Working collaboratively during COVID-19

COVID-19 is pushing our social safety net to its limits. Now, more than ever, we are being asked to address community needs in new and different ways in a situation that is changing day to day, sometimes even hour to hour. We’re only just beginning to understand the long-term impact this crisis will have on the social infrastructure so many of our most vulnerable rely on. To help unpack the impact of COVID-19, Daniele Zanotti, United Way Greater Toronto’s president and CEO, joined Denise Campbell from City of Toronto, Ruth Crammond from United Way Greater Toronto and Maureen Fair from West Neighbourhood House in a virtual conversation. Here’s what the panellists shared about what they are seeing on the ground and how working collaboratively is ensuring a fast response: 

Thinking differently through flexible funding and collaborations 

These unprecedented times require a different way of thinking. And that includes how we support our agencies. “We were the first ones out of the gate to provide flexible funding to front-line agencies in Peel, Toronto and York, so they can do what they do best—meet emerging needs as they see fit,” said Daniele Zanotti. Collaboration is also key to meeting urgent needs quickly. Examples? Partnering with the City of Toronto to connect United Way’s network of community agencies to the city’s emergency response plan through community clusters, working with York region on COVID-19 community coordination and working with the region of Peel on action tables on food, domestic violence and seniors. The recent announcement of partnering with the federal government on emergency funding for seniors across the country will also ensure our most vulnerable seniors are cared for.  

Acting fast by thinking locally  

Denise Campbell, the executive director, social development, of the City of Toronto, believes it’s important to think local. “Together in our discussions with United Way and the City of Toronto, we’ve certainly recognized that many of the issues that are facing Torontonians right now require a local response, even if it requires a systemic thinking,” she said. Creating clusters within the city’s coordination plan has allowed staff from United Way and the city to better connect to local front-line agencies, flag any issues they’re seeing and build quick solutions by bringing resources to the table. “It’s this on-the-ground local solutioning that is allowing us to move much faster to respond to local needs,” said Denise.  

Prioritizing the well-being of front-line workers and the most vulnerable 

“In times of crisis, we have to think about a phased response,” said Ruth Crammond, vice president of community investment and development at United Way Greater Toronto. That means prioritizing the safety of front-line workers. Working with public health and United Way’s network of agencies, efforts are being made to keep staff who are delivering services safe, especially those who are working with the homeless population. Ruth also cites the unlikely collaborations that are happening as a result of working through community clusters. For example, a food bank in Scarborough that people can’t access has partnered with a Meals on Wheels delivery service that is dropping food hampers to seniors and families who might be isolated.  

Ensuring the safety of staff and their families 

“Our staff are frightened about what COVID could mean to their personal health,” said Maureen Fair, executive director of West Neighbourhood House. “More importantly, they’re worried about transmitting to their household members.” Maureen shares that because front-line workers are as exposed to risk as healthcare workers, their team is working with healthcare workers to try to understand each others’ needs. “Our staff are scared but I think one of the definitions of bravery and courage is that even when you are scared, you continue to do it.”

You can watch the full webinar below. Look out for invitations to future webinars that will help unpack the impact of your support on the most vulnerable in our community.


Your gift to United Way Greater Toronto’s Local Love Fund will help friends and neighbours access life’s essentials during this challenging time. Donate now.

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.

Learn more about this #UNIGNORABLE issue:

4 Women making local issues #UNIGNORABLE

It’s International Women’s Day—the perfect time to celebrate some of the amazing women who are working hard to improve the lives of individuals and families across Greater Toronto. Whether they’re tackling #UNIGNORABLE issues like homelessness and human trafficking, or raising awareness about poverty and bullying, each of these women is strengthening our region. Their dedication, determination and love for community will inspire you to get out there and show your local love, too.

1. Aiko Ito, Client intervention worker at Dixon Hall Neighbourhood Services

As a client intervention worker at United Way-supported agency Dixon Hall, Aiko Ito advocates for Toronto seniors who face housing instability. She primarily helps seniors living on a low income who have physical or cognitive disabilities or mental health and addiction issues—and leads them out of a crisis in their current housing situation. Whether the issue is accessibility, rent hikes, conflict with neighbours or threat of eviction, Ito’s goal remains the same: “To help people live safely, both emotionally and physically.”

