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A community response to COVID-19

United Way is dedicated to helping our vulnerable friends and neighbours get the support they need during the COVID-19 pandemic. We will be providing regular updates on how we’re using your donations to take action on the frontlines of our community. You can also read our archive to see how we have been meeting urgent needs since March.  



As part of our ongoing Inclusive Local Economic Opportunity work in the Golden Mile, we've partnered with Sun Life, IBM and ACCES Employment to launch the Good Jobs pilot. This one-of-a-kind program connects talented residents to meaningful employment—and provides training and support to help them succeed in their new jobs. It’s helped local residents like Habeebah, who has now started her career as a disability adjudicator at Sun Life thanks to the skills she learned through the pilot. We’re working on getting the next cohort started—and we can’t wait to see where they end up. It’s all part of our ongoing work to ensure everyone in our community has equal access to opportunity. Something we couldn’t do without the support of people like you.


The federal government has committed to resettle 20,000 Afghans over the next two years—with 50 per cent of that number expected to settle here in the GTA—and our network is ready to swing into action to support. Together with the City of Toronto and Lifeline Afghanistan, we’ve launched the Toronto Region Afghan Resettlement Fund. Funds raised will go towards frontline community agencies that are helping Afghan individuals and families settle in their new home, including providing housing and employment support, food, clothing, community connections and more. You can support our new neighbours by making a gift, volunteering or becoming a sponsor.


Housing is a human right. But for too many people, finding and keeping suitable housing remains out of reach. We here at United Way are looking for strong federal leadership on affordable housing and a plan to end homelessness by 2030, which is why we’ve joined the Vote Housing initiative. It’s all part of our ongoing work speaking up and taking action on housing. Thanks to support from people like you, we've already pushed for portable housing benefits, worked with local government and agencies to distribute Reaching Home federal funding and funded a variety of housing initiatives, including quick-build modular housing. And our most recent round of COVID emergency funding will help local agencies support residents hard hit by this crisis, including people experiencing homelessness. We won’t stop this work until everyone in our community has what they need to build a good life, including an affordable, safe place to call home.


The duration and severity of the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a significant toll on people across Peel, Toronto and York Region—particularly on those who were already facing poverty and are from equity-seeking groups. In response, United Way Greater Toronto is investing $1.2 million to help agencies respond quickly and effectively to the urgent needs of GTA residents facing the greatest barriers. United Way’s COVID Relief Grants will benefit 126 community agencies—many of which support equity-seeking groups severely impacted by the pandemic. Focused on meeting basic needs from food and hygiene to mental health and children's programming, these projects, many culturally specific, will support people and communities across Peel, Toronto and York Region. These grants are in addition to the nearly $31 million in Government of Canada and Local Love emergency funds that United Way Greater Toronto has directed to 800+ COVID-specific emergency programs since the start of the pandemic.


Leading advocates, including service providers at United Way-supported South Riverdale Community Health Centre, are calling for new strategies to address the ongoing opioid crisis, including reallocation of resources to more community programs focused on harm reduction and decriminalization to regulate supply. United Way agencies have been on the ground throughout this crisis, supporting people with substance dependency by providing both vital services and advocating for real change. Ve'ahavta, which received support from our Local Love Fund, has provided those experiencing homelessness with essentials, including harm reduction kits, as well as outreach and peer support. And Dixon Hall's iPHARE program provides harm reduction and mental health case management services as well as supervised consumption services, in selected shelters, allowing shelter residents to consume drugs under trained supervision to reduce the risk of overdose. It’s all part of a collective community effort to save lives by ensuring our neighbours get the support they need.


