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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.  



In the lead up to the provincial budget, Ontario for All, a consortium of social services sector leaders, including United Way, has re-convened to put building back better on the budget agenda. It’s a coalition of almost 100 organizations that joined forces on a regional campaign to put poverty and growing inequities on the agenda for the 2018 provincial election—and they’re back at it again. In advance of the 2021 provincial budget cycle, the group is looking to focus the government's attention on the perennial issues faced by communities across our region, now made so much worse by the pandemic: decent work and the need for paid emergency leave; affordable housing and protection from eviction; income security in uncertain times; childcare, mental health support and other critical services. Ontario for All and United Way are issuing a new call to action—to build an Ontario budget for the people. And laying the groundwork by mapping out the policy priorities that can translate the promising words “build back better” into meaningful deeds and lasting change.


The most recent data from United Way-supported helpline 211 indicates that mental health continues to be one of the top five needs expressed by callers. In fact, since the outset of the pandemic, mental health has emerged as an urgent, and ongoing, need across the GTA. Prior to the pandemic, United Way supported about 80 programs focused on mental health and wellness each year. During this crisis, we’ve scaled up our investments in this area, which means mental health and wellness programming accounts for more than a third of our emergency investments. One example? With ongoing flexible funding made possible by supporters like you, United Way-supported Punjabi Community Health Services has continued to provide many of its key health and wellness programs, including virtual counselling and engaging with youth directly via WhatsApp and other chat programs to provide more privacy while families are in isolation at home.

211 DAY:

February 11 is 211 Day and we’re celebrating the nationwide expansion of this community-based health, social and government services helpline supported by local United Ways across the country. This 24/7, free and confidential service is available in most of Canada thanks to a partnership between United Way Centraide Canada and the Government of Canada. As Canadians grapple with the impacts of a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, 211 has never been more relevant, or necessary. It continues to respond to a surge in demand for support ranging from mental health counselling to housing and financial assistance services. To learn more about this vital United Way-supported community resource, made possible by donors like you, follow us on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn and check back on February 11 to see how your support is making a difference.


Collaboration is in our DNA and a united approach has never been more important. One example? The work United Way-supported CEE Centre For Young Black Professionals is doing as part of the Network for the Advancement of Black Communities (NABC) to coordinate and support six grassroots organizations serving the African diaspora. This local initiative includes:

  • Positive Change Toronto Initiative
  • Ethio-Canadian Seniors Club
  • Markham African Caribbean Canadian Association
  • Parents of Black Children
  • Black Foundation of Community Networks
  • Black E.S.T.E.E.M.

Thanks to funding from the Government of Canada’s Emergency Community Support Fund, these organizations will provide food access, mental health counselling and support for isolated members of Black communities, in particular seniors, children and youth. United Way has been a longtime partner of CEE—in fact, our ongoing collaboration was celebrated in a recent message from its co-founders. We couldn’t be prouder to stand with them and will continue working together with the Black communities of this region to overcome systemic barriers and make long-overdue change.


Employment for 28 women. More than 3,000 reusable masks donated to a local hospital and community. Language and skills training for newcomers. These are just some of the impressive outcomes of Sew TO, a sewing collective launched by United Way-supported TNO - The Neighbourhood Organization. This inspiring initiative is connecting local women from Thorncliffe and Flemingdon Park to stable, fairly paid and meaningful work. It's a virtuous cycle of good kickstarted by the pandemic and continuing to pay community dividends well into the future.


We have always ensured your support goes to where it is needed most—low-income neighbourhoods and people and families experiencing poverty. As the pandemic progressed, it became clear that COVID-19 was taking a heavier toll on racialized people in priority neighbourhoods. Leveraging our long history of building cooperative partnerships, we coordinated a community response to address this disproportionate impact. Following the success of our approach—and inspired by the place-based impact we were having—the Ontario government is making a sizeable investment to support the neighbourhoods most impacted by COVID-19. As part of the High Priority Communities Strategy, $12.5 million in crucial funding is on its way to the hardest hit communities, expanding resources in 15 neighbourhoods including parts of Brampton, Mississauga, Scarborough and Toronto.


We’re joining with others from across the community services sector to advocate for paid sick and emergency leave for frontline workers so that they can stay home to care for themselves or sick family members during the pandemic. Read our letters of support to the Toronto Board of Health and the City of Brampton and the City of Mississauga resolution that we're supporting. While we may not be there yet on an issue we named nearly a decade ago and have been steadily advocating for since, it has moved to centre stage, capturing a critical mass of public support. Stay tuned.


