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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 Social Medicine Initiative, a partnership between us, the University Health Network (UHN) and the City of Toronto, is working to develop a parcel of vacant land in Parkdale for affordable housing and supportive living. This is a great example of how, while the pandemic has posed great challenges, it has also opened the door to solutions and opportunities that have only been imagined but could now be realized.


COVID-19 case counts are growing, but the real alarm bells are ringing for the high rates of positive tests in certain Toronto neighbourhoods. Our community coordination tables have been working in many of these neighbourhoods since the beginning of the pandemic, helping to mitigate the effects of this disproportionate impact by ensuring no needs for services and support are left unmet. In this CBC Metro Morning clip with host Ismaila Alfa, Cheryl Prescod, Executive Director of the Black Creek Community Health Centre, talks about how and why it got so bad, and what's next.


On October 15, United Way Centraide Canada announced the expansion of 211 across the country through an investment from the Emergency Community Support Fund by the Government of Canada. Previously only available in some provinces (including in Ontario, where it is supported by your generous donations), 211 is now a free, multi-lingual and confidential nationwide service that is connecting people to critical social and community support at a time when it has never been needed more.


A new COVID-19 testing site specifically for Indigenous people has opened. Developed by United Way-funded agency Na-Me-Res, in collaboration with local health partners, including St. Michael's Hospital, the testing site and outreach workers will help eliminate barriers—racial and cultural—and improve access to COVID-19 support for members of the Indigenous community. “We saw in the first wave how there were gaps in the ability of non-Indigenous services to meet the needs of the Indigenous community. That's why we need our own agencies to do it. We need to use our own community networks and relationships to make sure that Indigenous people have Indigenous specific pathways," said Dr. Janet Smylie of St. Michael's Hospital.


As Ontario reports rising COVID-19 rates, Peel Region has been particularly hard hit, with the highest proportion of cases in the province and focused primarily in Brampton. While several factors—including a large labour force in the transportation sector, international travel and multi-generational housing—play a role in the high rates, it’s important not to put the blame on residents. "You have an area that's under-resourced, under-supported and then you throw a pandemic at it," said Gurpreet Malhotra, CEO of Indus Community Services, a United Way-supported agency. Since March, we’ve approved more than $2.1 million in rapid response emergency funding to 199 projects across the GTA, including several helping individuals and families in Brampton. These include:

  • Canadian and African Women Aid Program (trusteed by Northwood Neighbourhood Services) – New funding will provide Afro-Black immigrants in Brampton, particularly seniors, with public health precaution gear, grocery cards and volunteer support.
  • Free for All Foundation – New funding will provide laptops to enable remote support for seniors as well as grocery cards and essentials for racialized seniors and marginalized Black families in Brampton.
  • The Journey Neighbourhood Centre – New funding will provide grocery cards for Muslim families to access culturally appropriate food in Brampton, supporting single parents, seniors and racialized individuals.


A new report from the non-profit research group ICES found that immigrants, refugees and other newcomers made up nearly half of Ontario’s COVID-19 cases in the first half of the year. "We know that there are higher rates of COVID in lower-income neighbourhoods, but actually when we looked at it, we showed that this was much more of an issue for immigrants and refugees,” says the report’s author. Ongoing health data findings during the pandemic align closely with our own research on inequity. It's why we prioritize the people and places who need help the most, using that evidence base to inform how we invest our support across the GTA.


On September 9, BMO Financial Group released its five-year renewed diversity strategy—Zero Barriers to Inclusion—that will take a holistic approach to creating opportunities for individuals from diverse communities inside the bank, in partnership with its customers and throughout local communities. This follows BMO’s generous $10-million corporate commitment to United Way in 2018 to help build local inclusive economic opportunities so that people facing barriers to employment can access the training and employment support they need to ensure a strong economic future. Learn more in this LinkedIn op-ed penned by BMO Financial Group CEO Darryl White.


