Changemakers to watch: Jesse Thistle

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

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

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

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

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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.

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Federal budget: Crunching the numbers for our community

Pedro Barata
Senior Vice President, 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.

Annual budgets are always anticipated events, because they offer a government’s blueprint for how it plans to raise and spend funds—for health, education, transit and so many other things that we as citizens rely on. They are also policy documents, announcing and hinting at new government policies with respect to taxes, strategy development and investments.

The 2017 federal budget was especially top of mind, since the government had raised expectations on addressing the growing crisis of housing affordability across our country.

Here’s our take, as it relates to our work, and the future and prosperity of our community.

While investments in early learning fall short of what is currently required, this year’s budget did make a historic commitment to housing, childcare and skills development for youth. Building on 2016’s game-changing down-payment on a Canada Child Benefit—helping to lift thousands of kids out of poverty—this year’s budget also announced more than $11 billion (on top of the $2 billion from last year) to address homelessness and housing affordability.

Many of the proposals in this budget respond to ideas generated by the National Housing Collaborative (NHC). Convened by United Way Toronto & York Region, the NHC is a Canada-wide action group that has brought housing advocates, foundations, government agencies, and developers and landlords together to reach consensus on practical solutions to housing affordability. United Way is particularly encouraged by the creation of a $5-billion National Housing Fund, which will spur local solutions to systemic barriers to housing affordability. It will also prompt new investment models for our tower-renewal work within priority neighbourhoods.

We are equally excited to see investments in child-care spaces. Our work has shown that low-income households—and those affected by precarious employment—face a greater risk of choosing between a job and caring for their children.

Finally, youth facing multiple barriers, including poverty, racism and mental health, are more likely to have difficulty accessing tools and training for a successful career. We see it as smart public policy for the government to expand the Youth Employment Strategy in this year’s budget, with supports for at-risk populations. United Way’s Youth Success Strategy seeks to serve those kids who are farthest from the labour market, and we continue to discuss alignment and evaluation of the two strategies with officials in the federal government.

Our world is characterized by uncertain times, and it is very encouraging to see our federal government cast a vision—and lay the groundwork—for collaboration with United Way and other organizations. With that, we have the promise of growth, progress and systemic change to make our communities stronger. And our future that much brighter.

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.

Changemakers to watch: Hibaq Gelle

hibaq1Meet Hibaq Gelle. She’s a community mobilizer and a powerful youth champion committed to bringing good jobs to people in her Rexdale neighbourhood. Using innovative ways of working, she’s empowering community members to take ownership of their neighbourhood and revolutionizing the way community change is made.

WHO: For Hibaq, building vibrant communities isn’t just a pastime—it’s a commitment she lives and breathes every day. As a graduate of CITY Leaders, a leadership program co-certified by United Way and the University of Toronto, Hibaq knows a thing or two about empowering youth. A staple in many priority neighbourhoods across Toronto, she’s helped youth facing barriers, including poverty and racialization, connect to the programs and supports they need to thrive.

But Hibaq is not only passionate about bringing opportunities to youth here at home; her impact can be felt province-wide. As a political appointee on the Premier’s Council on Youth Opportunities, Hibaq—one of just 25 people selected by the Premier—represents Ontario’s youth by bringing their voices to the table. Most notably, Hibaq advised on Ontario’s Youth Action Plan, a crucial $55 million investment in programs and services to tackle issues like youth violence and unemployment so that young people can transition successfully into adulthood.

WHY: It’s no surprise Hibaq has become a well-known name in Rexdale—community activism is a family affair. “Growing up, my mom was a go-to resource in the community,” says Hibaq. “Whether she was organizing women’s programming or helping newcomers navigate community resources, if you needed support, she was the person you would turn to.” And although Hibaq has undoubtedly followed in her mom’s footsteps, she’s definitely carved her own path. “Young people are not succeeding in the way that they should be,” says Hibaq. “By engaging non-traditional stakeholders and community members, we can start building new tools to tackle local issues in entirely different ways.”

One of the big barriers: unemployment. The tool: Community Benefits Agreements—partnerships that connect residents from priority neighbourhoods to work opportunities on local infrastructure projects. It’s a new way of working that United Way is also behind. Just last year, our advocacy led to provincial legislation that ensures Community Benefits will be included in all provincially-funded infrastructure projects moving forward.

WHAT’S NEXT: While a fellow in MaRS’ prestigious Studio Y program, Hibaq created the My Rexdale project, where she began working to tap into planned infrastructure projects in Rexdale—like the proposed casino at Woodbine Racetrack—to connect youth, precariously employed individuals and newcomers to work opportunities spurred as a result of planned development. Through community outreach (and the massive billboard she leveraged next to Highway 27), the idea is on its way to having a big impact in the lives of residents—who are equally thrilled at the prospect of good jobs coming to their neighbourhood.

billboard

And Hibaq’s Community Benefits work is just getting started. So far, she’s established a core team of community builders and is assembling a steering committee for the My Rexdale project. She’s also gotten Rexdale residents on-board through community consultations, door-to-door outreach and social media—educating community members about the investments coming so they can advocate on behalf of their community. “We need a strong base of support before we start conversations with big stakeholders,” says Hibaq. “The community is united behind it. This is just the beginning.”

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