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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.  



The leadership of United Way agencies has been pivotal in the GTA’s vaccine rollout. Agencies like The Neighbourhood Organization (TNO) have helped administer thousands of doses at a pop-up clinic at Toronto City Hall. And over in downtown Toronto’s Chinatown, participants at a Scadding Court Community Centre clinic were entertained by lion dancers as the waited patiently to get their jab. Although vaccinations are steadily climbing, efforts are still well underway in some of our hardest hit communities. We know that building trust with residents is only possible when we work with community. Thanks to provincial funding, many of our agencies have hired community ambassadors with strong neighbourhood connections to conduct vaccine outreach in priority neighbourhoods. This people-first approach is a natural fit for our agency network that’s there for residents where and when they need it most—from scheduling appointment transportation to providing information and referrals for wraparound supports.


The Bridletowne Neighbourhood Centre is on its way, and in the words of our President and CEO, Daniele Zanotti, it's a testament to community, connection and collaboration. This recently announced, $67-million project at Warden and Finch in the Steeles L'Amoreaux neighbourhood—long considered an underserved community—will hold a unique blend of services, including a YMCA fitness centre and pool, Scarborough Health Network's dialysis program, Hong Fook Mental Health Association, Agincourt Community Services Association and other United Way-supported agencies. United Way is committing $3 million in capital funding for community space for those agencies so that they can host programming, in particular for local seniors and youth, and to complement the health care services at the nearby hospital.


The University of Toronto and United Way agencies have teamed up to offer free mental health support. The Talk It Out clinic—in partnership with Black Creek Community Health Centre, Jane/Finch Community and Family Centre, PARC, TAIBU Community Health Centre and Unison Health and Community Services—connects local people who have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 to telemental health services. Demand for care has skyrocketed since the start of the pandemic, putting many marginalized people on long waitlists. School closures and a lack of access to activities have also taken a toll on the mental health of kids and youth. In a recent Children's Hospital Foundations report, 70 per cent of kids between six and 18 said the pandemic has harmed their mental health. The Talk it Out clinic is among the first of its kind to utilize U of T students to deliver virtual counselling under the supervision of faculty. Thanks to United Way’s network of community partners, the collaborative model also ensures participants have access to wraparound services post-counselling, including employment and housing supports.


Data guides much of what we do to address poverty and inequity—from developing strategies to deciding where best to direct community investments. The census is a valuable source of population data, but the result is only as good as what goes into it. Historically, the voices of low-income, Indigenous and racialized Canadians have not been represented. And that’s why government—and all of us—must actively participate to build a more complete picture. The federal government recently announced it’s investing $172 million over five years to improve how it collects data on race, gender and sexual orientation. It’s a step towards better informed policy and aligns with United Way’s own calls for disaggregated data. Currently, we’re working with municipal government, local community agencies and other partners on the Social Identity Data Collection project to increase and streamline equity data collection and reporting.


Punjabi Community Health Services, a United Way agency, is making headlines for their people-first approach to vaccinating Peel residents. When the agency hosted a mobile clinic earlier this month with the Region of Peel and fellow United Way agency, Indus Community Services, they wasted no time getting the word out. Similar to how community ambassadors in Brampton are using door-to-door outreach, frontline workers canvassed local businesses and reached out to people on their contact list, including folks who took part in previous testing clinics. Human connection has been key in enabling an equitable vaccine rollout in the GTA. This also rings true for the daily work of United Way’s network of 280 community agencies. From programs that build community connections to referrals for culturally specific programming—bringing people together is at the heart of what we do.


Our Inclusive Local Economic Opportunity (ILEO) initiative, convened by United Way Greater Toronto and BMO, brings together the private, public and community sectors to find innovative ways to reduce gaps in economic prosperity in the Greater Toronto Region. The ILEO Joint Venture is a collaboration between the Centre for Inclusive Economic Opportunity (CIEO) and Aecon Group Inc. to create a profit-making construction company that will do business in the Greater Golden Mile. The company will hire local residents into front- and back-office functions, with recruitment and employment support from CIEO, and construction skills and management training from Aecon. Joshua Adedamola is on the Joint Venture’s Executive Committee and offers some insights and exciting updates in a Q and A with Tasleem Thawar, United Way's Director of Strategic Initiatives.


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.


Photo of a young woman looking at the Naseeha Youth Helpline website on a laptop.

While our communities are still reeling from the terrorist attack in London, Ontario, we feel fortunate to have local community organizations like Naseeha Youth Helpline looking out for our youth. Naseeha’s trained counsellors provide support to Muslim youth 12 hours a day, seven days a week, to callers from across North America, and they were one of the recipients of your generous support for the Local Love Fund early in the pandemic. Since the attack in London, Naseeha has seen their number of calls and texts surge, but they are still making time to set up additional supports, like webinars connecting Muslim youth to mental health experts. If you know a young person from the Muslim community who could benefit from speaking to one of Naseeha’s counsellors, encourage them to call or text 1-866-627-3342, or to send a message through the Naseeha website.

June is Indigenous History Month and Pride Month, and there are some great activities and resources out there to help you learn, celebrate and engage with your community:

Photo of author Samra Habib next to the cover of her book, We Have Always Been Here

Writer and bestselling author, Samra Habib, longs to create empathy through storytelling. In her Canada Reads-winning memoir, We Have Always Been Here, she does just that—sharing her journey growing up as a queer Muslim woman. But Samra’s penchant for storytelling, and her desire to educate people about the challenges faced by newcomers, racialized people and the LGBTQ2S community, doesn’t just live within the pages of her book. It also lives at United Way. As Manager, Impact Reporting & Gift Proposals, Samra says she’s often reminded that the real power for transformative change lies in the hands of people with lived experience. She’s sat with community at our cluster tables and has seen the passion pour from residents who know their neighbourhoods best. "The residents who are driving real change don’t necessarily have coveted job titles or generational wealth but what they do have is conviction—a belief that they have the power to make things better for people they love and care about," she says. Proof that every day, those who may not typically be seen as leaders are in fact leading. We’re grateful for these changemakers—and for people like Samra who are there to share their stories.

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.


Photo of two people sitting opposite one another with one person taking notes on a pad of paper.

Warning cries from frontline workers have been validated—opioid overdoses are up, are more deadly and are impacting those most marginalized in our community. According to the Ontario Drug Policy Research Network at St. Michael’s Hospital, 2,050 Toronto residents died of opioid overdose between March and December 2020—an increase of nearly 75 per cent over the previous year. Some of the factors exacerbating the issue include a contaminated drug supply and a lack of access to health-care services. Though COVID-19 has shifted social services focus, one program has remained steady. The Integrated Prevention and Harm Reduction Initiative (iPHARE) is a partnership between the City of Toronto and community agencies such as United Way-supported Dixon Hall and LOFT Community Services. The best-in-class program is saving local lives by offering harm reduction and mental health case management services and supervised consumption sites to reduce the risk of overdose and keep our neighbours safe.

Photo of a doctor in PPE looking at a patient’s chart.

The disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on Black communities across the GTA has become an all too familiar story. More and more, disaggregated data—something United Way has supported through initiatives like the Social Identity Data Collection project—has been creating a better picture of the depth and complexities of the issues. No one knows better how to address these barriers and issues of access than trusted local agencies that don't just serve the community but are part of it. Organizations like United Way-supported Caribbean African Canadian Social Services (CAFCAN) are on the ground, working on uniquely targeted projects like the Black Health Vaccine Initiative, a collaboration with the Black Physicians' Association of Ontario to combine information and access at local pop-up clinics.

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.