New research shows that the Toronto neighbourhoods where tenants have faced the highest eviction filing rates in recent years mirror those where COVID-19 has hit hardest. The data, shared exclusively with the Toronto Star, suggest that if a wave of evictions follows the pandemic—as tenant advocates fear—residents of the same neighbourhoods will bear the brunt of a secondary crisis. We’re on the ground in communities across the GTA working with municipal partners to develop hyper-local solutions to this #UNIGNORABLE issue.


United Way's own Nation Cheong, Vice President, Community Opportunities & Mobilization, has been named to the Premier's Council on Equality of Opportunity, a new advisory council that will champion community voices and provide advice to the government on how to help young people flourish and achieve lifelong success. Twenty young Ontarians and community leaders have been selected to serve on the council.


CBC Radio's Metro Morning recently featured a three-part series on homelessness during the pandemic. I was pleased to join host Jill Dempsey on August 12 to talk about the ways we put your generosity into action to support people experiencing homelessness, in particular our collaborative community work with municipal and regional partners. Listen to one part of the series, an interview with a man about his experience of homelessness during the pandemic.


The plight of seniors has been front and centre during the pandemic. But physical health and isolation are not the only issues our seniors are facing. Physical, psychological and financial abuse continue to be serious concerns for many of the GTA’s elderly and their caregivers. United Way agencies, including Indus Community Services and Family Services of Peel, are taking on the fear, silence and stigma of elder abuse, working to support individuals, families and communities and build awareness in the community. In Peel Region, for example, your generosity supports nine programs that tackle a range of issues faced by seniors. One example? The Peel Elder Abuse Support Program, a collaboration between Spectra and Family Services of Peel that provides a dedicated telephone support line, public education and awareness, supports and services to individuals seeking help and information regarding elder abuse.


The evidence continues to mount—COVID-19 is hitting racialized and low-income groups harder than the rest of Toronto’s population, according to new research from Toronto Public Health. Highlights include: 

  • 83 per cent of people with reported COVID-19 infections identified with a racialized group.
  • 51 per cent of reported cases in Toronto were living in households that could be considered lower income.

Mayor John Tory noted that the City will work with community agencies—including United Way—to develop solutions to the systemic issues underscored by the data. "Community organizations are a key partner in this because they know best the communities and neighbourhoods they serve," he said.  


Poverty, overcrowded housing, food and water insecurity, lack of access to healthcare and a higher rate of chronic illness are just some of the disparities that increase the risk of severe COVID-19 outcomes for Indigenous populations across Canada. As some experts raise concerns that the needs of Indigenous communities are being overlooked during this pandemic, we continue to provide ongoing flexible funding and emergency support to several Indigenous agencies, including the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto, Na-Me-Res, Native Child and Family Services of Toronto and Anishnawbe Health Toronto. We have also built relationships with Indigenous organizations to inform our investment priorities moving forward, including the Ontario Federation of Indigenous Friendship Centres, Toronto Aboriginal Support Services Council and the Toronto Urban Health Fund.


Grassroots organization Concerned Citizens for the Homeless in Newmarket received funding from our Local Love Fund to deliver 1,200 meals to date, making up for the shortfall in local hot take-out dinners for those facing food insecurity. Since the beginning of the pandemic, we have extended funding to the essential work of 55 agencies new to United Way


The call for disaggregated data collection—where data collected for research is divided into smaller categories (e.g., by race) that reveal trends which can be masked by aggregate data—has grown louder recently. This kind of data related to people's experiences in the GTA—particularly as it relates to poverty—is essential to better understanding barriers and developing policies that achieve better outcomes.   

That’s why United Way Greater Toronto is partnering with the Toronto Central Local Health Integration Network and the City of Toronto on a new project looking at how to streamline disaggregate data collection and reporting. United Way’s network of agencies will be crucial partners in the pilot phase, test-driving data collection strategy, analysis and resources. Information is power—and can drive real change in our communities.


