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 Metis-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 in 2017. Just a few weeks ago, he was featured in a CBC Radio interview exploring his ancestry, as well as his current work studying 20th century road allowance communities—makeshift Metis 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 Metis-Cree family history.

GOOD ADVICE: 

3 things you might not know about poverty

IAC_Home-Page_Blog_SnapshotDid you know that 1 in 5 adults in Toronto and 1 in 7 people in York Region live in poverty? It’s true. Every day, individuals and families across our region face homelessness, unemployment, a lack of affordable housing and the effects of deepening income inequality. These startling facts are a vital reminder that there is still much work to be done in addressing this complex issue.

Here are three things you might not know about poverty here in Toronto and York Region:

1. Nearly one-third of all children in Toronto live in low-income households: According to a 2014 report, 15 of Toronto’s 140 neighbourhoods have child poverty rates of 40% or more. Fifty-five neighbourhoods have child poverty rates of 30% or more. In places like Regent Park, Moss Park and Thorncliffe, child poverty rates climb to more than 50%. Poverty in childhood can have a lifelong impact—affecting a child’s ability to grow, develop and learn. It is up to all of us to address this growing issue and to work together to make investments in children and families that will have a lasting impact on the social, economic and physical well-being of our whole community.

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 2. Poverty is concentrated in certain neighbourhoods: Entire neighbourhoods are falling behind when the gap between those who are doing well financially—and those who are not—continues to widen. The number of low-income communities in 2005 was 271, compared to 97 in 1970, leading to a geographic concentration of poverty, particularly in Toronto’s inner suburbs. Our research also shows us that income inequality has grown faster in Toronto than in other major Canadian cities, outpacing both provincial and national averages. Opportunities to build a good life—including quality jobs, affordable housing and meaningful social networks—aren’t equally available to everyone.

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3. Poverty impacts decision making: A lack of food or money can cause people to focus obsessively on the object of scarcity, leaving less “mental bandwidth” for other aspects of a person’s life. That’s according to Dr. Eldar Shafir, professor of Psychology and Public Affairs at Princeton University, and the co-author of Scarcity: Why Having So Little Means So Much. “There’s a lot of data indicating people living in poverty don’t do well with decision-making. So the question is: Are they in poverty because of bad decisions, or are the bad decisions somehow the result of poverty?” says Shafir. Watch the video below to learn more about psychological issues related to poverty.

Want to learn more about how your support is changing the lives of people living in poverty? Subscribe to Imagine a City to read the latest insight from thought-leaders across our community and stay up-to-date on important social issues.

What is “hidden” homelessness?

Stephen Gaetz Director, Canadian Observatory on Homelessness

Stephen Gaetz
Director, Canadian Observatory on 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, made up of nine mostly suburban municipalities, homelessness is a growing issue with its own set of complex challenges. One in 7 people also live in poverty.

Imagine a City spoke with Dr. Stephen Gaetz, Director of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, co-author of a report with United Way about youth homelessness in York Region and York University professor about what we can do about it.

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

1. Homelessness is often hidden: “There’s often public perception that homelessness is a downtown issue, but it’s not,” says Gaetz. “There’s poverty in the suburbs, but it’s often hidden.” A lack of affordable housing is a serious community issue in York Region—housing prices have soared in the past decade and the rental market is dismal. With the wait list for rental housing higher than the number of units, individuals and families experiencing poverty have no choice but to stay in inadequate housing. For example, some “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.

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2. Homelessness is spread out: When we think of Toronto, the city’s busy urban core often comes to mind. But in York Region, where its nine municipalities don’t have a downtown centre, services and supports are situated few and far between, making them difficult to identify and access. As a result, mobility is a major issue and homelessness is dispersed. “The transit infrastructure in York is largely built to accommodate privately-owned vehicles making it tough for homeless individuals to move throughout the region and access services,” says Gaetz. “People often have to leave their communities to access help. In turn, they lose their natural supports—including family, friends and neighbours—all key factors that can help someone move forward and avoid homelessness.”

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To better understand this issue in York Region, United Way led the region’s first-ever Point-in-Time Count. “Determining the extent, demographics, and needs of those experiencing absolute homelessness—in shelters and on the streets—at a single point in time is key to reducing it,” says Michelynn Laflèche, Director of Research, Public Policy & Evaluation at United Way Toronto & York Region. “This information will help us inform strategies to champion change in the region.”

3. Community supports are sparse: Unprecedented population growth in York Region and higher proportions of newcomers and seniors have led to service gaps that make it hard for individuals to access crucial support. Gaetz says in Toronto, for example, there are roughly 4,000 shelter beds for the city’s 2.6 million residents. However, in York, there are only 130 beds for a population of 1 million. “Emergency supports are good quality in York Region, but there are not a lot of them,” says Gaetz.

LeavingHomeReportFor example, Blue Door Shelters, supported by United Way, operates the only family shelter in York Region providing food, counselling and a safe and supportive refuge for homeless people or those at risk of becoming homeless. Adds Gaetz: “If community services aren’t visible in your neighbourhood, you might assume they’re not there. This causes people to either uproot and go to Toronto for support, or not access crucial services at all.” But Gaetz says an increase in more than just emergency supports is needed in the region. “We need to prevent people from becoming homeless, while also supporting others to move out of homelessness,” he says. “Shifting our way of thinking from emergency response to prevention and transition can have a big impact.”

Looking for a unique way to give back this holiday season? United Way’s Warmest Wishes ensures necessities like clothing and food are there for people experiencing poverty at a time when they need it most. Visit Warmest Wishes to make your gift today.

