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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.  



Even before the pandemic, United Way’s agencies were raising the alarm about rising hunger across the GTA. This crisis has only exacerbated matters: last year, there were 1.45 million visits to Toronto foodbanks—a 47 per cent increase from the previous year. These staggering numbers are a reminder that although we are recovering from this pandemic, its impacts will be felt for a long time. Because it’s about more than food; it's about poverty. Rising food insecurity is a barometer of how people are struggling because of the pandemic, and because of ongoing challenges: racism and discrimination, precarious housing, rising unemployment and increasing cost of living. Thanks to your support, United Way and our agencies are tackling poverty across our community—and improving local food security with targeted initiatives. We’re working with communities in Peel to strengthen food systems. We’re investing in agencies championing food justice and innovative solutions to food insecurity, including FoodShare and Ecosource. And we’re collaborating with local governments, as we do on the Emergency Food Access table in York Region, to streamline efforts to get good food to the people who need it.


United Way has a long history of investing in programs that help people connect to good, stable jobs—and pushing for progressive policy that reduces workplace precarity. That didn’t stop during the pandemic, and it can’t stop during the recovery. We continue to see that this crisis has disproportionately impacted low-wage and precarious workers. Mississauga’s 2021 Vital Signs report shows that COVID-19 lockdowns resulted in record-high unemployment in Peel in 2020 and that people in part-time and low-income positions were disproportionately impacted. And as of August 2021, people earning less than $17.25/hour in Toronto are working 20 per cent fewer hours than before the pandemic started, while higher-income earners are back to regular hours. These disparities become even more evident for Indigenous and racialized groups. As we recover from this crisis, United Way’s work supporting stable, equitable employment—work you make possible—is of vital importance. That’s why we will continue to invest your support in programs that help people find and keep work: everything from youth mentorship to education upgrading. And we will continue to collaborate with corporate, government and agency partners to develop innovative initiatives that reduce gaps in economic prosperity.


United Way was part of the Vote Housing Coalition that pushed for housing to be front and centre during the federal election—and we intend to keep the focus there during the upcoming provincial and municipal elections. Because the reality is, our community is in crisis: More than 90,000 people are on a waiting list for social housing in Toronto. In Mississauga, Brampton and Caledon more than 22,000 households are on waiting lists for affordable housing. And the waitlist for housing in York Region is 13 years or more for a two-bedroom unit. We know that a successful housing strategy includes continued expansion of portable housing benefits, development of more supportive and deeply affordable housing units, and preservation and rehabilitation of existing affordable rental units. That’s why we will continue to encourage our partners at all levels of government to implement these tried-and-tested solutions.


Mental health advocates say that the impacts of social isolation and the stress of the pandemic has created the perfect storm for a spike in opioid overdoses—1,700 across the country in the first three months of the year, a 65 per cent increase over the same period in 2020. This is an unignorable issue—one that demands our attention and action. Thanks to the support of people like you, United Way invests significantly in mental health and addiction support services, and during the pandemic our emergency funding dollars have been directed to meet this spike in need. Our recent COVID-19 Relief Grants funded several programs focused on these issues, including Street Health’s bi-weekly grief counselling workshops for people experiencing homelessness, mental health and substance dependency issues, and Dixon Hall’s iPHARE program, which includes harm reduction and mental health case management services and supervised consumption services.


Back in 2017, United Way’s PEPSO research and advocacy played a pivotal role in supporting sweeping changes to labour legislation through the Fair Workplaces, Better Jobs Act, which, among other measures, scheduled staggered wage hikes to increase the minimum wage. While many of the act’s measures were subsequently cancelled, we were happy to see last week’s announcement that Ontario will be raising the minimum wage to $15/hour. There is still a long road ahead when it comes to modernizing employment standards and ensuring people can afford to live in our region, but this is a step in the right direction. United Way will continue to celebrate wins like these even as we advocate for more policy changes, including permanent legislated paid sick leave for all workers in our region.