My friend and colleague Dan Clement, President & CEO of United Way Centraide Canada, along with others in the non-profit sector, penned this Globe and Mail op-ed calling on the federal government to step in and create a Community Services COVID-19 Relief Fund. The fund would help charities experiencing financial challenges continue to serve community during these difficult times, encourage giving and support recovery efforts.


On Giving Tuesday (December 1), I was joined by West Neighbourhood House’s Executive Director Maureen Fair on CBC Toronto’s nightly newscast. We shared how United Way programs and agencies are making such an incredible difference in community right now. I also got the message out on CHUM, Virgin Radio, CP24 and 680 NEWS, and I’d like to extend my heartfelt thanks to all of you who made a gift.


More than $5.2 million in federal funding is now on its way to 150+ local agencies so they can provide vital supports to our community—everything from food and counselling to shelter and online programming. This is the second round of Emergency Community Support Fund (ECSF) allocations to United Way Greater Toronto and reinforces our deep knowledge of local issues, strong roots in community and commitment to equity. Combined with the first round of ECSF funding allocated this past summer, a total of $20.8 million has been directed to more than 425 community service agencies in Peel, Toronto and York Region. These funds will serve many populations impacted by COVID-19, with 85 per cent of projects identifying as reaching low-income individuals and those who are racialized.


Indigenous-led crisis response teams will replace police officers on mental health calls and wellness checks as part of a new pilot project in the works in Scarborough. Native Child and Family Services of Toronto, a United Way-supported agency, will design and run the pilot in the Kingston and Galloway roads area with the support of Toronto Police and community-based health groups.


Did you miss our special section in the Toronto Star on November 21? Covering everything from how we’re supporting women experiencing violence, to the innovative new ways we’re getting culturally appropriate food to people experiencing food insecurity, this series of articles is a powerful demonstration of what supporters like you make possible in community. Read all about it.


The Toronto Foundation released its annual Vital Signs report—a curation of the trends and issues impacting quality of life in the GTA—on November 13. The report looks at the last seven months through an equity lens, twinning the pandemic and a historic reckoning with structural racism. It leaves no question that the greatest challenge is not “building back” or “building better” but working towards something we have yet to achieve: a just and inclusive community.


I joined proud United Way supporter IBM, and a panel of other experts, on October 17 for a conversation on how to get Canadians back to work in a post-pandemic future. Watch a recording of this engaging conversation.


The federal government announced on October 27 that they are investing $1 billion in a new Rapid Housing Initiative to create up to 3,000 new permanent affordable housing units across the country—including $500 million for municipalities to purchase properties to help find housing for people experiencing homelessness in time for winter. Amidst this announcement we’re continuing our work with local municipalities, including work alongside the City of Toronto on the Housing and Homelessness Recovery Response Plan, informed in part by the Interim Shelter Recovery Strategy that we partnered with the city to develop, and the Peel Alliance to End Homelessness, which has advocated for more permanent affordable housing in the region.


I sat down recently with BMO Financial Group CEO Darryl White as part of the International Economic Forum of the Americas (Toronto Global Forum) to talk about how resilient economies are inclusive economies. We’re grateful for BMO’s leadership in helping us drive cross-sectoral solutions at a local level, including a pilot project in Greater Toronto’s Golden Mile that is helping create inclusive local economic opportunity for residents.


Addressing anti-Black racism in our schools, workplaces and neighbourhoods is up to all of us. Join us for a virtual discussion featuring a panel of corporate and community leaders from the GTA’s Black community as they share important work underway on our path towards ending systemic racism. From creating career pathways for Black employees to ensuring schools are removing barriers, and creating opportunities for BIPOC students, our panelists will share what’s working on our journey towards a more inclusive future. Register today.


Photo of a group of people preparing food for delivery.

Collaboration is the name of the game. And throughout the pandemic, this kind of united approach has become even more important as we partner with local government and community agencies at virtual neighbourhood and regional tables to elevate issues and kick our real-time, coordinated response into high gear. Our collective efforts have led to innovative solutions like TNO - The Neighbourhood Organization's food collaborative, operating in Flemingdon Park, Thorncliffe Park and St. James Town. This initiative, supported by United Way's flexible funding and grant expertise via the Government of Canada’s Emergency Community Support Fund, has brought community groups and residents together to provide monthly food hampers to those most impacted by this crisis—currently 600 families and 200 seniors.

Photo of a woman with headphones on singing alone.

A Toronto choir spent nearly 100 hours singing the praises of our city’s foodbanks and shelters during the pandemic in this touching tribute. Bernard Betel Centre and Feed the Frontlines TO, two organizations supported by United Way and the Government of Canada’s Emergency Community Support Fund, also made surprise guest appearances.

Photos of eight frontline workers from United Way agencies.