Ask the Expert: How are health and poverty related?

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Kwame McKenzie
CEO, Wellesley Institute
Psychiatrist, CAMH

Kwame McKenzie is the CEO of the Wellesley Institute, a Toronto-based non-profit research and policy institute that focuses on advancing population health. Also a CAMH psychiatrist, he’s a leading expert on the social causes of mental illness and making our health system more equitable. Imagine a City spoke with Kwame for our ‘Ask the Expert’ series to learn how health and poverty are related.

1. Is there a connection between income and our health?

There’s a strong link between income and health. But, it’s not just about the amount of money you make and what you can buy, it’s what your whole life is like as a result, including where you live, work and the food that you eat. These factors—the social determinants of health—influence the health of individuals and even entire populations, putting vulnerable people at a higher risk of having poor physical and mental health and decreasing their life expectancy.

2. What are some examples of the social determinants of health?

On top of income, other factors that greatly affect our quality of life include gender, disability and race. Health is also determined by our ability to access quality education, nutritious food, adequate housing and social and health services. Another big factor is job security and working conditions.

3. How does poverty influence a person’s physical and mental health?

Living in poverty greatly impacts a person’s physical and mental health. For example, living on a low income means you’re going to be living in less adequate housing where air pollutants or mould could cause asthma. What we eat is a major indicator of our health status as well, and for many people living in poverty, accessing good, nutritious food is financially and physically not feasible. This could lead to very serious conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease. Precarious work is another major factor that brings with it a host of health concerns. Workers without job security often lack holidays, benefits or sick days and spend long hours commuting to work. This causes high levels of stress and anxiety as a result.

Unfortunately, all of these factors produce a vicious cycle, which both psychologically and physically makes a person more vulnerable to illness, even down to something like the flu. Once you’ve got one illness, you’re more likely to get another.

4. What are some of the best ways to address these issues to improve the well-being of Canadians?

Studies show that the healthiest people are in economies where they’ve decreased poverty, the gap between rich and poor and started really investing in people. That means ensuring access to good jobs, increasing food security and giving kids the best start in life. This last piece is especially important. Studies show a child’s resilience to both physical and mental problems is linked to the amount of face-to-face time with their parents. You can imagine how poverty has a generational impact. It produces a trajectory, which means increased risk of illness through childhood into adult life. That’s why the early years are so important. We have to make sure that children get proper nutrition and have access to child development programs and high-quality daycare to ensure kids get a good start in life.

United Way has a big hand in addressing these issues. They glue society together and make sure that people living in poverty or who are marginalized don’t fall between the cracks. It’s not glamorous, but it’s the biggest improvement we’re going to get in-house. Without United Way, all of the problems that we have with the social determinants of health and poverty would be magnified significantly.

5. Why is this an issue that affects all of us?

Healthy people can mean healthy communities, but healthy communities also breed healthy people. It’s a two-way street. Income inequality is important, because without a healthy economy and a healthy society, then people will not thrive. Ultimately, we need to focus on creating a society that’s inclusive and supportive of everyone in our community.

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What if you could turn a parking lot into a community garden?

What if you could turn an unused parking lot into a community garden?

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Pretty cool, right? That’s the idea behind a recent bylaw called Residential Apartment Commercial (RAC) zoning that will give high-rise tower communities in priority neighbourhoods greater control over local development.

Why does it matter? Because in addition to creating opportunities to bring in new jobs, shops and services,  RAC zoning can also help to transform tower neighbourhoods into vibrant, livable and walkable communities.

United Way was proud to play a key role in bringing this new legislation to fruition by working with partners, including the City of Toronto and ERA Architects.

Watch this video to hear more from our very own Pedro Barata, VP, Communications and Public Affairs, on what’s next for this exciting initiative.

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.

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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!

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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.

3 things you should know about income inequality

IAC_Home-Page_Blog_Good-to-knowWhen most of us think of income inequality, we think about gaps between those who are doing well financially and those who are not. But you may be surprised to learn that income inequality is about much more than just a pay cheque.

Here are 3 more things you might not know about income inequality:  

1. It undermines fairness: With the rise of income inequality, it’s not simply your effort that determines whether or not you’re going to do well. Increasingly it’s circumstances beyond your control including your background, where you were born, how much money your parents make or your postal code,” says Pedro Barata, United Way’s VP of Communications & Public Affairs. This creates deep divides between the “haves” and the “have-nots,” undermining fairness and creating an environment where hard work is no longer seen as a guarantee for success. Watch this video to learn more about the importance of ensuring individuals and families across our region have equal opportunities to build better lives and stronger futures.

2. It makes entire communities feel “invisible:” “People living in poverty will often talk about lack of access to material items such as money for transit or food. But they may also mention their inability to do things like buy a birthday present for a friend, go to the movies or catch up over a cup of coffee. Sometimes they can’t afford to leave their house,” says Barata. “All of this adds up to social isolation and feeling excluded. People living in poverty will often say they’re invisible.” There is also a tendency towards thinking that the voices of people living on a low income aren’t important. “Who gets to talk to politicians? Who gets quoted in newspapers? Who gets to go to meetings? For a variety of reasons, it’s typically not people living on a low income,” adds Barata. “Often they’re too busy holding down a number of jobs and they live in communities that are too often left out of decision making processes. The consequence? Entire neighbourhoods become divided along income and social lines and we don’t live up to the promise of being a region “where everyone can come from all walks of life and live in harmony.”