A headshot of Bharat Masrani

As charities suffer through the pandemic, those with means can, and must, do more to help says Bharat Masrani, Group President and CEO of TD Bank Group and United Way Campaign Chair, in this moving Globe and Mail op-ed.

A photo of people holding multi-coloured puzzle pieces together

Our very own Nation Cheong, Vice President of Community Opportunities & Mobilization, and McCarthy Tétrault’s Chief Inclusion Officer, Nikki Gershbain, share five tips on how to make your workplace more inclusive in a recent Imagine a City blog post.

A graphic showing people doing various physical activities with the copy: GetUP #UP4Community

Are you or your family spending too much time in front of your screens lately? We hear you! And we’ve got the perfect opportunity for you to GetUP, get off your devices and move your body to help raise funds for GTA people and families who have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. Register for our brand new virtual physical challenge by October 11 and you’ll get 25% off the registration fee (and a snazzy United Way buff). Sign up now!


Photo of two kids wearing and holding masks in front of a Show Your Local Love Day background.

This Show Your Local Love Day (September 25) we’ve put together a series of engaging virtual panels and activities that are the perfect opportunity for you to get involved and dig deeper into the issues you’ve told us matter to you:

  • Myth Busting: Homelessness
  • Hunger at Home: How food security is impacting people here in the GTA + Urban Harvest Food Demo
  • Sew & Learn: Mask Making
  • Seniors Chair Yoga Session


Photo of a group of people wearing masks filling reusable grocery bags.


As we plan for the possibility of a second wave of COVID-19, we’re working hard to ensure vulnerable people can access support close to home—including income support, affordable housing and community services. Here are some of the ways that we’re addressing systemic inequality to ensure no one in the GTA gets left behind: 

  • Advocating for improved income supports that will help all Canadians as policymakers shift focus from emergency programs towards recovery.
  • Playing a key role in the Community Coordination Plan partnership between the City of Toronto and United Way; the COVID-19 Community Coordination (3C) Initiative between York Region and United Way; and the local collaboration tables in Peel that work to identify urgent issues and implement rapid solutions during the pandemic.
  • Prioritizing the people and places that need support the most, including Black, Indigenous and other people of colour who have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. We’re supporting these communities through a broad mandate of services that meet a variety of needs, as well as targeted programs.

Collage of eight photos of community workers from United Way-supported agencies.

Back in June, I was proud to recognize the incredible efforts of community workers at United Way-supported agencies in Toronto as part of Community Worker Recognition Week. This week, I’m sending a virtual shout-out to an equally dedicated group of community heroes in Peel and York Region who are helping with everything from delivering food and essentials to local families and finding safe shelter for those who need it, to developing innovative ways to engage youth while in-person programming is on hold. Read all about these inspiring individuals on our blog.

Video still showing a photo of a building with a rainbow drawing in the window overlayed with text reading: How long will the long-term recovery from COVID-19 take?

How long will it take for our community to recover from this crisis? The truth is no one really knows for sure. But if there’s one thing that is for certain, it’s that United Way and our network of 280 agencies will be there every step of the way. Whether it’s providing emergency support to meet urgent human needs or digging into the complicated work of systems change, we have a collective obligation to prevent vulnerable neighbourhoods, and the people who live in them, from falling farther behind.  


Photo of a senior looking at an iPad while seated at a table.

It’s never too late to learn how to connect to your community in new (and digital) ways. Thanks to a federal grant that’s part of the Government of Canada's New Horizons for Seniors Program (administered in part by United Way Greater Toronto), nearly 25 seniors in Vaughan and Keswick will be receiving free iPads and data plans to help them stave off social isolation during the pandemic.