On the Way Home is a podcast that brings together the voices and issues involved in ending homelessness in Canada. On October 21, our very own Director of Research, Public Policy and Evaluation, Isabel Cascante, and Community Investment Manager, Christine Hill, sat down with Michael Braithwaite, CEO of United Way-funded Blue Door, and Stefania Seccia of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness, to unpack the recent findings of our Social Capital reports in Peel and York Region and what they mean for people experiencing homelessness. You can listen to their conversation right now.


We were thrilled to see Dalano Banton become the first Canadian basketball player drafted by his hometown team—but did you know that he first learned to play the game at the United Way-supported Rexdale Community Hub? As a young teen, Banton played on the Albion Neighbourhood Services basketball team, volunteered as a camp counsellor and later worked at the hub as a basketball coach. Check out The Toronto Star’s profile of Banton to learn more about his love of Rexdale and the incredible support and mentorship that helped him get to where he is today.


Thanks to the support of people like you, we’ve been able to work with residents and agencies to invest in urban farms and community gardens, helping to improve food systems across the GTA. You can read this Toronto Life interview with volunteer Anna-Marie Burrows, one of the people who helped establish a two-acre Malvern farm that was built on the success of our work in low-income neighbourhoods. She speaks to the positive impact it’s had on the community—and what she hopes it can grow into.


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.


Photo of United Way President & CEO Daniele Zanotti with a play button overlaid.

Thank you to everyone who joined us at GetUP this year! More than 1,600 people showed their local love by getting active in support of community. With every skip, step, stretch and stride, our participants raised much-needed funds that will fuel an equitable recovery across the GTA.

Photo of Bob Dorrance and Gail Drummond posing together outside

Bob Dorrance and Gail Drummond are committed to helping our community recover. That’s why they’re issuing a challenge: if you make your first gift of $10,000 or more to United Way by Dec. 31, 2021, they’ll match it. It’s an incredible show of local love—and one we hope inspires many people from across our region to give. Read an interview with the couple about what inspired this remarkable act of generosity and why they chose to partner with United Way.

Photo of United Way’s CEO standing outside with the words: united in the face of the unignorable.

Thank you. Thousands of you have already donated to our 2021 Community Recovery Campaign to ensure an equitable recovery from this crisis, and we’re incredibly grateful for your support. It’s because of people like you, who show their local love in community every single day, that we remain united in the face of the unignorable. Watch this video to hear from members of our United Way community on why your support makes such a difference when it comes to tackling local poverty and other related issues, including hunger, homelessness and social isolation.


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.


The words 'Road to Home: Housing and Homelessness in the GTA' over a blue photo of high-rise buildings

Last week we hosted Road to Home: Housing and Homelessness in the GTA, a virtual event about tackling the housing crisis in our region. We were joined by some incredible guests, including some with lived experience of homelessness, who spoke about what we can do as a community to tackle the complex issue of housing.

If you weren’t able to join us, don’t worry! You can watch a recording of the event. It’s a great conversation about how we got to where we are today—and how we can get somewhere better.

Photo of Majida, who is immigrated from Syria

Immigrants and refugees play a vital role in the economic, social and civic vitality of Peel, Toronto and York Region. But too often, newcomers face barriers to opportunity, including language, the demand for Canadian work experience and discrimination. And as United Way’s own research has shown, the income gap between GTA immigrants and the Canadian-born population grew from 1990 to 2015. For every dollar a Canadian-born person in permanent full-time work earns in Toronto, an immigrant in Canada for ten years or more in the same form of work earns 67 cents. These inequities need to be addressed at the individual and systems levels. That’s why United Way invests in a wide range of programs that support newcomers with settlement, integration, preparation for the labour market and building social connections. It’s why we partner with the Region of Peel, the City of Toronto and York Region to help implement regional newcomer strategies. And it’s why we work with our network of agencies to counter negative public discourse on immigration and refugee policy.

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.