Women have faced unique challenges during this crisis, especially when it comes to work. In the first month of the pandemic, women's labour force participation fell from its highest level ever to its lowest point since the ‘80s—and over the course of the crisis, 12 times more women than men left work to take up caregiving duties. This month, United Way-supported YWCA Toronto submitted a list of recommendations to the province, with the intent of not just kick-starting women’s re-entry into the workforce but also working towards better and more stable employment for women and others experiencing job precarity. United Way was early out in calling attention to the challenges of an ever-more precarious employment landscape and advocating for progressive policies to mitigate them. But it has been during the pandemic that the cost to individuals and our community has been made clear. Thanks to your support, we continue to work to tackle this issue by partnering with organized labour, funding fair work advocates, pushing for provincial paid emergency leave and supporting programs focusing on women in the GTA, including employment programs.


We agree with many community voices that there must be a better way when it comes to encampments. Encampments are not a solution to homelessness—they are a symptom of growing poverty, a direct outcome of the pandemic and the campers' related concerns of public health risks posed by congregate living environments such as within the shelter system. The solution to encampments is affordable and supportive housing. Our work as a funder and convener speaks to our focus on initiatives to end homelessness and meet urgent needs.


I joined other leaders at Shaping Sustainability in Ontario, a one-day virtual conference devoted to sustainability in all its forms. Along with fellow panellists from Youth Climate Lab, Indigenous Innovation Initiative at Grand Challenges Canada, Trust 15 and the Thunder Bay Public Library, I participated in a lively discussion about grassroots-led sustainability, including how social capital factors into the equation. You can watch the full conference online, with the Grassroots-led Sustainability panel beginning at 4:10.


Social capital refers to the strength of community social networks: whether residents have a sense of belonging, a belief that they can count on neighbours for help and a feeling of trust in other people and local institutions. It’s important at the best of times—and essential during a crisis. That’s why we just launched two reports measuring pre-pandemic social capital in Peel and York Region. The good news? It’s high across the regions. The bad, but not entirely unexpected, news? It's not equitably distributed. People with lower incomes, and less financial security, face greater barriers to accessing social capital. As we recover and rebuild from this pandemic, closing these gaps will be vital. This is the work of United Way and others, and thanks to supporters like you, we continue our efforts across the GTA building this critical connective tissue that makes communities more productive, healthier and safer for us all. Take a more in-depth look at what social capital is and why it matters.


Nearly 80 per cent of people in Toronto have received their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, and more than 62 per cent are double vaccinated. As health authorities consider strategies to bring the vaccination effort home, a new survey from Humber River Hospital and United Way-supported The Local provides insights on the reasons for continued delay, including hesitancy rooted in safety fears and concerns about taking time away from work to get the shot and recuperate. The United Way network was early out in supporting COVID-19 testing and vaccination through trusted community ambassadors, who provide information, address fears and help people book and get to their vaccine appointments. It’s all part of a successful strategy that has contributed to neighbourhoods, including Thorncliffe Park, now marking zero cases.


Emancipation Day is a day to reflect and educate ourselves about our shared history and to engage in the ongoing fight against anti-Black racism and discrimination. It’s also a day to celebrate the strength and perseverance of Black communities across Canada. Local organizations (including some friends of United Way!) are marking the day with special events. Here are a few you and your family can take part in:


For over a year now, United Way's network of local agencies has been playing a vital role in responding to the pandemic across Peel, Toronto and York Region. Thanks to supporters like you, our agencies have been on the ground, providing everything from food baskets to digital social, educational and mental health services. They’ve also been helping to curb the spread of COVID-19 in hot spot neighbourhoods through targeted strategies, including community ambassadors, local testing and vaccination support. And that work won’t stop anytime soon. Right now, United Way-supported WoodGreen Community Services is going door to door, helping people with mobility issues, including seniors, and those struggling to access clinics get their second dose. It’s just one example of how our agencies are collaborating with local partners to make sure no one gets left behind as our region begins to reopen.


