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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.  



When it comes to bringing housing solutions to York Region, our community coordination table has been vital in identifying needs and investment priorities. As one of more than 20 local tables led by United Way, government and agency partners, the collaboration has been a lifeline during the pandemic and a foundation for progress. Recently, the province announced 24 new transitional housing units are coming to East Gwillimbury and Georgina. Set to break ground this spring, the project will help United Way agency, Blue Door, provide housing stability for marginalized people while ensuring access to crucial wraparound supports like counselling.


Technology has kept us connected during the pandemic. But for many local seniors, a lack of access to a device or WiFi has threatened to leave them isolated. Our own Ruth Crammond, Vice President, Community Investment & Development, lent her voice to this Toronto Star article that explores how United Way’s Allan Slaight Seniors Fund is helping local agencies and seniors bridge the digital divide. The transformational multi-year gift has helped organizations like Human Endeavour distribute 400 “senior-friendly” tablets throughout the pandemic—helping participants connect to their community by socializing, accessing services and attending virtual exercise classes.


There has been a surge of Anti-East Asian racism across our country and communities since the start of the pandemic. In response, United Way is proud to partner with the Chinese Cultural Centre of Greater Toronto as they embark on a new program, Stronger Together. Supported by the province’s Safer and Vital Communities Grant, the coalition will take a community-based approach to identify and prevent hate crimes and mitigate their impacts. The coalition’s approach is similar to how we work with members of our own Chinese Advisory Council—bringing together community partners like social service agencies, community institutions and residents to design and deliver programming through education, workshops and seminars.


We’re putting your support to work to help people get vaccinated in some of the neighbourhoods hardest hit by this pandemic. One example of this work in action right now is the resident ambassador program we piloted in partnership with Rexdale Community Health Centre and Black Creek Community Health Centre. This pilot combines trusted community ambassadors with local, accessible testing and on-site vaccination to get the word out, improve vaccine confidence and get people vaccinated. In fact, the City of Toronto’s newly announced COVID-19 Vaccine Engagement Teams Grants will build on this model. They will also be coordinating the vaccination efforts by leveraging the strength of our co-led community coordination tables that convene regional and municipal partners, and local community agencies, to understand needs on the ground and deliver a coordinated response.


In a recent op-ed for YorkRegion.com, I reflected on this unprecedented year, what it has meant for our community and what it will mean as we work towards a more inclusive recovery. Though it may feel like our shared burdens and fears have brought us closer together, the inequities that divided our community long before COVID-19 dominated our lives are deepening. In a post-pandemic world, work will continue to be precarious, and people will continue to struggle with homelessness. But this reality doesn’t deter us—it fuels our fight. We know that with supporters like you by our side, we can help our community emerge from this crisis more resilient than before.


We believe in the power of momentum—that one good idea can lead to big impact. That ripple effect is being felt in Scarborough’s Golden Mile, where a new development is sparking neighbourhood revitalization by incorporating affordable housing and a "communiversity" into plans. Sound familiar? If so, you’ve probably heard of our Inclusive Local Economic Opportunity (ILEO) initiative that brings together the private, public and community sectors to find innovative ways to reduce gaps in economic prosperity at the neighbourhood level. ILEO is convened by United Way Greater Toronto and BMO and leverages revitalization efforts, like the Eglinton Crosstown, to enhance social infrastructure, skills training and job opportunities for residents. It’s all about ensuring growth directly benefits the community, while building a blueprint for a more inclusive and replicable model. Most recently, efforts have even spurred the creation of a unique construction company that will hire, build and share profits locally.


Anti-Asian racism has been growing across Canada, with a new report, released a week after the shootings in Atlanta, tallying more than 1,000 incidents of anti-Asian racism since the beginning of the pandemic. The authors have called on all levels of government to act, including by providing resources for anti-racism education and training, social support for victims, policies to prevent the spread of misinformation, protection for those most vulnerable to attack, and support for small businesses impacted by anti-Asian racism. Here at United Way, we know that structural racism, rooted in our shared history, remains deeply destructive, impacting the progress and potential of individuals, communities—all of us. United Way has always stood in solidarity and worked hand in hand with Asian Canadian communities. The Chinese Advisory Council (CAC), one of United Way's three community advisory councils, continues to inform and strengthen our work in a multitude of ways—and the CAC has worked in tandem with community leaders on initiatives directed at supporting the community and addressing racism. Our network of agencies also includes dynamic organizations that predominantly serve Asian Canadian communities, including Hong Fook Mental Health Association and the Centre for Immigrant and Community Services.