2. Edna Toth, founder and Editor-in-chief of Tough Times

Six years ago, Edna Toth launched Tough Times , a social justice tabloid newspaper currently circulating 10,000 copies six times a year to people in Peel Region. Since it’s launch, the paper has been praised for bringing attention to the affordable housing crisis in the region—and for giving a platform to people who rarely have the chance to speak about their lived experience with poverty and homelessness. “We’re representing people who don’t have any opportunity to say anything,” says Toth. “They often have nothing. They don’t have a place to speak in except Tough Times.”

3. Constable Joy Brown, Peel Regional Police

Photo courtesy of Bryon Johnson & The Brampton Guardian.

Const. Joy Brown, a 28-year veteran officer, is not the type of person to take all the credit. She stresses that it was the combined work of multiple Peel region organizations that made a big, collective step forward in the fight against human trafficking back in 2016 when more than 22 groups, including community, law enforcement, and medical service providers, joined to create the Human Trafficking Protocol. Essentially, the protocol, which Brown helped develop, provides a streamlined support process for trafficking survivors, linking support groups under one umbrella. Two years on, the protocol—and the cooperation it brings—has been transformational.

4. Hannah Alper, social issues speaker

While Hannah, 15, writes about a range of topics from green living to bullying on her popular blog, Call Me Hannah , she’s perhaps best known for her moving speeches on social issues, including a TED talk. She’s also a bit of hero in her own community, where she received a student success award from the York Region District School Board for rallying her school to get involved in an international clean water campaign and local recycling program. While her accomplishments are huge, Hannah is a proponent of making small, everyday changes. “Know that it’s the little things that add up to make a big difference,” she asserts.

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

5 must-read stories from 2018

You can’t solve a problem if you don’t know it exists. That’s why, in 2018, we launched a bold new national awareness campaign designed to bring attention to #UNIGNORABLE local issues like poverty, homelessness, food insecurity and domestic violence—issues that are often overlooked.

Thank you for helping us be part of the solution to tackling these issues in the places we live and love. As the year draws to a close, we’ve rounded up five of our top blog posts that shine a light on complex issues facing our community—and what we can do about them, together.

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

1. A myth-busting Q&A on homelessness
We asked frontline workers and experts about what it’s really like for the estimated 35,000 Canadians who experience homelessness on any given night. Their responses will completely change the way you think about homelessness.R

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

2. Can we end the cycle of child hunger?
In Toronto, about 1 in 4 children live beneath the poverty line—and since 2008, the city’s inner suburbs have seen a 48 per cent increase in food bank use, including kids. We asked the experts about the root causes of this unignorable issue—and how we can all help ensure no child goes hungry in our community.

3. Why loneliness in seniors is a health hazard
We may not think of loneliness as a serious mental health issue, but social isolation can have devastating effects on seniors. We talked to industry experts about the innovative, community-based solutions that can help seniors, their caregivers and, ultimately, the healthcare system.

4. Breaking the cycle: A Q&A on the stigma of domestic violence
Domestic violence is rampant across Canada. Lieran Docherty, program manager at WomanACT (Woman Abuse Council of Toronto), explains how social assistance programs, the justice system and public policy can more effectively support women experiencing violence.

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

5. Is poverty a human rights violation?
We spoke to Maytree’s President Elizabeth McIsaac on why we need to reframe how we think about poverty. Like many other advocates, she thinks we should start treating poverty as a human rights violation—an approach that could help empower those experiencing it.

Building on a foundation for affordable housing change

Pedro Barata is Senior Vice President of Community Impact & Strategy at United Way Greater Toronto. He has experience working within, and across community-based organizations, strategic philanthropy, and various levels of government.

Just a year ago, we were celebrating the launch of the National Housing Strategy, a tangible and visionary demonstration of the federal government’s leadership on an issue of deep concern to Canadians. United Ways across the country joined the effort to contribute to the development of the federal strategy by helping to convene the National Housing Collaborative.

White statistic on red background

This novel experiment brought together non-profits, foundations, private housing providers, policy makers and government— as well as tapping into the expertise and perspectives of people with lived experience, communities and local governments—to take advantage of a unique opportunity in time. Together, we entered into a pan-Canadian conversation focused on reimagining affordable housing for communities from coast to coast to coast, devising a roadmap to follow, and hammering out the serious policies and practices to get us there.

The hard work of the partners involved in the National Housing Collaborative paid off. The National Housing Strategy reflected the core recommendations from the housing sector and community through its goals, policy and funding.

