Why should we care about a strong social safety net? 

Debra Shime
Senior Vice President, Community Impact
United Way Toronto York Region

What is a social safety net? And why is it essential for taking care of individuals and families across our community? Imagine a City spoke with Debra Shime, Senior Vice President, Community Impact at United Way Toronto & York Region to learn how a strong social web ensures everyone in our community has access to the opportunities they need to thrive.

1. What is a strong social safety net?

A social safety net wraps a person in a network of community supports, ensuring the help they need is available, right where they need it. For that to happen, these services must be available in all corners of our community—so someone can visit an agency and find the help they need all in one place, or with referrals to other agencies nearby. United Way is part of that safety net because we invest in a network of agencies that ensure crucial services are available in neighbourhoods where people need them most. A resident once told me that she was so glad the network of agencies was there. It made her feel better knowing it was available if and when she needed it. That’s a good reminder for everyone in our community that you never know when you’re going to need support personally or for your family or friends.

2. Why is this “circle of care” around our community so important?

We often don’t focus enough on what would go missing if we didn’t have a strong community services sector. Of course, crucial supports would not be available, but we’d also lose the glue that brings us together in times of celebration, culture-building and neighbourhood advocacy. We’d lose the integration of our community. It’s those community connections that really make a person feel like they belong. At United Way, we want residents in a community to have the resources, ability and capacity to come together to feel that sense of belonging. And to then have the resources to build upon it and keep it alive and well.

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3. How do single issues like poverty and youth unemployment fit into this larger embrace of our community?  

Many individuals come to community agencies for help with one particular issue—whether it’s a newcomer who was referred to an ESL class or a young person attending a resume writing workshop. For many, they show up for that service, but there can be a number of related issues they also need help with, like the newcomer who shows up for the ESL class, but also needs help finding a job or enrolling their kids in school. That’s where single issue meets circle of care. You arrive for one issue, but you enter into a network of services that can wrap around your entire family—daycare for your child, a gym where you can play and seniors programming for an elderly parent. That’s the beauty of multi-service community agencies and why United Way is committed to investing in creating a connected, strong, coordinated social safety net. That doesn’t mean a focused approach to a single issue isn’t important. We do it, for example, in our new Youth Success Strategy focused on increasing the employability of young people or our Building Strong Neighbourhoods Strategy that looks to deal with the issues related to a concentration of poverty in certain neighbourhoods. But just as important is investing in the larger, foundational support provided by a strong community services sector that acknowledges the complexity and interconnectedness of all the challenges people face.

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