The only lasting solution to homelessness is affordable housing and support. That was the focus of our COVID-19 Interim Shelter Recovery Strategy report, which, in addition to short-term actions for minimizing COVID-19 transmissions, recommended investing in more permanent solutions. In recent weeks, we've seen movement on that front with new affordable housing projects underway, including quick-build modular housing in Toronto's east and west end. And with the City of Toronto’s recent announcement that it will be transferring Toronto Community Housing Corporation's portfolio of single-family homes and small buildings to the non-profit housing sector. Moving management of affordable housing to non-profit providers is an emerging practice that we have supported through the Canadian Housing Policy Roundtable. It ensures that housing is kept affordable in perpetuity and is managed by local organizations with a strong understanding of neighbourhood needs. In this case, two United Way-supported organizations, the YWCA and Parkdale Activity Recreation Centre (PARC), will work together to bring properties in the west end to a state of good repair—a key part of maintaining affordable housing rental stock.


As we continue to have conversations about structural racism and colonialism at all levels of society, it’s important to recognize how each of us can effect change, including at our workplaces. We invite you to revisit this informative conversation between McCarthy Tétrault’s Chief Inclusion Officer, Nikki Gershbain, and United Way Greater Toronto’s Vice President of Community Opportunities & Mobilization, Nation Cheong, about how to build a more inclusive workplace. They provide practical strategies and helpful insights on how to stay accountable and push for real change—everything from hiring practices to shifting company culture.


In a recent article, United Way-supported The Local explores how individuals, cultural and faith groups, and local agencies are rallying together to help hard-hit communities in Peel Region. United Way's network has been at the centre of that effort: Punjabi Community Health Services has partnered with multilingual tutoring services providers, local taxi companies and financial aid service to support the community, and they are now creating a manual for future emergency response. Indus Community Services’ community health ambassadors are on the ground, educating residents about COVID-19 and helping people get connected to resources. And United Way has tapped grassroots organizations previously not part of our network like the Senior Tamils Society of Peel to ensure that federal funding reached hard-hit Peel communities. While the pandemic has been a trial by fire, people across our region—including supporters like you—are showing there is strength in unity.


This first phase of the Social Medicine Initiative (SMI), a partnership between the University Health Network, the City of Toronto and United Way Greater Toronto announced more than a year ago, is moving from concept to reality. By next spring a new affordable modular housing development is scheduled to welcome home 51 individuals exiting or at risk of homelessness, with a focus on seniors, women, Indigenous Peoples and racialized persons. Supportive housing like this aligns with recommendations from our Interim Shelter Report, a joint effort with the City of Toronto. We will continue to support the project by leading agency engagement. We’ll also offer our expertise to the SMI steering committee, helping to streamline clinical and social services for residents—from access to food and transportation, good jobs and social engagement to life skills and substance use services.

2020 IN FOCUS:

We are pleased to share our 2020-2021 Annual Report with you. It highlights the incredible work supporters like you made possible across our community during the past year—everything from addressing basic needs to tackling the systemic issues that hold too many in our community back. It also asks a vital question: How do we move past charity and toward social justice? And how do we get there together? We hope you’ll take the time to dig in and see what our collaboration has accomplished and what lies ahead for this region.


Photo of an Elections Canada Vote sign on a lawn in a suburban neighbourhood.

I know you care deeply about the issues affecting our community. It's why you read this newsletter—and why you continue to show your local love by supporting United Way. With the federal election just around the corner, we wanted to share some questions that will help you learn how candidates intend to address these local issues—and how they plan to support an equitable recovery. I hope you find them useful in any conversations you may be having.

1. COVID-19 exposed social and economic divisions in a way most people have never seen so clearly. An equitable recovery that ensures opportunity for everyone must be a top priority – what is your party’s plan to ensure no one gets left behind as we rebuild from the pandemic?

2. Finding affordable, quality housing is a big challenge for people in our communities. The pandemic exposed the severity of the affordable housing and homelessness crisis, and there is an even greater urgency for action. What is your plan to maintain and expand affordable housing options and deeply affordable housing options that are actually affordable for very low-income households?