The National Housing Strategy is a $40 billion decade-long comprehensive strategy. Importantly, it prioritizes those in greatest need. Significantly, It lays out a range of policy priorities to increase the supply of affordable housing and to support the renewal and maintenance of existing housing. It sets in motion the creation of a new Canada Housing Benefit,  and doubles investments aimed at ultimately cutting chronic homelessness in half. It also takes significant action to build the capacity of the housing sector to deliver on the 10-year vision, as well as to re-build our research and expertise in this area.

A year in, we can take stock of significant progress and find reasons to be optimistic — we really are at the beginning of something new and promising:

  • We have alignment across all levels of government in both principle and practice, something that is very powerful. As the federal government has come forward with funding, policy and leadership, municipalities across our region, including leadership in York, Peel and Toronto have stepped up to the challenge, making this issue a priority. Indeed, through the federal-provincial agreement between Canada and Ontario, the province has committed to taking on a senior role in partnership with those municipalities and in partnering on a new portable housing benefit.
  • An emphasis on new collaboration has exercised our creative muscle and extended our understanding of how every sector can contribute to solutions. CMHC’s new National Housing Co-investment Fund creates a new source of funds that will add to the mix of tools to encourage innovative partnerships and leverage investment to build and repair much-needed new affordable housing — social, non-profit and private. United Way’s own experience with our partners on Tower Neighbourhood Renewal models valuable lessons in what can be realized by updating what we have, transforming it to better deliver on the social, environmental and economic outcomes of a new generation of housing.
  • The commitment to a portable housing benefit, the Canada Housing Benefit, is a game-changer when it comes to addressing core housing need and poverty reduction. With implementation expected in 2020, senior levels of government working with community, experts and people with lived experience have a real opportunity to build a historic new pillar for social and economic inclusion. Our task should be to dream big. With the right first steps, we can establish a new policy infrastructure that, over time, should be as ambitious in terms of reach, responsiveness and impact as the Canada Child Benefit.
  • The federal government’s new strategy on homelessness, Reaching Home, doubles resources for the Homelessness Partnership Strategy, to support communities in working towards an ambitious goal of reducing homelessness by 50% over the next 10 years. It also builds on learnings over the last decade, embracing a Housing First model that incorporates wrap-around supports. Better data integration and a central application system round out this comprehensive approach.
  • And an emerging new focus on housing as a human right raises the bar on our discussion about core social needs as essential to the kind of Canada we want to build, and our values of fairness, inclusion and mutual care.

As we continue this important work, striving together to address this most basic and urgent of human needs, there is a newfound sense of hope and opportunity. No strategy of this scale and complexity will be straightforward, simple, or without lessons learned. But the promise that it holds should keep us focused, determined, and open to learning through collaboration.

With the leadership of the federal government and the support of provinces and municipalities working directly with communities, we have finally put the issue of housing and homelessness where it deserves to be: at the top of the agenda, with clear policy direction and dollars to back it up.

The foundation is laid; let’s get on with it.

Ways you can help:

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:

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.

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.


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.

Making progress on poverty


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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Changemakers to watch: Hadley Nelles

Everyone deserves a safe, affordable place to call home. For Hadley Nelles, it’s this rallying cry and commitment to social justice that inspires her to work to tackle our city’s affordable housing crisis. In 2015, more than 82,400 individuals and families in Toronto found themselves waiting for affordable housing—with an average wait time of over eight years. Driven by skyrocketing rental rates and dwindling vacancies, it’s a crisis that won’t go away without community conveners like Hadley. She believes passionately (with the research to back her up) that a home is the foundation of a good life and a gateway to stability, security and opportunities that put people on the path to a better life.

WHO: Hadley helps spearhead affordable housing work across Toronto as Housing Initiatives Lead at Maytree, a foundation dedicated to advancing solutions to poverty. She’s also been a pivotal player in a number of other housing projects including the United Way-led National Housing Collaborative—a group of partners that help put policy into action so that people with all levels of income can find a suitable home, while also having a choice in their housing. She also co-launched an ideas incubator in the heart of Regent Park that helps community innovators tackle complex social issues like poverty and unemployment.