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3. It deflates our hope for the future: Rapidly growing income inequality is worrisome to all of us. In a recent report conducted by United Way, 86% of survey respondents indicated that they felt the gap between those with high and low incomes is too large. A joint Toronto Region Board of Trade and United Way report also points to a decidedly gloomy outlook as only the smallest number of citizens believe the next generation will experience the progress achieved by previous generations. In fact, for the first time in a century, young people are expected to be materially less well off in adulthood than their parents. For youth facing additional barriers—including poverty, lower levels of education and discrimination—the challenges are even greater. 

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To learn more about how we’re working together with our partners to bring hope, fairness and opportunity to individuals and families across our region, read this guest post from Michelynn Laflèche, United Way’s Director of Research, Public Policy and Evaluation.

The bottom line on social procurement

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Denise Andrea Campbell
Director, Social Policy, Analysis and Research
City of Toronto

As the City of Toronto’s Director of Social Policy, Analysis and Research, Denise Andrea Campbell  has worked tirelessly to champion poverty reduction and youth success strategies in priority neighbourhoods. She has advised on strategy for leading foundations including The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation and has also worked internationally on race and gender policies in numerous United Nations forums. In her guest blog post, Denise discusses how the City’s new social procurement program is helping create pathways to prosperity.

In 2006, community leaders in Flemingdon Park asked me why the City couldn’t hire young people through its procurement process.

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Community leaders knew that youth employment was key to neighbourhood development in Toronto. They knew that the City, together with United Way was committed to taking action on neighbourhood improvement with the recent launch of the first Strong Neighbourhoods Strategy. And they saw City construction projects—part of the City’s annual budget of $1.8 billion for goods and services—as a perfect opportunity to train and hire under-employed young people.

They believed the City could make it happen.

We did. It took us 10 years.

Procurement in a large institution like the City is often inflexible, governed by policies, laws, and decades-long industry practices that create seemingly insurmountable barriers to targeted spending.

But we also knew, as the community knew, that social procurement could be a game-changer.

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Social procurement has the power to create pathways to prosperity. Research indicates that Aboriginal and minority-owned businesses create jobs in their communities. The social enterprise business model  is all about creating social and economic benefits for marginalized groups. So if even 5% of our annual procurement were leveraged to create economic opportunities for those in poverty, that could be a $75 million investment towards inclusive economic development.

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Hawthorne Food & Drink, a social enterprise supported by the Toronto Enterprise Fund—a partnership between United Way and all three levels of government—employs individuals facing barriers including poverty and homelessness.

So we continued to push.

Working closely with partners, we began pilot initiatives to train and hire youth in a Weston-Mount Dennis youth space renovation in 2008, thanks to United Way funding. The City also worked with Toronto Community Housing and the Daniels Corporation to embed workforce development into the supply chain of the Regent Park Revitalization. And given my division’s focus on social development, we made sure to set an example, procuring from social enterprises whenever possible. A big win came in 2013 when City Council adopted a Framework for Social Procurement to move us from one-off successes to institutional practice.

Researching other jurisdictions, piloting approaches in City contracts, and building partnerships allowed us to have the evidence, the workable model, and a solid policy for Council to consider.

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United Way–supported social enterprises like Interpreter Services Toronto, which trains and employs newcomer and refugee women—are now in a better position to compete for, and benefit from, City contracts as diverse suppliers through the Toronto Social Procurement Program.

Three years and nine pilot projects later, on May 3, 2016, Toronto City Council unanimously adopted the Toronto Social Procurement Program. The program drives inclusive economic growth in Toronto by encouraging buyers and vendors to do business with certified diverse suppliers, including those owned by people from equity-seeking communities and social enterprises in all City procurement. A particular focus will be on contracts below $50,000 for which smaller businesses like social enterprises are better able to compete.

This 10-year journey has been long, and isn’t over yet. We’re taking steps to build a broader social procurement ecosystem. We want to create a climate that allows businesses owned by equity-seeking communities—women, racialized and Aboriginal peoples and newcomers—and social enterprises to compete for City contracts on their own or as part of a partnership. With the support of the Atkinson Foundation and with the participation of the United Way, we are also leading the AnchorTO Network to spread social procurement practices across all of Toronto’s public sector institutions.

So the next time community leaders ask us to create economic opportunities for their residents, we know we have built the foundation to now answer ‘yes.’

Changemakers to watch: Michael Braithwaite

Meet Michael Braithwaite. He’s a passionate champion who’s made it his life’s work to ensure young people facing barriers have every opportunity for a promising future. As the Executive Director of 360°kids, he’s not only providing a safe haven for at-risk youth, he’s pursuing innovative, out-of-the-box ideas to tackle homelessness in York Region.

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Michael Braithwaite
Executive Director, 360°kids

WHO: Michael has a long history is the social services sector. Before taking the lead at 360°kids, a United Way–supported agency, he spent over two decades with the YMCA—spearheading everything from day camps in Niagara Region to a men’s shelter in downtown Hamilton and employment programming in Toronto’s Jane and Finch neighbourhood. But as a father of three, Michael is especially drawn to the youth demographic. “My kids look no different than the young people that I work with everyday,” he says. “I like working with youth because they have so much to offer. If they matter to just one person, that can be the hope they need to turn their life around.”

WHY: In March, 360°kids was named “Best Non-Profit” at the Richmond Hill Chamber of Commerce 2016 Business Awards. And with good reason. Thanks to a partnership with the Regional

Michael and his daughter, Irene, following the 360° Experience.

Michael and his daughter, Irene, following the 360° Experience.