We’re thrilled to be partnering with Zurich Canada and CEE Centre for Young Black Professionals on the Insurance Pathway Community Program, a new community employment program that will provide access to interconnected education, training, job placement, soft skills and wrap-around support services for talented youth facing multiple barriers to employment. Part of United Way’s Career Navigator initiative, the program will kick off this spring with Zurich and CEE partnering on a unique pilot program. Five individuals will be trained on various job skills during a 12-week virtual in-class setting, followed by a 12-week internship with Zurich Canada. Participants will be set up for success through resume building, up-skilling and hands-on experience to help launch their insurance careers and increase their opportunities to secure a fulfilling and sustainable job.


Social distancing and isolation—best practices for stopping the spread of COVID-19—have increased the likelihood and severity of mental health issues for many. A new poll from CMHA Ontario indicates that the second wave of the pandemic has left more people struggling, with nearly 80 per cent of respondents believing there will be a "serious mental health crisis" post-pandemic. At United Way, mental health services have always been one of our important investments. And, thanks to supporters like you, many of our emergency investments during the pandemic have been in mental health and wellness programs, including Agincourt Community Services Association's mental health therapy for newcomer families and people experiencing poverty, Punjabi Community Health Services' virtual counselling, and Reena's supply of iPads to seniors with mental health challenges.


The disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on low-income and racialized communities has underscored the necessity to go beyond blanket solutions. In the fall, United Way called for targeted strategies to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in hard-hit communities. We also put your support into action by funding community-based pilots through Rexdale Community Health Centre and Black Creek Community Health Centre. Similarly, an overall campaign targeting the South Asian community in Peel grew out of concerns first voiced by United Way-funded agencies—Indus Community Services, Punjabi Community Health Services, the Council of Agencies Serving South Asians (CASSA) and more—at the local coordination tables we co-lead. Together, these deeply local organizations developed a website and events to reach the disproportionately impacted community, providing accurate information and resources in a culturally responsive way.


United Way has pushed for portable housing benefits at both the provincial and federal level, working with partners at the National Housing Collaborative and Peel Alliance to End Homelessness, among others, to advocate for what is widely considered the quickest way to translate housing dollars into homes for the low-income families who need them. Now, The Financial Accountability Office of Ontario projects that the number of households in high housing need will fall by almost 20,000 households by 2025 due to the Canada-Ontario Housing Benefit. That means positive change for a lot of people—and we’re proud that our efforts have played a part in getting us here.


Research has always been vital to United Way’s work in the community. Combined with informed philanthropy and policy, it can create profound and positive change for people, neighbourhoods and regions. Our own Stephanie Procyk, Senior Manager of Research, Public Affairs, Public Policy & Evaluation, and Ruth Crammond, Vice President of Community Investment & Development, sat down with PhiLab to discuss the important role United Way’s research has played in our community response to the pandemic. They shared how our earlier reports revealed inequities that have only become exacerbated by COVID-19 and how promising policy practices that we've advocated for in the past could play a pivotal role in a more inclusive recovery. Thanks to ongoing support from donors like you, we can continue to invest in research that informs and inspires progressive policy and sound community investment.


A woman wearing a headset answers a call while she looks at her laptop

This past week was the 70th anniversary of CMHA Mental Health Week—an important time to focus on our own well-being, and the well-being of our friends and neighbours. Statistics tell us that one in five Canadians experience mental illness or a mental health issue in any given year, and we know that last year was unlike any other. Social distancing and isolation—best practices for stopping the spread of COVID-19—have increased the likelihood and severity of mental health issues for many. That’s why we moved quickly at the beginning of this pandemic to invest emergency funding in programs that would support people through this extraordinary time—everything from mental health hotlines to wraparound supports. None of this would be possible without supporters like you. Thank you for partnering with us to ensure people across our community can access mental health programming during this crisis.

Photo of United Way President & CEO Daniele Zanotti with the quote: Thank you for being a part of our family of volunteers, over 20,000 strong. Thank you for making a tremendous difference at a time when community, connection and care has never mattered more.

In times like these, community—and caring—has never mattered more. Which is why I’d like to say thank you to the tens of thousands of volunteers who gave their time to United Way in 2020—a year like no other. When we couldn’t gather in person, our volunteers stepped up, clicked on, Zoomed in or called up to get support to those who needed it most. Our network of agencies has been even stronger, and more resilient, during this crisis because of this outpouring of local love. As we wrap up National Volunteer Week, I send my heartfelt thanks to each of you.