WHY: “Housing is essential for building healthy, productive lives and a key ingredient to strong communities,” says Hadley. “When we help people access affordable housing and strengthen community connections, neighbourhoods become more inclusive and resilient.” Hadley’s passion for making a difference, as well as her skills as a highly-effective partnership broker, is leading to real results in the housing sector. One of the secrets to her success? “Collaboration is key,” she says. “A big part of my job is working with individuals, organizations and government partners across numerous sectors and communities to look for durable solutions to affordable housing and poverty.” One example? She’s currently helping to guide the Tower Renewal Partnership. Funded and co-led by United Way—and informed by our research—the project aims to transform aging apartment towers in the inner suburbs—often in dire need of repair—into more affordable, livable and vibrant places to reside for people living on a low income. This includes giving high-rise communities more control over local development—bringing jobs, shops and services to neighbourhoods that need them most. Hadley is also making sure the voices of residents are being heard loud and clear. “Sustainable solutions come to light when we engage residents in the decision-making process,” she says. In fact, just this past year, Maytree partnered with United Way to convene conversations with residents to help inform Canada’s National Housing Strategy. “New forms of social policy, like advocating for a housing benefit that can support folks in their affordability gap, play an important part in achieving our goal.”

WHAT’S NEXT: With Hadley and the Partnership continuing to roll out renewal projects in Toronto and Hamilton, they’re looking for new collaborators that can broaden the scope of their work across the GTHA; their goal is to create even more on-the-ground “showcases” that demonstrate the benefits of keeping housing affordable and sustainable—for residents, developers and entire neighbourhoods. Maytree is also supporting housing advocates across the city to protect everyone’s right to housing. In Parkdale, for example, they’re working to keep the ever-evolving neighbourhood diverse and affordable.

Ask the Expert: Can we end poverty?


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

Daniyal Zuberi is the RBC Chair and Associate Professor of Social Policy at the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work and School of Public Policy & Governance 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 three 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?

adsc_5343Poverty 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.

2. Discuss the recent U.S. election and how it has put a spotlight on the growing issue of rising income inequality.

The failure to adequately address the growing insecurity experienced by all too many North American households is one cause of the unexpected election outcome in the United States. Most of the economic gains over the past several decades have flowed exclusively to those at the top, especially in the U.S. Growing economic insecurity threatens social cohesion and people react to fears that their fortunes have stagnated, or that they’re falling behind. Countries that are more equal, or those with narrower income gaps, have much higher social development outcomes. Life expectancy is longer, infant mortality is lower, there is greater social trust, lower crime and incarceration rates, less mental illness and better health and educational outcomes. Importantly, there is also more equality of opportunity. One of the best ways to address growing inequalities is to support those struggling at the bottom of the socioeconomic hierarchy.


3. 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.


4. 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 it make 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.


5. 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.


6. 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.

7. 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.”

ICYMI: 3 must-read blog posts

We wanted to send a special shout-out to you, all of our loyal blog readers, for continuing to visit Imagine a City to learn more about the social issues that matter most. We know you’re busy…so we’ve put together a list of some of our most popular blog posts over the last year. Happy reading!

What is hidden homelessness?

When most of us think of homelessness, we picture people living on urban streets or spending their days and nights in temporary shelters. In Toronto, for example, some 5,000 people find themselves without a place to live on any given night. But homelessness isn’t just a “big city” issue. In York Region, poverty is often hidden. This means some individuals “couch surf” with friends or neighbours, while others—many who are newcomers—are forced to double or even triple up with relatives just to make ends meet. Check out this post to learn more about this important issue from homelessness expert Dr. Steven Gaetz.


5 Women who inspire us

For International Women’s Day 2016, we put together a list of inspirational women who are changing lives and making our communities better places to live. From a Canadian senator who’s championing the rights of newcomers to a 13-year-old philanthropist and Richmond Hill resident who is creating big change in the world of charitable giving and social justice, we dare you not to be inspired!


What if you had to choose? 

Imagine having to choose between eating or keeping a roof over your head? Or what would you do if staying home to care for your sick child could cost you your job? In this eye-opening blog post, we introduced readers to some of the daily, harsh realities faced by 1 in 4 adults in Toronto and 1 in 8 people in York Region who live in poverty. Missed the post? Test out our digital poverty simulator, Make the Month, here.

Looking beyond our borders for solutions to affordable housing

By Pedro Barata, VP, Communications & Public Affairs and John Brodhead, Executive Director, CityWorks


Housing affordability is key to city livability. With average monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment spiking to $1,800 and over 78,000 households currently on the city’s social housing waiting list, calling Toronto home is becoming more difficult. And not only for low-income residents. Modest and middle-income families, too, are increasingly feeling the squeeze of stagnating incomes outstripped by the rising cost of living. The GTA Housing Action Lab is a collaborative working group bringing together diverse partners on the housing front, including United Way Toronto & York Region and Evergreen CityWorks to help move the affordable housing agenda forward.  This summer, we ventured to New York City to search for creative solutions to Toronto’s affordable housing crisis.