3. Our community is devastated by the unmarked, mass graves of Indigenous children recently found at former residential schools. I believe the federal government should demonstrate clear leadership and respect in pursuing reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. What will your party do to address the social and economic inequities Indigenous communities face?

4. I volunteer and/or support non-profits and charities. I am also a donor. The sector is part of all of our lives and it is there for Canadians when we need it most. The sector’s work through the pandemic has clearly demonstrated its importance to Canada’s economy and social cohesion. What will your government do to support a strong federal partnership with the charitable and non-profit sector?

Screenshot showing 15 participants from the virtual netWORKS event

How's this for showing your local love? On August 18, United Way’s netWORKS program hosted a session with a group of mentors—a.k.a. Fashion Avengers—all from the creative, beauty, fashion and styling industries and successful young Black entrepreneurs. The goal? To provide more than 30 young people with advice on expanding their professional networks and connecting to meaningful employment in the field.

Photo of a woman showing an older South Asian man something on a tablet.

Experts from Punjabi Community Health Services (PCHS), a United Way-supported agency, have seen a dramatic increase in men calling their support line in the past year, with calls from or about men now accounting for 35 per cent of their caseload. The Globe and Mail spoke to several South Asian men in Brampton about how the pandemic has impacted their mental health and how they’re helping one another connect to support. The story is a reminder of the importance of community connection—and the need for more culturally sensitive mental health supports. Thanks to people like you, United Way has invested in a range of mental health and well-being initiatives during this crisis, including hotlines, remote counselling and programs that connect people to technology so they can safely participate in remote counselling.

Photo of two people assembling food boxes, one of whom holds a checklist.

Maybe you’ve heard the term “food desert,” but what about “food swamp”? According to Region of Peel experts, the term refers to communities where sources of less healthy food vastly outnumber sources containing healthier food—by a factor of at least five to one. Food swamps also underscore the idea that food insecurity can look different depending on where you live. In Peel, for example, there is plenty of food—but it can be expensive and often difficult to access for some community members who live on a low income and need a car to travel to a grocery store or food bank. It's one of the reasons United Way takes a hyper-local approach to solving community challenges, working with our agencies, partners and supporters on the ground to tackle unignorable issues, including poverty, food insecurity and homelessness. Learn more about an innovative approach to addressing local hunger in Peel Region.

Illustration of two multi-coloured hands clasped together.

On June 23, 51 graduates, including three United Way team members, emerged from the first cohort of the Leading Social Justice Fellowship, Class of 2021. A unique partnership between United Way Greater Toronto and the University of Toronto’s School of Cities, the fellowship is a bold leadership development initiative bringing together individuals from the public, private and community sectors who are committed to rebuilding an equitable and inclusive region. Seizing on the opportunity for transformational change in this moment, the fellowship aims to equip participants with the tools, reflective practices and cross-sectoral networks to drive that change in their organizations and communities. We look forward to seeing how they use their new skills to strengthen our community!

Photo of Bob and Francine Barrett with their two children.

We are thrilled to announce that the Barrett Family Foundation has made a transformative three-year gift to United Way, establishing the Barrett Building Opportunities Greater Toronto Fund. This $2.6-million investment will help United Way scale our support for organizations and programs serving Indigenous, Black, and other racialized populations impacted by poverty. The fund will enable United Way to offer support and flexible funding to organizations and programs both led by and serving these communities. It’s truly an investment in an equitable recovery for Peel, Toronto and York Region.


A woman sits with a young girl on her lap looking at a laptop with schoolwork in front of them.

As everyone gets into the swing of the new school year, maintaining vital programs for children and their families that provide structure and support is key—especially as we continue to see evidence of how this crisis has impacted young peoples’ mental health. As part of our recently announced COVID Relief Grants—made possible by committed supporters like you—we’ve invested in several initiatives focused on kids and families, including Bangladeshi-Canadian Community Services’ bi-weekly virtual mental health drop-ins and intergenerational engagement initiatives, back to school support from Caledon Community Services, food and mental health programing from Toronto’s Youth Rising Above, and Routes Connecting Communities’ arts-based mental health support program for racialized and newcomer youth.