A photo of a cardboard box filled with fresh produce and groceries

Hunger has emerged as an urgent, #UNIGNORABLE issue during this pandemic. But sometimes understanding what food insecurity looks like, depending on where you live, can be difficult. Read more from General Mills Canada Corporation President and Managing Director Dale Storey and our own Keisa Campbell, Manager of Neighbourhoods and Community Investment, on a unique community-corporate partnership that is creating a recipe for local change in Mississauga.

Photo of someone reading the report on their iPad

After decades of emergency response to homelessness, there is growing recognition of the need to focus efforts on longer-term outcomes. The United Way-P & L Odette Charitable Foundation Homelessness Solutions Lab brought together experts who are innovating and working on solutions—service providers, academics, government partners—to uncover and share the most impactful practices to address homelessness. Read the report for key recommendations, including Indigenous-led solutions for Indigenous homelessness and evidence-based practices that will help drive the shift from managing to ending homelessness.

Photo of a café worker wearing PPE behind a counter.

The pandemic has laid bare existing inequalities when it comes to precarious work, gig-economy jobs and temp agencies that leave workers scrambling just to earn minimum wage. Even before the COVID-19 crisis, United Way was partnered with the labour movement to help level the playing field and create better opportunities for working people. This work has taken on a heightened importance during the crisis, and we’re proud that our very own Board of Trustees member and President of the Toronto & York Region Labour Council, John Cartwright, continues to bring that perspective to the forefront of our work. This close relationship has framed our research and advocacy on precarious employment and worker protections and also supports our continuing leadership on the Community Benefits approach. Read John’s Toronto Star op-ed.

Photos of all four panellists who participated in the event.

I recently participated on a panel of experts to talk about the impact of COVID-19 on the non-profit sector and our ongoing funding strategies. You can watch a recording of the TD Bank Group-moderated webinar. 


Photo of a medical professional administering a COVID-19 test.

COVID-19 pop-up testing is coming to Toronto's northwest, an area of the GTA that has been heavily impacted by the virus. The new testing is thanks to the collaborative work at the United Way-led Black Creek/Humber Summit community co-ordination table, in partnership with the Central LHIN and Toronto Public Housing. 

It’s one example of how our community co-ordination tables are bringing local government, agencies and community stakeholders together to identify trends and gaps in essential services—ensuring urgent needs are met as COVID-19 continues to have an impact on our community.

Screenshot from the video showing Daniele Zanotti with a text overlay reading: “President & CEO Update”

I like to talk a lot about the “systems-level” change that your support makes possible in community. It’s a term that’s well understood in the social services sector but one that often needs explaining for other audiences. In my video update this week, I talk about what systemic change really means and how it translates to quantifiable, long-term impact for people and families made even more vulnerable by the pandemic. WATCH NOW.

Screenshot of people on the AGM Zoom call.

More than 400 people attended our first-ever virtual Annual General Meeting on June 23. Didn’t get a chance to join us? You can watch a recording of the meeting, featuring an engaging panel discussion with the Honourable Ahmed Hussen, Minister of Families, Children and Social Development and MP, York South-Weston; Toyo Ajibolade, Executive Director, Lady Ballers Camp and Beth Wilson, CEO, Dentons Canada LLP.

Screenshot from the Peel Town Hall showing the screens of some of the people who participated.

Over the past two weeks, we’ve come together virtually with more than 500 community members in Peel and York regions as part of our online town halls. Don’t worry, if you missed these community conversations—featuring a group of distinguished panellists—you can watch recorded versions of the Peel and York town halls.

Screenshot from the Peel Town Hall showing the screens of some of the people who participated.

We had an incredible turnout for our first-ever virtual town hall for Peel Region on June 11. More than 240 community members, donors and agency staff joined us to talk about their local love in action across the GTA. Panellists included Sonia Pace, Director, Community Partnerships, The Regional Municipality of Peel; Sharon Floyd, Executive Director, Interim Place; and Blair Peberdy, Vice President, Government & Corporate Relations, Alectra Inc. Don’t worry, if you missed the event you can watch a recording here.