Here are five things we learned:

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio recently launched a 10-year affordable housing strategy to address significant housing challenges—median apartment rents that rose by 75% between 2000 and 2012 and the loss of 400,000 affordable apartments in the same period, to name a few. A closer look at New York’s game plan promised to inform and inspire our own way forward.

1. Champions with ambitious plans will create results

During his campaign, Mayor de Blasio heard about housing issues in every community. Since taking office, he’s made it his signature initiative, focusing on affordability for low, modest and middle income families. He’s set bold targets—200,000 affordable units in 10 years—to rally other stakeholders around an affordable housing strategy. And that rallying cry has ensured that housing has become a cross-agency concern, bridging jurisdictions from education and children’s services to libraries, parks and transportation.

2. There’s no one silver bullet to creating affordable housing.

Affordable housing is a large and complex issue. In New York, where the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), the city’s largest landlord, is responsible to 400,000 residents, 176,000 households and 110,000 kids, they’ve looked for solutions across sectors. They’re balancing new builds with preservation of existing units—indeed, over half of the city’s target focuses on preservation of aging and affordable rental, mostly in the private sector. Public lands and assets are being leveraged, while private sector engagement requires the support of a clear development process and fair and predictable incentives. And various measures such as tax benefits and rent supplements play a role. Hudson Properties is just one developer that has truly embraced the city’s incentives to build new affordable units through inclusionary housing policy.

3. Partnerships are key to success.

Cities can’t tackle the challenges of affordable housing alone. They need developers and not for profits to help keep driving that agenda forward. In fact, municipal investment in NYC to the tune of $8 billion over 10 years is expected to leverage $41 billion from the private sector. State and federal governments also play a large role in funding building and housing supplements in both the private and social housing sector. And fundamental to any success, of course, is building on the interests and insights of residents. After all, it’s not just about housing; it’s about creating communities. Getting locals involved and giving them the tools to be part of the project is essential. Grassroots community group Women’s Housing and Economic Development Corporation (WHEDco) in the Bronx is just one example of an organization whose efforts are contributing to a vibrant and healthy community.

4. Housing strengthens local economies.

Construction and preservation of 200,000 housing units is expected to generate 194,000 construction jobs and over 7,000 permanent jobs targeted to the city’s employment initiatives. And at the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), where almost 25% of the employees are residents, they’re now planning to double the number of employees working on greening initiatives from 2,000 to 4,000.












5. Be persistent.

New Yorkers across the affordable housing sector showed us that they don’t give up in the face of major challenges. They’re energized and ready to find solutions. And that perseverance is taking them where they want to go. Already in the first year of this massive undertaking, 17,376 units have been funded. The Via Verde Project in the South Bronx illustrates how this new approach is taking root and transforming a great city to make it a better home for all.

The visit to New York offered some great lessons for the City and Region on how to tackle this important challenge. Fortunately, there seems to be a renewed energy behind Toronto’s affordable housing agenda. Just as the provincial government wrapped up public consultations for their Long-Term Affordable Housing Strategy, Toronto City Hall introduced its new ‘Open Door’ approach to fast-track building of affordable housing.

The opportunity is in front of us, but we must take it.

Bringing home solutions for affordable housing


Pedro BarataOur guest blogger this week is Pedro Barata,Vice President of Communications and Public Affairs at United Way Toronto. He has experience working within, and across, a variety of settings: from community-based organizations, to strategic philanthropy, and various levels of government.

The conversation about affordable housing is not new to Torontonians. But some of us might be surprised to learn that there are residents in our city who wait almost 10 years before being offered an affordable home.

According to the Ontario Non-Profit Housing Association’s annual report, the province’s wait lists grew by more than 6,600 households to a record 165,069 in 2013. This is the largest single-year increase since 2010.

It’s time for a fresh approach. The GTA Housing Action Lab is an initiative of Evergreen CityWorks that brings together a number of partners across a variety of sectors, including United Way Toronto, to build a more sustainable, affordable and equitable housing system.

By working together to find common ground among our collective programs, policies and practices, the GTA Housing Action Lab aims to create:

  • Programs and policies that support the affordability of housing to ensure residents of all incomes have the best chance to live in a suitable home and have a choice in their housing.
  • A more sustainable housing system in the region by increasing public support for intensification, awareness of the benefits of complete communities, and policies that support creative infill in our urban centres and a connected region.
  • A policy and regulatory framework that encourages diversity in form and tenure, intensification and affordability and creates incentives aligned with the needs of the residents of the region while creating an economically-viable housing sector.