Municipality of York, 360°kids is operating out of a new 20,000-square-foot facility in Richmond Hill, increasing its youth drop-in capacity. Prior to the expansion, there were only 27 shelter beds dedicated to youth throughout the rapidly-growing region. “Housing is a major issue in York Region, especially for young people who are experiencing issues at home,” explains Michael. “These crucial spaces allow youth to live semi-independently while accessing the supports they need to get back on their feet.”

Michael celebrates 360°kids' award for "Best Non-Profit" at the Richmond Hill Chamber of Commerce 2016 Business Awards.

Michael celebrates 360°kids’ award for “Best Non-Profit” at the Richmond Hill Chamber of Commerce 2016 Business Awards.

It’s an issue Michael knows well—because it hits close to home. For years, his sister struggled with addiction and mental health issues, and, at just 16, found herself in and out of precarious housing. “It can happen to anyone and any family,” says Michael. “This cause drives me because if my sister had access to an organization like 360°kids growing up, she might have broken that pattern a long time ago.”

But Michael’s impact is more than just bricks-and-mortar improvements. His team has also been the brains behind 360° Experience, which invites business and community leaders to experience a day in the life of homeless youth—braving the cold, hunger and isolation. “I wanted to do something that really has an impact,” he says. “You might only endure these struggles for one day, but it’s an experience that will last a lifetime.”

Michael and Phil Dawson, Fire & EMS Chief, East Gwillimbury, struggle to keep warm during the 360° Experience.

Michael and Phil Dawson, Fire & EMS Chief, East Gwillimbury, struggle to keep warm during the 360° Experience.

WHAT’S NEXT: Drawing on innovative ideas from across the globe, Michael is now piloting a preventative program—in partnership with Raising the Roof—that will see outreach workers visiting schools to identify early signs of struggle that could lead to homelessness. He’s also working to create the first LGBTQ youth shelter in York Region, and plans to have 360°kids become the first Night Stop-accredited agency in Canada—a UK-based program that matches individuals and families who have space in their home to young people in need. “It would only cost $4,000 a year to place a child in an actual home—whether it’s a couple whose grown children have moved out or a senior who feels isolated and could use some extra help around the house,” he explains. “It would be beneficial to both parties, and the best part: a child would have a real place to call home.”

GOOD ADVICE:

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Join us in ensuring young people have access to the opportunities they need to thrive. Subscribe to Community Matters and see all the good work people like you make possible.

UPDATE: What is the precarity penalty?

Our guest blogger this week is Michelynn Laflèche, United Way Toronto & York Region’s Director of Research, Public Policy and Evaluation. Prior to joining United Way, she worked as a consultant with Civic Action and was Chief Executive of the Runnymede Trust, a leading social policy and research charity in the UK.

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Michelynn Laflèche
Director, Research, Public Policy and Evaluation
United Way Toronto & York Region

Job precarity is having a negative impact on the wellbeing of our residents—it’s something we’ve been talking about in our research for some time now.

What we’ve discovered in our newly released report, The Precarity Penalty: Executive Summary York Region is that this issue is widespread across York Region.  In fact, more than 40% of workers are in jobs with some degree of insecurity.

York Region—a place many consider affluent—is not immune to the problems facing Toronto’s downtown.

Our data tells us that people’s anxiety about work is interfering with their personal and family lives. More than half of the people surveyed earning low or middle incomes are experiencing this type of anxiety. The uncertainty of not knowing if and when you’ll work can be socially isolating.

Precarity-Penalty-YR-Bucket 3Not having access to childcare is another huge challenge for York Region residents—63.6% say it interferes with their work-life. How do you schedule your child’s daycare if your work schedule changes weekly or daily?

These challenges are real and significant, but they don’t paint the entire picture.  We also learned that in some instances, York Region residents actually fare better. Based on the sample size, we can’t draw definitive conclusions, but can make some interesting comparisons. We found that York Region residents who are precariously employed earn 10% higher individual incomes and 7% have higher household income.

All of this data is another important step in guiding and informing our work.  It underscores the need to address the growing issues that surround precarious employment and our commitment to do more.

And we are prepared to do more around this work with the help of our partners across all sectors. We’re committed to building a dynamic labour market, ensuring jobs are a pathway to employment and enhancing social supports for a new and improved labour market.

What is “hidden” homelessness?

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Stephen Gaetz
Director, Canadian Observatory on 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, made up of nine mostly suburban municipalities, homelessness is a growing issue with its own set of complex challenges. One in 8 people also live in poverty.

Imagine a City spoke with Dr. Stephen Gaetz, Director of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, co-author of a report with United Way about youth homelessness in York Region and York University professor about what we can do about it.

1. Homelessness is often hidden: “There’s often public perception that homelessness is a downtown issue, but it’s not,” says Gaetz. “There’s poverty in the suburbs, but it’s often hidden.” A lack of affordable housing is a serious community issue in York Region—housing prices have soared in the past decade and the rental market is dismal. With the wait list for rental housing higher than the number of units, individuals and families experiencing poverty have no choice but to stay in inadequate housing. For example, some “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.Suburbs

2. Homelessness is spread out: When we think of Toronto, the city’s busy urban core often comes to mind. But in York Region, where its nine municipalities don’t have a downtown centre, services and supports are situated few and far between, making them difficult to identify and access. As a result, mobility is a major issue and homelessness is dispersed. “The transit infrastructure in York is largely built to accommodate privately-owned vehicles making it tough for homeless individuals to move throughout the region and access services,” says Gaetz. “People often have to leave their communities to access help. In turn, they lose their natural supports—including family, friends and neighbours—all key factors that can help someone move forward and avoid homelessness.”

