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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 2019 there were almost 1 million visits to food banks in Toronto. That number is expected to reach 1.4 million by the end of this year, breaking the city's record. At United Way we’re focused on addressing this unignorable issue by meeting immediate needs and improving food systems. We fund sector leaders FoodShare, York Region Food Network, Eden Food for Change and many others that champion food justice across Peel, Toronto and York Region. When need spiked during the pandemic, almost 60 per cent of programs that received emergency dollars from or through United Way addressed food access. And our community coordination efforts, including the Emergency Food Access Table in York Region, have streamlined the process for getting food to people experiencing food insecurity. We’ve also partnered with General Mills to support crisis response and continue to focus on innovation and seeding new systems-level approaches beyond traditional food distribution. As our community recovers, we will continue—with the support of people like you—to ensure people across out region have access to good food, close to home.


We recently published our Reconciliation and Equity Action Plan. It names three of our broadest goals that we are committed to achieving by 2024: be an equitable organization, be an equitable fundraiser and funder, and support equitable outcomes in community. We recognize that improving the lives of everyone in the communities we serve means we must explicitly focus on removing barriers for those most harmed by them. This includes addressing the belief systems and attitudes, systems, policies and practices that privilege some and disenfranchise others. We are working to remove these barriers from our organization and across the broader community. This means changing our own policies, processes and practices that systemically exclude or disadvantage these groups. And it means working in closer partnership with the people and communities that our work is intended to benefit. We will use the principles of reconciliation and equity to eliminate systemic racism and discrimination from our work. Only by doing this can we continue to fight poverty in all its forms.


On September 19, we said goodbye to an extraordinary philanthropist and friend of United Way—Allan Slaight. Over decades, Allan Slaight was steadfast in his role as a volunteer and as an agent of change. He served as a Trustee of United Way Greater Toronto from 1979-1987. As 1985 Campaign Chair, he broke fundraising records for United Way’s community impact investments. While we mourn his loss, his spirit will live on—through the Allan Slaight Seniors Fund, his support for cornerstone organizations in the charitable sector and with the many people he inspired through his volunteer leadership. He left this place we love a whole lot better.


We’re pleased to announce that we are expanding our community collaboration work in York Region through the development of four new community action tables (CATs). These tables will bring residents, local agencies and local government together to address community-identified issues in Georgina, south Markham, central Newmarket and south-central Richmond Hill. The tables will focus on engaging residents, developing community leadership opportunities and establishing a hyper-local funding process to pilot community-led strategies and projects. This evolution in United Way’s place-based approach and partnerships in York Region comes at a crucial time, when people across our community are committed to addressing long-standing and emerging issues so that we can build a more inclusive and equitable community in the wake of COVID-19.


The Latin American COVID Task Force, a collective of volunteers committed to addressing the higher rates of infection, hospitalization and death within their community, has been hard at work in COVID-19 hot spots, getting accurate information out and enabling access to vaccines. Over the course of the pandemic, United Way has funded similar community-based strategies that combine community outreach by trusted community ambassadors and local, accessible testing and on-site vaccination to get the word out, overcome vaccine hesitancy and streamline shots. And now through a brand-new grant, we will be supporting the Latin American COVID Task Force in the next stage of their vital work, funding the Latin American Open Data Portal, an open-access online platform that has the goal of gathering, systematizing and centralizing data from official sources for this community.


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.


Red graphic with the copy: 407 ETR Gift Match

There’s never been a better time to make your generosity go twice as far! To mark the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty tomorrow, the 407 ETR Gift Match will double all new gifts of $1,200+ (and increases on existing gifts of $1,200+) up to a maximum of $1.407 million between October 17 and December 19, 2021. This is your chance to show your local love for community and to help the GTA recover and rebuild. Donate now.

Photo of a group of people sitting around a picnic table in a park

ICYMI: We recently released two reports on social capital in Peel and York regions. What is social capital exactly? It’s 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. Our reports revealed that while social capital in the regions is high, it’s inequitably distributed. United Way is working to build social capital across communities, and we spoke to one Peel resident about why this is such an important part of our work—especially during crises like the pandemic.

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 a cars in a parking lot in front of two high-rise residential buildings.

As always, United Way stands ready to work with all partners, of all political stripes. And we welcome strong leadership at the federal level on a host of issues critical to the well-being of residents and the future of our region. We’re looking forward to working with the government on some key priorities, including increasing affordable housing, strengthening neighbourhoods and bolstering income support.

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.