    Ed Clark, former President and CEO of TD Bank Group, is calling for leadership from all sectors to put affordable housing on the public policy radar.

Innovative approaches to affordable housing require leadership and collaboration from multiple partners. At a forum convened by the GTA Housing Action Lab on November 19, former President and Chief Executive Officer of TD Bank Group Ed Clark, added his voice to the conversation.

Clark called for leadership from all sectors to put affordable housing on the public policy radar. He talked about the need to support innovative and new approaches to old problems and pointed to the role that non-profit organizations and programs can play in this respect.

Habitat for HumanityEgaleWoodgreen’s Homeward Bound and United Way’s Toronto Enterprise Fund are demonstrating concrete ways in which we can help break the cycle of poverty and take a holistic, collaborative approach to addressing not just the symptoms of poverty—but the root causes.

Hopefully, this will inspire public policy support to scale these examples to the benefit of more and more people.

Bringing home solutions for affordable housing is a complex issue that won’t be solved overnight. But as Ed Clark says, “No one should sleep on a slab of cement.”

And change is up to all of us.



An Innovative Path to Supportive Housing

Our guest blogger this week is Steve Lurie, the Executive Director of the Canadian Mental Health Association in Toronto, a post he has held since 1979. Steve mhc june 2011has played an integral role in the development of mental health policy both in Canada and abroad, writing and lecturing extensively. Notable contributions include principal authorship of Ontario’s Graham Report, Building Community Support for People (1988), technical assistance to the Senate Committee Report, Out of the Shadows At Last: Transforming Mental Health and Addiction Services in Canada (2006) and chairing the Service Systems Advisory Committee of the newly-established Mental Health Commission of Canada in 2007. Recently awarded the Canadian Mental Health Association’s CM Hincks award for national leadership in mental health, he shares his knowledge and expertise with students at the University of Toronto Faculty of Social Work where he is now an adjunct professor.

In his in-depth study of Toronto, The 3 Cities within Toronto, Income Polarization, international housing and neighbourhood expert David Hulchanski shows that Toronto is at risk of becoming a third-world city, where only a fortunate few enjoy prosperity, while the majority experience increasing poverty. Access to safe, affordable housing is recognized as an essential part of poverty reduction. Yet for the vulnerable group of people living with mental illness compounded by histories of homelessness, ensuring housing opportunities is particularly difficult. Today the situation is dire. People are often discharged from hospitals and safe bed facilities to homeless shelters or the streets. With a wait list for supportive housing at 8,000 and no increase in rent supplement funding in almost 10 years, current practice is not resulting in solutions.

In 2013, the Mental Health Commission report Turning the Key: Assessing Housing and Related Supports for Persons Living with Mental Health Problems and Illness identified the need for at least 100,000 new supportive housing units across the country to support 120,000 homeless and 520,000 people vulnerably housed and living with mental illness. Following the report’s release, a group of supportive housing providers partnered with MaRS Discovery District to investigate the opportunities to leverage private capital and impact investing to respond to this need. Together, we produced a report, Blended Financing for Impact: The Opportunity for Social Finance in Supportive Housing, with case studies exploring the potential of this approach.

It shows that housing is a good investment and that the social finance marketplace will grow from $3 billion to $30 billion over the next 10 years.

The message is clear that there is money available to finance new construction. However, a challenge remains: finding a way to ensure that rent and operating costs are covered either by government or philanthropy.

With this in mind, funding was received from United Way to study the feasibility of using a Social Impact Bond (SIB) for this purpose. Essentially, SIBs generate private investment to fund social programs, with governments providing repayment for successful programs that ultimately result in cost savings.

We are now building a model for an SIB using costing from the Mental Health Commission project National At Home/Chez Soi. This project was integral in proving the value of investing in housing and services, not only in cost reductions to the health and justice systems, but also in producing better social outcomes. Indeed, it is in meeting such long-term goals that the SIB offers the greatest potential benefit. While the At Home/Chez Soi findings did show a substantial cost savings was realized with high service users—an average savings of $23,000 per person—the achievement of 70% housing stability for SIB participants compared to about 30% for those in the control group is particularly promising.

The other significant issue is scale. 10,000 supportive housing units and support services would cost $3 billion over 5 years if capital costs were included and $954 million if costs were restricted to services and rent supplements. It remains to be seen what size of investment the private sector would support and what size governments would back.

Stay tuned. Our report will be available in August.