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To better understand this issue in York Region, United Way led the region’s first-ever Point-in-Time Count on Jan. 20 and 21. “Determining the extent, demographics, and needs of those experiencing absolute homelessness—in shelters and on the streets—at a single point in time is key to reducing it,” says Michelynn Laflèche, Director of Research, Public Policy & Evaluation at United Way Toronto & York Region. “This information will help us inform strategies to champion change in the region.”

3. Community supports are sparse: Unprecedented population growth in York Region and higher proportions of newcomers and seniors have led to service gaps that make it hard for individuals to access crucial support. Gaetz says in Toronto, for example, there are roughly 4,000 shelter beds for the city’s 2.6 million residents. However, in York, there are only 130 beds for a population of 1 million. “Emergency supports are good quality in York Region, but there are not a lot of them,” says Gaetz.

LeavingHomeReportFor example, Blue Door Shelters, supported by United Way, operates the only family shelter in York Region providing food, counselling and a safe and supportive refuge for homeless people or those at risk of becoming homeless. Adds Gaetz: “If community services aren’t visible in your neighbourhood, you might assume they’re not there. This causes people to either uproot and go to Toronto for support, or not access crucial services at all.” But Gaetz says an increase in more than just emergency supports is needed in the region. “We need to prevent people from becoming homeless, while also supporting others to move out of homelessness,” he says. “Shifting our way of thinking from emergency response to prevention and transition can have a big impact.”

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What does homelessness look like where you live?  Visit ProjectUnited, for eye-opening videos, audio and written stories of people experiencing poverty right here at home. Conceived and created by two engaged Ryerson University students, ProjectUnited is a volunteer-driven partnership with United Way that aims to raise awareness of the barriers people face in our community.

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What if you had to choose?

2015_Make_The_Month_Homepage_SlideImagine having to choose between eating or keeping a roof over your head? Or what if staying home to care for your sick child could cost you your job? For 1 in 4 adults in Toronto and 1 in 8 people in York Region, these daily scenarios are a harsh reality. That’s because when you live in poverty—there’s no easy decision.

Thankfully, many of us don’t have to make these difficult choices. But how do you understand poverty if you don’t live it?  For Make the Month Day, we’re inviting you to try out United Way’s digital poverty experience to get a better idea of what it’s like to live on a low income. Let us know what you think and test your knowledge of poverty in Toronto and York Region by completing this quiz.

For detailed answers, click here.

3 things you might not know about poverty

IAC_Home-Page_Blog_Good-to-knowDid you know that 1 in 5 adults in Toronto and 1 in 8 people in York Region live in poverty? It’s true. Every day, individuals and families across our region face homelessness, unemployment, a lack of affordable housing and the effects of deepening income inequality. These startling facts are a vital reminder that there is still much work to be done in addressing this complex issue.

Here are three things you might not know about poverty here in Toronto and York Region:

1. Nearly one-third of all children in Toronto live in low-income households.

According to a report released last year, 15 of Toronto’s 140 neighbourhoods have child poverty rates of 40% or more. Fifty-five neighbourhoods have child poverty rates of 30% or more. In places like Regent Park, Moss Park and Thorncliffe, child poverty rates climb to more than 50%. Poverty in childhood can have a lifelong impact—affecting a child’s ability to grow, develop and learn. It is up to all of us to address this growing issue and to work together to make investments in children and families that will have a lasting impact on the social, economic and physical well-being of our whole community.

Test 2. Poverty is concentrated in certain neighbourhoods.

Entire neighbourhoods are falling behind when the gap between those who are doing well financially—and those who are not—continues to widen. The number of low-income communities in 2005 was 271, compared to 97 in 1970, leading to a geographic concentration of poverty, particularly in Toronto’s inner suburbs. Our research also shows us that income inequality has grown faster in Toronto than in other major Canadian cities, outpacing both provincial and national averages.  Opportunities to build a good life—including quality jobs, affordable housing and meaningful social networks—aren’t equally available to everyone.

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3. Poverty impacts decision making.

A lack of food or money can cause people to focus obsessively on the object of scarcity, leaving less “mental bandwidth” for other aspects of a person’s life. That’s according to Dr. Eldar Shafir, professor of Psychology and Public Affairs at Princeton University, and the co-author of Scarcity: Why Having So Little Means So Much. “There’s a lot of data indicating people living in poverty don’t do well with decision-making. So the question is: Are they in poverty because of bad decisions, or are the bad decisions somehow the result of poverty?” says Shafir. Watch the video to learn more about psychological issues related to poverty.

Want to learn more about how your support is changing the lives of people living in poverty? Subscribe to this blog to read the latest insight from thought-leaders across our community and stay up-to-date on important social issues.

Toronto’s first-ever anti-poverty plan passes

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Toronto City Council voted overwhelmingly on July 7 to approve the interim report on the city’s poverty reduction strategy: TOProsperity. The plan calls on a collaborative, community-driven strategy to tackle the effects and root causes of poverty. United Way played a key role in the development of this strategy, by helping residents in priority neighbourhoods connect with city staff during the public consultations that took place.

Here are three things you need to know about #TOProsperity moving forward:

1. A final report on the city’s Poverty Reduction Plan will be presented to city councilors in the fall. The plan will outline a roadmap on how the City and its partners will implement the key recommendations contained in the strategy, including short- and long-term targets and a multi-year funding plan.

