the office, staying up-to-date on the issues that matter most has never been easier. Happy reading!

As convocation speeches go, this is one of our favourites…

A few months back, Heather McGregor’s speech at a Ryerson University convocation ceremony blew us away. So much so that we couldn’t wait to share it on Imagine a City. The CEO of YWCA Toronto, a United Way agency—and not to mention the largest women’s organization in Canada—shares why she believes life-long learning is the key to a good life. She also touches on the importance of tenacity, persistence and commitment—and how honing these characteristics can help us build healthier and more equitable communities. Inspired already? Then be sure to read the full post.

3 tips for leading philanthropic change at your company 

Do you want to position your company as a community trailblazer? Look no further, dedicated leader! Imagine a City caught up with James Temple, Chief Corporate Responsibility Officer at PwC Canada, earlier this year to learn how companies big and small can lead philanthropic change.  Don’t miss your chance to get the scoop from this internationally-renowned CSR thought leader—and we’re not exaggerating! In 2012, the Centre for Sustainability named Temple one of the top CSR practitioners in the world. Read more.

How to raise kids who give back

We know you care about making a difference in your community. So why not make giving back a family affair? We put together a list of smart and simple ways for parents to raise pint-sized philanthropists. Whether it’s leading by example or building on their interests, there are tons of great ways to get your young kids interested in volunteering. Check out the full post for more tips.

Do you have a favourite post from the past year? We want to hear from you!

5 community events you can’t miss

With summer in full swing, we’re dreaming of sunny days spent with family and friends. But don’t rush off to the cottage quite yet! There’s plenty of fun happening right here in Toronto and York Region. Here are 5 community events you don’t want to miss.

1. Movies in the Park – July 20

Summer blockbusters and days spent in the park are both synonymous with the warmer months. On July 20, two of your favourite activities will come together for an awesome evening in York Region. Join the town of East Gwillimbury for Movies in the Park and catch much-loved Canadian flicks or films featuring homegrown talent. Don’t miss out on your chance to join your community under the stars while enjoying the stars of the silver screen. And don’t forget to bring lawn chairs, blankets and snacks, of course!

2. Little Explorers – July 31

School may be out for the summer—but that doesn’t mean learning has to stop. For your little ones new to school or heading off in the fall, summer might just be the best time to get a head start. Join the Little Explorers drop-in program for kids 0–6 at Thorncliffe Neighbourhood Office on July 31. Not only will your child get to socialize with other tykes their age, they might just learn something new.

3. Scarborough Community Multicultural Festival – August 11–13

Celebrate the cuisine, music and art of Scarborough’s diverse cultural communities at this annual multi-day festival. With a citizenship ceremony happening on the first day of the three-day event, it’s the perfect way to connect with some of the newest members of our community. So get out to Scarborough Civic Centre this summer to celebrate your own cultural background or learn something new about your neighbour. It’s sure to be a fun and meaningful weekend for the whole family.

4. Seniors Craft Night – July 25

We know strong social networks are essential in keeping seniors healthy and vibrant. That’s why we just had to put seniors craft night on our list! Taking place on July 25 at Neighbourhood Link, a United Way–supported agency, this event is sure to get the senior in your life feeling inspired. Whether you’re into sewing, painting or knitting, bring along a project you’re working on and chat while you craft. Entry is just $1 per person.

5. Hanging at the Hub – Wednesday afternoons (2–4:30 p.m.) until August 23

Head over to East Scarborough Storefront for Hanging at the Hub—a weekly café-style gathering that’s packed with great activities including games, performances and guest speakers. Not only is this weekly meet-up a great way to connect with your community, you also get to check out all that local community hub, The Storefront, has to offer. Plus, you can bring along your teen to hang out at the Youth Zone.

Now we want to hear from you! How are you getting to know your community this summer?