Photo of a hand dangling a pair of housekeys in front of a bedroom.

If you know anything about affordable housing in the GTA, you know that we don't have enough of it. As a recent Toronto Star article makes clear, affordable housing stock fell behind in the 1990s, with new builds and upkeep of existing stock stalling. Access to affordable, comfortable housing is essential to building a community where everyone can thrive—which is why we are committed to advocating for better housing policies and funding agencies and initiatives that help people connect to housing and stay housed. We will continue to push for better policy and support our agencies working to tackle this issue on the ground, including through the development of quick-build modular housing and maintaining affordable rental stock.

Two community members in PPE stand in front of a poster advertising a COVID-19 testing clinic.

Several Toronto neighbourhoods hardest hit by this crisis remain the least vaccinated, with some hovering around 50 per cent vaccinated versus the city average of 70 per cent—and digital access for bookings or time off work continue to be cited as barriers. In response, the city is using neighbourhood-level data to pinpoint locations for pop-up clinics, launching neighbourhood canvassing in multiple languages and continuing its VaxTO campaign to call thousands of residents. Early on, when place-based data first confirmed the neighbourhoods hardest hit by COVID-19, United Way worked with Rexdale Community Health Centre and other community partners like Health Commons Solutions Lab to pilot an innovative approach to reach residents, first for screening and then for vaccination. Investing in outreach through community ambassadors, local testing and wraparound supports—many of the same features mentioned above—the model was ultimately adopted by the province for rollout of the vaccine in hot spots. In the neighbourhoods of Black Creek and Humber Summit, this kind of community partnership helped vaccinate more than 100,000 people locally.

Photo of Laura Hammond and her children getting ready to go to beekeeping training.

Our own research has exposed that across our region, middle income neighbourhoods are disappearing, more neighbourhoods are low-income, and high-income neighbourhoods are getting richer. That’s why United Way is working on innovative initiatives like Inclusive Local Economic Opportunity (ILEO). Thanks to supporters like you, we’re exploring how development and local economies can be more inclusive. And we’re starting in Scarborough’s Greater Golden Mile, a neighbourhood on the cusp of change and brimming with local talent. Together with residents, and corporate, community, and public partners, ILEO is challenging the systems of development to see how we can maintain affordability and invite residents to benefit from growth. Ionview community developer Laura Hammond digs into how a project like ILEO can support affordable home ownership, building community wealth.

Photo of two young people in masks working on a whiteboard.

There have already been more than 154 shootings in Toronto this year, including the recent shooting at a child’s birthday party in Etobicoke. There is no excuse for this type of reckless violence that endangers innocent families and children. We know that rising poverty and unequal access to opportunities are too often at the root of, or a contributing factor to, youth violence. We also know that addressing these issues requires sustained investments and community collaboration. And that's why United Way has been engaged in this issue for well over a decade. Here’s how we’re working with community to drive long-term solutions that get at those root causes:

  • We support local agencies that are deeply connected to the issues and people they serve. In Toronto that includes respected organizations like Albion Neighbourhood Services, Delta Family Resource Centre, Braeburn Neighbourhood Place, CEE Centre For Young Black Professionals, Success Beyond Limits, Black Youth Student Success Initiative and Youth LEAPS.
  • We fund programming that creates options and opportunities for youth—safe spaces, school completion, leadership skills, mentoring and training.
  • We work collaboratively with agencies and local government at community coordination tables to address issues exacerbated by the pandemic—and youth issues are a particular focus.
  • We invest in initiatives like FOCUS, a partnership with Toronto Police Service, the City of Toronto and local agencies that uses neighbourhood situation tables to manage complex cases before they become crises.
  • And we work closely with the Region of Peel on the Peel Community Safety and Well-being Plan, which launched in October 2020 with youth at its centre.