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.

Discovering the “unsung heroes” of our community

Raksha M. Bhayana

We often talk about the importance of a strong social safety net, or a circle of care that surrounds all of us—ensuring everyone has the help they need, when they need it and where they live. It’s this web of social supports, things like newcomer language services, mental health programs and employment resources, that help people build better lives. But behind these services and supports are the people who work tirelessly and passionately every day to make a difference in the lives of others. We spoke to Raksha M. Bhayana, a former United Way board member and champion of these frontline agency workers and staff to help us understand why these “unsung heroes” should be recognized and celebrated.

1. You started your own career in social services before moving to the corporate sector to join your family business. Tell us a bit about your experience.

I have a Master’s degree in social work, and I was one of those idealistic Boomers who wanted to change the world. I especially wanted to help youth have more opportunities. My last position was at Family Services Toronto. I was responsible for directing all of the agency’s programs, which included supports for women experiencing violence, adults and couple counselling, seniors’ wellness and support programs, case management for individuals with developmental disabilities. I was also responsible for government relations and designing new programs based on emerging needs. Before Family Services, I was at a children’s mental health centre, where I was director of the Child and Family Clinic.

2. What do you think motivates agency and community services staff, who you’ve said are often the “unsung heroes” of the sector, to do the important work that they do?

The motivation is primarily intrinsic. They care, and are driven by their passion and ideals. The have the skills, the expertise and creativity to help people make changes. They help people improve their quality of life and their sense of well-being. I think there’s tremendous satisfaction in watching people change, and being a part of bringing that change about.

3. Working in the social services sector can be incredibly rewarding—but also challenging. Describe some of these challenges?

I think one of the biggest challenges is the increasing demand for support. There are always waiting lists from people seeking help. You can get a call from a woman being assaulted by her partner, a suicidal single parent—I’ve been through all of these scenarios. Every day is different. One day you might hear from an isolated senior who needs support or from a young person who has just left home and needs help. These can be very emotionally challenging situations to deal with. In many cases, we are also faced with limited resources, so you have to use a lot of ingenuity and creativity to get people the help they need. These are pretty special people to be able to deal with this kind of pressure.

4. The Bhayana Family Foundation Awards shines a light on the vital contributions of United Way agency staff who help fuel change across our communities. Why is this recognition so important?

The frontline staff talk about United Way/ Bhayana awards as the “Academy Awards” of the social services sector. When we started these awards more than nine years ago, we wanted to raise the profile of the entire social services sector, including the frontline workers who are such a big part of making change happen. We also wanted to raise awareness amongst the broader public for the incredible, and often challenging, work they do to support people and families in need. This is a sector, that as a whole, contributes economically and socially to society, yet has traditionally received little recognition for the work they do, compared to the private sector. We know this recognition is important because the research suggests there is a positive correlation between employee recognition and enhanced engagement, and performance of staff. When we celebrate these frontline workers and make them feel special and valued, we raise the bar of performance for the entire non-profit sector.

Why should we care about a strong social safety net? 

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

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

1. What is a strong social safety net?

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

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

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

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

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

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Are Community Benefits a roadmap for the future?

PEYMAN SOHEILI FOR THE TORONTO STAR

PEYMAN SOHEILI FOR THE TORONTO STAR

That’s the idea behind groundbreaking new Community Benefits legislation that will help connect residents from priority neighbourhoods with apprenticeship and work opportunities on large infrastructure projects like Metrolinx’s Eglinton Crosstown transit line.


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

That means that in addition to building much-needed transit that connects communities, these projects can also provide pathways to better jobs, and more secure futures, for people living in poverty. This includes young people who face significant barriers to employment.

United Way was proud to play a key role in bringing this legislation to fruition by working with our partners—including Crosslinx, labour unions, the Toronto Community Benefits Network, the provincial government and the City of Toronto—to get the green light on this exciting initiative.

And at a recent Board of Trade summit, Premier Kathleen Wynne signaled her support to commit to local employment targets on the Eglinton Crosstown project.

We’re hopeful this will pave the way for scaling up career opportunities for young people who have faced barriers so that everyone can contribute and share in our prosperity.

What does the Throne Speech mean for communities?

PedroBarata

Pedro Barata
Vice President, Communications & Public Affairs
United Way Toronto & York Region

Our guest blogger this week is Pedro Barata, Vice President of Communications & 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.

Earlier this week, the Government of Ontario issued a new Speech from the Throne with a stated focus on balancing the economic and social priorities in communities across the province. This means that it positioned job and economic growth as a top priority for the government but also reinforced the importance of investments in social services, programs and infrastructure—such as child care and community space—that helps people build better lives. The speech also reinforced the anticipated milestone of reaching a balanced budget by 2017.

The Throne Speech contained some welcome news on several issues we are focused on—including early years development, community hubs and building a labour market that works. These announcements are good news—communities are only strong and prosperous when everyone is given the right opportunities to build a good life.

DSC_8185Community Hubs: The first “new” item in the Speech focused on a commitment to expand child care. There is also a reference to the role of community hubs in helping individuals and families access much-needed health, social, educational and recreational supports. This announcement reflects the government’s ongoing commitment to supporting social infrastructure, including the appointment of a special advisor on community hubs to work with community and other groups to ensure these shared public spaces best meet the needs of the people they serve. We’ve had the great fortune of seeing ways our own community hubs have transformed eight priority neighbourhoods, expanding access to services and bringing residents together. It’s why they are a central component of our Building Strong Neighbourhoods Strategy, which focuses on targeted investments, resident-led programs and community infrastructure that supports strong, vibrant neighbourhoods.

united-way-4Workforce Development: This week’s Throne Speech also prioritized a training and skills agenda and reinforced the importance of the provincial youth employment strategy. That focus on skills training—for people of all ages— can bridge employer, worker and community interests—and good jobs and a strong workforce go hand-in-hand. United Way will continue to work with our partners across the province (including the Government of Ontario) on several initiatives that help young people connect with meaningful jobs and long-term economic security. This includes our Career Navigator™ education-to-employment program (part of United Way’s Youth Success Strategy) that helps young people get job-ready by connecting them with a set of customized education, training and support services. We’ll also continue our work/advocacy on groundbreaking new Community Benefits legislation that will help connect residents from priority neighbourhoods with apprenticeship and work opportunities on infrastructure projects such as Metrolinx’s Eglinton Crosstown transit line.

Energy relief:  The Throne Speech also made a commitment to reducing cost pressures on households and businesses across our province in the form of a much-anticipated 8% HST rebate on rising electricity bills. It’s an important step in acknowledging the tremendous financial pressure on households—particularly low-income households—and we look forward to hearing more about how we can ensure that the most vulnerable people and families in our communities get the help they need.

The Throne Speech is a promising blueprint for where this government may go in the months and years ahead.  By prioritizing much-needed social supports and infrastructure— including community hubs, child care and skills training programs for young people—progress can be made for the people and families that United Way works to support every day.