A frontline worker wearing PPE sits with a senior on a couch.

The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the social isolation felt by seniors living in Peel, Toronto and York Region, which is why we’re launching nine innovative new projects to tackle this pressing local issue. Funded by our Allan Slaight Seniors Fund, the projects will engage vulnerable seniors in creative ways that reduce their social isolation. These initiatives recognize that many elderly individuals are eager to develop new skills, share knowledge and connect with others. The programs will go beyond traditional formats to reach those who have historically faced barriers to support, including Black, Indigenous and LGBTQ2S communities. This funding is part of a $15-million gift—the largest individual gift in United Way Greater Toronto’s history—from the Slaight Family Foundation that is helping vulnerable seniors connect to community support.

Screenshot from The Future is Female event featuring the panellists and host

We recently sat down with a group of leading female influencers and philanthropists to talk about the power we all have to help our communities build back better. You can watch a recording of the engaging conversation featuring Yvonne Chan, VP & Director, RBC Wealth Management, Michelle Dagnino, Executive Director of Jane-Finch Community Centre, Sofia Harquail, CPIR, Vice President, IR and Corporate Development, Aston Bay Holdings, and Brigitte Truong, multimedia host, producer and United Way Global Ambassador. They shared strategies for mobilizing friends and colleagues to create change, supporting peers who want to get involved, and building strong neighbourhoods.



An Indus Community Services Community Ambassador stands in a grocery store where she is doing community outreach

It’s clear that more must be done to support Peel Region during this crisis. Brampton, which is home to many essential workers who don’t have paid sick leave, has been particularly hard hit by this pandemic—and the third wave is only exacerbating the situation. Crowded fulfillment centres and warehouses together with other variables—a young working population not prioritized for vaccinations, large multi-generational households and a digital divide—are producing positivity rates as high as 25 per cent. But community agencies like United Way-supported Indus Community Services are on the ground, providing help right now. Health ambassadors are canvassing door to door to offer support. Telephone helplines and online platforms like Apna Health are offering vaccination navigation. Wrap-around services are made available to international students, frontline workers and others grappling with COVID-19. And leaders like Indus' Gurpreet Malhotra are calling for race-based data, more vaccines and paid sick leave. Much of this work has been informed by the pilot we ran with Rexdale Community Health Centre and Black Creek Community Health Centre in Toronto’s northwest and the ongoing work of our co-led community coordination tables. More evidence of the incredible importance of collaborating and learning from each other as we continue to battle this crisis.

Photo of a support worker posing in front of the outreach van.

This past year has amplified longstanding challenges for women in the GTA, especially those who face systemic inequities, racism and discrimination. As calls continue to mount for a “she-covery”, United Way emergency funding put the wheels in motion for a multi-agency van outreach program led by Elizabeth Fry Toronto. The mobile peer-led support network has covered a lot of ground—boosting capacity to connect local women facing barriers like homelessness, social isolation and mental health issues to the culturally specific support they need. This is just one example of how your support is helping women across Peel, Toronto and York Region during the pandemic.

Exterior photo of the offices of TNO – The Neighbourhood Organization.

On March 24, the City of Toronto launched a mass immunization clinic at the Thorncliffe Park Community Hub, a multi-use community space run by TNO – The Neighbourhood Organization, a United Way-supported agency, Flemingdon Health Centre and Michael Garron Hospital. The clinic differs from others because it uses the “sit and stay” model, which takes into consideration the mobility limits of many older community members, and opens at 8 a.m., since many seniors are early risers. This unique vaccine rollout in a COVID-19 hot spot was conceived of and advocated for by United Way and agencies at local coordination tables. It’s just one example of how we and our agencies are still on the frontlines, ensuring people in the communities hardest hit by this pandemic continue to get the support they need, thanks to donors like you.

A senior woman wearing headphone and happily listening to something.

Trusting that our network of agencies knows how best to support communities has been an integral part of our response to this crisis. Thanks to generous supporters like you, we’ve been able to provide ongoing flexible funding to our network so our agencies can pivot and adapt. This hyper-local approach has led to initiatives like the Seniors Centre Without Walls program at North York Seniors Centre (NYSC).

Recognizing that not everyone has access to technology or is comfortable online, NYSC has taken a more old-fashioned approach to keeping the seniors they serve connected. Thanks to support from the Local Love Fund, they now offer daily 45-minute telephone activities, such as storytelling, trivia, court case discussions and biographies, where seniors stuck at home can chat with peers. It’s just one example of how our agencies are meeting people where they are during this crisis.