Community workers at United Way agencies across the GTA continue to step up to support those in our community who need our help the most: working tirelessly to deliver food hampers to families, finding shelter for those who need it, connecting isolated seniors with a friendly voice and much more. They’re keeping vital programs going, from youth outreach to shelter services to newcomer and family support and beyond. Meet some of these “invisible heroes” in Peel and York and Toronto.

Collage of photos of different people who are giving back during the pandemic.

These are incredibly challenging times. But if COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s that there is remarkable power and impact in coming together as a community to support each other as we navigate our way through this crisis. Meet four GTA residents who are showing their local love (from a social distance) by finding creative and safe ways to be of service to each other.

Three red dots with white copy reading: $2.1 million invested, 199 projects, 166K+ people helped.

We launched the Local Love Fund in March 2020 in response to a dramatic surge in urgent, and ongoing, human needs caused by the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. This one-time fund, which supported more than 160,000 people, provided new funding for nearly 200 projects delivered by our GTA-wide network of agencies as well as several new, grassroots organizations. Help for isolated seniors. Mental health supports. Food hampers. Just a few of the ways our donors, including people like you, showed their local love for community during the first wave of the pandemic. Thank you!

Screenshot of Paul Taylor speaking during the panel.

No sector has been spared by the impact of COVID-19, but charities and non-profits (a sector that employs 10 per cent of the full-time workforce in Canada and accounts for 8.5 per cent of Canada’s GDP) have been hit hard by the pandemic—even as demand for the services they provide is at an all-time high. In early November, TVO's The Agenda brought together a panel of sector leaders, including Paul Taylor, Executive Director of FoodShare Toronto, a United Way-funded agency, to discuss the challenges facing charities both now and as they look to the future.



Photo of the building that will house the new affordable housing project.

The City of Toronto and YWCA Toronto recently announced the opening of a new affordable housing project—120 units that offer not just a place to call home but a wide range of supports to help keep new residents housed. The upgraded TCHC building, serving Indigenous and non-Indigenous women, gender diverse people, youth and seniors experiencing or at risk of experiencing homelessness, will be managed by the YWCA. Working with community agencies including United Way-supported Elizabeth Fry, the YWCA will offer housing stabilization, harm reduction, health promotion and increased access to primary health care and acute mental health services. Those wrap-around services are key to creating "supportive housing," identified as essential to addressing homelessness in our report, COVID-19 Interim Shelter Recovery Strategy: Advice from the Homelessness Service System, and endorsed by our President & CEO Daniele Zanotti in his joint op-ed with Elizabeth McIsaac, President of Maytree, when the city unveiled their COVID-19 Housing and Homelessness Recovery Response Plan in September.

Screenshots featuring six people from United Way’s 2021 Black Leadership and Recognition Event

We kicked off Black History Month earlier this week with our 2021 Black Leadership and Recognition Event hosted by Linden King, Chair of United Way’s Black Community Advisory Council (BCAC). Jamaal Magloire, former NBA player and current Toronto Raptors assistant coach, joined us to talk about youth success, empowerment and resiliency, including strategies being used to support the Black community as we recover from COVID-19.


Photo the 'Housing a Generation of Essential Workers 2' report on a tablet.

COVID-19 has accelerated the affordable housing crisis in Toronto. In 2018, home prices went up four times faster than income and rent increased two times as much as wages. One in five Toronto renters live in overcrowded units. The Toronto Region Board of Trade and United Way-supported WoodGreen Community Services released a recent report that looks at how we house the next generation of essential workers.


Photo of a plate full of breakfast foods.

A recent report from the Daily Bread Food Bank says it expects this year will see the highest number of food bank visits ever recorded in Toronto. This follows on a concerning increase that started last spring. Food bank visits grew by 22 per cent in June compared to the same period the year before and then by 51 per cent in August compared to 2019. Eighty-five per cent of food bank recipients also said they did not always have enough food to eat even after accessing food banks.

United Way has always worked in food security, and we’ve ramped up those efforts since last March by ensuring flexibility in funding so that many of our agencies could pivot to meet urgent needs. We also continue to work with government and community agencies at local coordination tables to coordinate food prep and distribution, including the Prepared Meals Initiative partnership with MLSE, Second Harvest and the City of Toronto.


Photo of someone on a laptop watching the neighbourhood tour.

Did you know we’re offering virtual tours of select neighbourhoods across the GTA? Get to know Regent Park and Moss Park in this self-guided, up-close-and-personal look at the vibrant community of Toronto’s Downtown East, including the people and families who live there, and some of the challenges these communities are facing in the wake of the pandemic.

Watch Close to Home: Exploring Regent Park and Moss Park.