2. 2035: The deadline set to achieve an equitable city with opportunity for all Torontonians including: access to good jobs, adequate income, stable housing, affordable transportation, nutritious food, and supportive services.

3. United Way will continue to work with community facilitators and residents to engage people with lived experience of poverty in the implementation phase of the strategy.

Residents speak up on poverty reduction

HarrietCain

United Way community facilitator Harriet Cain

The City of Toronto recently released its Interim Poverty Reduction Strategy,which calls on a collaborative, community-driven strategy to end poverty. The City of Toronto partnered with United Way to ensure the strategy was reflective of those voices with lived experience of poverty. Working together, we helped identify 23 community facilitators from priority neighbourhoods and community agencies/groups. We then partnered with the Maytree Foundation to train residents to lead small group discussions aimed at engaging community members in the process. A total of eight, City-led “Days of Dialogue” were held across Toronto earlier this year.  Imagine a City spoke to Harriet Cain, one of United Way’s community facilitators, on why it’s vitally important for residents with lived experience of poverty to add their voice to the conversation.

Tell us a little bit about yourself: I’m originally from Barbados. I moved to Toronto in the late 1980s. I lived in Brampton for a year and then moved to Scarborough. I came here on a work permit from my country and I had high hopes for building a good future. But I didn’t get a lot of help from friends and family when I first got here. Back then there were no Community Hubs and it was hard to access social services. I found it difficult to pay the rent and my work as a cook and personal support worker was never steady. I relied on food banks.

Tell us a little bit about your neighbourhood: I currently live in Taylor Massey, which is considered a priority neighbourhood. It’s a big community, and many times, you cannot walk from one part of the neighbourhood to another without having to go around something. These physical barriers cause us to be isolated from one another. It’s quite dismal and dark in some parts of the neighbourhood. In terms of food, I would call our community a ‘food desert.’ Healthy, fresh food is far away from us. We also find that the grocery stores around here are expensive. We are a very diverse community. We have European, Caribbean and South Asian cultural groups. But many of us are struggling for food, for rent, for jobs and for childcare. It’s very frustrating for the women who have professions and can’t find jobs that utilize their trained credentials. Mental health is also a challenge for many people in our neighbourhood.

How did you become involved in Toronto’s Poverty Reduction consultations? Describe your role as a Community Facilitator. I have been a volunteer with United Way’s Action for Neighborhood Change in Taylor Massey for about seven years. I was really happy when they asked me if I’d be interested in helping to lead small group discussions among residents with lived experience of poverty.  My job was to listen to the others, to make sure they understood and to motivate them to add their voice. I helped keep the dialogue running. I was able to use my own experience of living in poverty to help other residents clarify, and expand on, their own challenges and experiences.

How important was United Way in helping facilitate these discussions? United Way has long-term, well-established relationships with residents and community groups/agencies in Toronto’s priority neighbourhoods. They helped the City bring residents to the table to have these important conversations. They helped give us a voice and allowed our voice to get stronger and to get bigger.

 What did you hear from residents at these community consultation sessions? We heard from a wide cross-section of people across Toronto. They’re struggling for food, they’re struggling for rent, they’re struggling to get daycare so that they can go to work. One young woman we heard from had just graduated from college and was frustrated because she couldn’t find a job. She had to give up her apartment and move back home because there was no money coming in. Lots of residents spoke about their struggles accessing healthy, affordable, nutritious food. We also heard a lot about employment. Some residents felt they were being discriminated against because of their postal code even though they had all the credentials for the job. Many of the people we spoke with were employed, but were earning minimum wage. They were working two jobs but still unable to purchase healthy food. They found it very difficult to find extra money to take their children to extracurricular or entertainment activities, even just once a month. Finding money for transit was problematic too.

Why is it so important for resident voices to be included in Toronto’s Poverty Reduction Strategy? People who are impoverished are not ignorant, we understand our needs. That is a big myth that needs to be removed. Even the uneducated person still knows what they need. If we are going to reduce, or end, poverty in our city, it’s vitally important that the people with lived experience of poverty have a say in how the problem gets fixed. You might not be able to give me everything, but to honour and help me, I believe that you need to talk to me. If I needed shoes, for example, you might think I need shoes with heels. But I don’t even like shoes with heels. It’s important to take the time to really understand how I’m going to benefit from your help.

What did it mean to you to be personally involved in these City-led consultations? I was very moved that the City was at the table with the residents. They heard the voices and saw the faces of poverty.  They heard about our struggles, they heard about our frustrations and they heard that residents are eager to do better. They came into our neighbourhoods and let us know that they are here for us. I am hopeful that we can work together to create real change.

TO Prosperity: Interim Poverty Reduction Strategy goes to City Council on July 7 and 8, 2015, for approval. Follow United Way on Twitter and Facebook for updates and use #TOProsperity to join the conversation.

 

What do these things have in common?

1. A time-pressed CEO, faced with a week of triple-booked meetings and urgent decisions to be made.
2. A person on a diet, counting calories.
3. A low-wage North American city-dweller, counting pennies.

According to Dr. Eldar Shafir—a professor of Psychology and Public Affairs at Princeton University, and the co-author of Scarcity: Why Having So Little Means So Much—the answer is simple: They’re all facing some form of scarcity.

“When you’re facing a lack—of time, money, food—you tend to focus obsessively on the object of the scarcity,” says Shafir. “That leaves less mental room for other aspects of your life.”

This drain on what Shafir calls “mental bandwidth” explains why poverty can be so taxing, emotionally and intellectually. But poverty, says Shafir, is even more stressful than many other forms of scarcity, because the stakes are so much higher. “If a middle-class professional makes a bad call at work, they might fail at a particular task or project,” he says. “But if a person living at the precipice of poverty makes a bad decision, the result could be far worse—eviction, for example.”

With over half a million people in Toronto living in poverty, that’s a lot of lost bandwidth. And with the release of Ontario’s new Poverty Reduction Strategy, United Way Toronto and the Wellesley Institute co-hosted a presentation and discussion with Shafir last month to dive into the psychological issues related to poverty.

“There’s lot of data indicating people living in poverty don’t do well with decision-making. So the question is: Are they in poverty because of bad decisions, or are the bad decisions somehow the result of poverty?”

Shafir cites studies indicating that people living on significantly low incomes often perform poorly on intelligence tests, when simultaneously contemplating difficult financial scenarios—but those intelligence deficits disappear when the money concerns are removed. Similar results have been observed in people living with any form of scarcity, including time scarcity, which impairs decision-making in a way that also has a measurable effect on intelligence tests.

Comparing poverty to other, relatable forms of scarcity (like the aforementioned time scarcity of the busy executive) help to create what Shafir calls an “empathy bridge.”

“The behaviour of people living in poverty looks a lot less strange when you consider that any form of scarcity lends itself to making snap decision, often bad decisions,” he says. “Like when we’re juggling a lot of demands on our time.”

No surprise, then that he supports public policy that can help with that everyday juggling, and “simply, provide more bandwidth.”

“I believe in government intervention,” he says, “so in many ways Canadians have it better than Americans….The five year plan Ontario has is a wonderful way to conduct policy and think about these things on a regular basis. Just keeping this in the public discussion—that’s one of the most important things we can do.”

Interested in knowing more? Check out this 2011 TedX presentation by Dr. Shafir:

 

Extra! Extra! 2014 City Budget good news for Torontonians

Photo of Nauman Khan

Nauman Khan,
United Way, Public Affairs

This week we’re welcoming Nauman Khan as our guest blogger. He is a member of United Way Toronto’s Communications and Public Affairs team.  Thanks to a career in broadcast journalism and politics, he has built a strong understanding of how governments influence community building through strategic investments.  He also thinks Toronto is the best city in the world to live, work and raise a family.

It’s budget season in the City of Toronto, and while it may not be the most headline-grabbing time of year, it is one of the most important—this is when key decisions are made about where the City will focus its funding and its efforts over the coming year.

And this year’s budget, approved on January 30, had some great news for Torontonians, making progress in several areas with a strong link to United Way’s priorities.

Of course, United Way Toronto is already working with the City in a number of ways—on our Strong Neighbourhoods Strategy, to close the gap between the inner suburbs and downtown Toronto; on Tower Neighbourhood renewal; on nutrition and food security; and on youth employment opportunities resulting from new transit investments.

This year’s budget was approved on January 30, and we saw progress in three more areas with a strong link to United Way’s priorities:

Creating more youth lounges
These spaces will provide a wide range of services and, more importantly, physical space, for youth to engage in everything from arts and recreation to networking and career building. City Council approved the creation of 10 such spaces across the city, starting with four this year. (The city will work with United Way and other partners to determine locations.)

Cost of Living Adustment (COLA) increase for community agencies
COLA is critical to ensuring that these agencies are able to meet inflationary pressures, so City Council went a step further and approved additional funding for agencies that had been recommended by staff to receive public funds—but which had not been approved to in a previous version of the budget.

Improving student nutrition
The Student Nutrition Program (SNP) helps deliver nutritious snacks across Toronto’s schools, especially in neighbourhoods where families may struggle to feed their children well. Not only did City Council approve an inflationary increase to cover the cost of food, but it also passed two other investments: to expand the program to more schools, and increase the City’s share in the total cost of SNP.

Sometimes we can take for granted that really important things are happening at City Hall, that have a direct positive impact on the lives of everyday citizens. While these aren’t the kinds of things that always grab the public and media attention, this year’s budget included a lot of great news—and it really should have made bigger headlines.

Warming up winter for everyone

As Canadians, we’ll go to almost any lengths to fight the winter’s chill. Consider: In 1996, a city councillor in Saskatoon endorsed spending $80 million to build a climate-controlled glass atrium, to be called “Atreos,” over part of that city’s downtown. (No, it didn’t happen.)

To date, no one has proposed building a giant glass dome over Toronto. There are certainly some of us who might appreciate it, however, especially as we head into the coldest months of the year.

There is no “easy” time to be living on the streets or in and out of shelters, but winter is certainly the hardest. The season brings us a lot of news about the hardships faced by Torontonians who are homeless, and with over 5,000 people estimated to be in need of a place to sleep on any given night, there are only about 4,000 shelter beds city-wide. (The city opens up emergency beds open when the temperature drops to 15 below, but not enough to make up the difference—and besides, spending the night outside in any sub-zero temperature is dangerous.)

But it’s not just people who are homeless for whom winter poses unique challenges. It’s everyone struggling to make ends meet, and in 2013, that’s more Torontonians than ever before. According to the City of Toronto:

  • 87,000 Torontonians are on the wait-list for affordable housing, almost as many as there are units in total (approximately 95,000).
  • Between April 2012 and March 2013, there were 1,120,000 visits to food banks in Toronto.
  • Use of shelter beds went up 3.6 percent from 2011 to 2012—nightly use consistently exceeds 90 percent of available spaces.

And more than 557,000 people—one-fifth of the city’s population— are living in poverty. Many live in our inner suburbs in under-serviced tower neighbourhoods, where, astonishingly, up to 60 percent of residents don’t have driver’s licenses. This means they rely on public transit and their own two feet to get around low-density, suburban communities, where a walk to the store is a lot longer than a quick trip down the block.

Of course, there are ways you can help, like visiting our Warmest Wishes 2013 Gift Catalogue and purchase one of United Way’s winter-care gift packages: everything from a Personal Care Kit to a full Winter Outfitters Package full of warm clothing. It’s a small thing, but it makes a difference.

Whatever we do this holiday season to make 2014 easier for our neighbours, let’s be thankful we live in a city full of so many caring people.

Warming up winter

Winter is still officially three weeks away, but we all know Canadian seasons don’t exactly stick to the calendar’s stipulations.

And as November turns to December, and the weather turns colder, sharper and harsher, we’re starting to hear a lot more about Torontonians who are struggling–whether experiencing homelessness or facing personal circumstances that make the winter months difficult. Fortunately, there are some excellent community agencies working in our city that are helping to turn up the heat in a slew of ways—from warm clothing to hot turkey dinners. Here are a few examples that United Way donors help support and they top this year’s “Nice” list:

  • Sistering serves a sit-down turkey dinner for over 300 low-income women living with homelessness or health issues. Guests also receive a $25 gift card to purchase food, clothing and other essentials. The cost for each meal and gift is tiny for lifting spirits that high. (For more on Sistering’s work, check out Toronto Star‘s profile from this summer.)
  • Many adults living with severe mental illness find themselves isolated from their families, which is especially painful during the holidays. The Canadian Mental Health Association of Toronto provides winter clothing and personal-care items, along with small gifts that parents can give to their children.
  • Jessie’s—The June Callwood Centre for Young Women welcomes 150 young moms and their children for a festive meal and pictures with Santa. And what’s a visit to the man in red without a small gift to mark the occasion? It’s one small way that your support makes a big difference. (Local blog She Does the City featured a moving personal story about a young women’s experience at Jessie’s.)

These are just a few of the many examples of how community agencies and generous donors are making our city a better place this winter, and throughout the year. Drop us a line in the comments and let us know what you think Toronto needs as the mercury drops.

When good advice goes bad

This week, Imagine a City is joined by guest blogger John Stapleton, founder of Open Policy Ontario and a fellow with the Metcalf Foundation. He has some much-needed financial advice for low-income earners, just in time for Financial Literacy Month. Here, he provides a rundown of what low-income earners really need to know, and how the financial-services industry can serve them better. (For more, see his comprehensive report, “Planning for Retirement on a Low Income.”)

People living on low incomes might wonder how the financial advice they receive differs from the advice given to middle- and high-income earners. The reality? It doesn’t. That’s a problem, because it can be toxic to those facing poverty. They live in a parallel universe where most, if not all, of the rules are different.

When assisting low-income people, for instance, many advisors will tell them to max out their RRSPs, forget about Tax Free Savings Accounts (TFSAs), and wait until 65 or later to sign up for Canada Pension. They’ll also be advised to look closely at their taxes to capitalize on tax credits.

This is the same advice given (rightfully) to middle- and high-income earners, but for people making ends meet on lower incomes, it’s exactly wrong.

Low-income retirees are likely to receive something called the Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS), paid in addition to Old Age Security. So they should actually do the following: cash in their RRSPs before age 65, load up their TFSAs (if they have any savings), and apply for early CPP, around age 60. They should also forget about the non-refundable tax credits they will likely not need.

So, why is the right advice typically not given to low-income earners?

Two reasons: The first is that the GIS is an entitlement—the dreaded “E” word—and not a tax credit. Financial advisors are loathe to tell anyone to organize their affairs to maximize entitlements because entitlements are often seen as a drain on the public purse in a way that tax credits are not. The second is that the financial-advisory community doesn’t generally know much about the GIS.

Perhaps there’s a third reason. I’ve heard it before: there simply isn’t much money to be made advising low-income earners. And that’s true if information isn’t tailored to their specific needs, but if these individuals got the right advice up front, they would have money. A lot more money. Maybe financial institutions would even be justified in charging them for it. It’s just good, useful advice, after all.

Making the most of what we make

DSC_6265Maria is a 24-year-old single mother to three young children, living near Jane and Finch in Toronto. While taking care of herself and her family as she looked for employment, she found that her limited finances didn’t stretch very far. At least, they didn’t until recently.

At a local community agency, Maria enrolled in a financial literacy workshop that is tailored to people living on a low income. She learned the basics of how to track her finances, how credit ratings are determined and other important financial information that gave her the foundation to realize a new financial future for herself and her children (you can read more of Maria’s story here ).

The barriers faced by Maria are like those of countless Torontonians who are not only living on a low income, but also facing other mounting challenges, including an unemployment rate of 8.6% in the Greater Toronto Area (above the national average of 6.9%) and record levels of household debt.

November is Financial Literacy Month, a great time to reflect on why financial literacy matters, why it’s a skill we have to learn and, in terms of the information offered, why one size doesn’t fit all. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be posting some information about United Way’s work in financial literacy , profiling some of our incredible partners and other organizations who are doing impressive work in the community on this very issue. You’ll also meet a few people whose lives were changed when they connected with programs geared to their particular situation. Check it out this month by liking us at Facebook.com/UnitedWayToronto and following us on Twitter.

By subscribing to the blog, you can join us November 18, when we tackle the gap between the financial literacy advice that is generally offered and the needs of lower-income earners—and why that gap is a serious concern.