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Breaking barriers for systemic change

February 24, 2020 by United Way Greater Toronto

A counselor is seen writing down notes on her clipboard and in the background, her client can be seen seated across her.

Can wraparound community supports save lives?

The answer, say experts, is ‘yes.’ Especially when multiple community organizations come together to meet the needs of vulnerable individuals. Systemic change is possible.

Empowering through collective expertise

One example? FOCUS Toronto (Furthering Our Community by Uniting Services), an equal partnership between United Way Greater Toronto, the City of Toronto and the Toronto Police Service, in collaboration with more than 100 other community agencies.

Through four weekly ‘situation tables’ across Toronto, non-criminal crises—from homelessness to gang-related violence—are assessed to help high-risk, vulnerable youth and families connect with nearby wraparound supports. The idea is to reduce the risks in incidences of imminent crime, victimization and harm.

For example, FOCUS provided immediate wraparound supports to a family whose home had been shot at three times in two weeks, and were at continued risk because gang members were targeting a youth in the home. The mother had to navigate a housing transfer and get social assistance, while supporting her children through trauma. “Intervention for that requires multiple agencies,” said Evon Smith, manager of FOCUS Toronto .

Since the program began in 2013, FOCUS has handled more than 1,600 situations; In 2018, more than 700 situations were handled—with 78 per cent of those successfully connected to agency help. “They may still need housing or food support or counselling, but the services are now in place to meet those needs,” said Smith.

Any agency can present a case at the weekly situation tables, held in four regions of the GTA (Rexdale, North Scarborough, Downtown East and Downtown West). “Agencies are expected to respond in two days,” said Smith. “We’re able to offer immediate supports where, because of the silos that exist between organizations, it would [have taken] a really long time to get the support.”

In one case, an elderly woman was found wandering the streets, suffering dementia; she lived alone, had no food in the fridge and was feeding a dead cat. Through immediate and multidisciplinary support, “being able to connect her to those services can save her life,” said Smith.

Setting the foundation for success

Another program that’s connecting community agencies with a goal of providing wraparound supports is York Region’s Youth Homelessness Prevention and Housing Stabilization Strategy.

Poverty is growing in the 905, yet there’s a lack of social infrastructure. Led by United Way-supported agency 360⁰ Kids, in partnership with A Way Home Canada, York Region Collaborative, Social Planning Council York Region and YouthRex, the program is bringing together partners from different sectors to ensure youth receive timely supports to reduce the likelihood or re-occurrence of homelessness.

“Our intent really is for this to not just be a 360⁰ project. We may be taking the lead on it … [but] we want this to be a community initiative and effort,” said Clovis Grant, executive director of 360⁰ Kids.

While the program is in its infancy, he said at-risk youth need wraparound supports, from education (which ties closely to future employment) to housing and, oftentimes, counselling for trauma or mental health supports.

“If we’re all driving toward a stronger community of young people who have their various needs met, then we’re all working toward that same goal,” said Grant. That may seem obvious, but if an at-risk youth needs support for housing, employment, mental health and addiction, typically they’d have to go to four different agencies, with four different intakes and four different case managers.

Providing coordinated wraparound supports to young people can “absolutely” help to save lives, he said.

“One of the things we’ve learned in this work is, the longer a person remains homeless, the poorer their prognosis,” said Grant. “The longer they’re on the streets, the greater likelihood their mental health will deteriorate, the greater likelihood of being victimized, whether that’s physical or sexual, the harder it is for them to get employment. They’re entrenched, they’re always in survival mode.” And that, he said, leads to a greater risk of self-harm or suicide.

“As we do all these interventions [at FOCUS], we’re collecting data and identifying systemic barriers,” said Smith. But even away from the weekly situation tables, developing inter-agency relationships helps to create a culture of collaboration among those agencies.

When community organizations come together, those most at risk can get coordinated interventions—but it also helps to break down barriers and bring about systemic change.

“Because we’re in the same room talking, we have a better understanding of systemic barriers,” he said. “That allows us to be better service providers, period.”

Addressing the side effects of poverty

Engaging and collaborating with various partners to achieve its goal of eliminating poverty in Peel and collectively tackling interrelated issues (e.g. food security, lack of access to transit and medical supports) is something the Peel Poverty Reduction Committee (PPRC) strives for.

The committee primarily consists of representation from community groups and organizations, regional and municipal governments, the education and health care systems and local residents. Co-chaired by United Way of Greater Toronto and the Region of Peel, PPRC was created in 2008 to ensure that Peel Region is a livable community for all individuals and families.

Adaoma Patterson, Manager of Poverty Reduction Initiatives with PPRC, describes how the partnership is an example of “systemic change in action.” She references the Affordable Transit Pilot as an example of collectively addressing systemic barriers that lead to poverty. During consultations, residents expressed concern about the increasing cost of bus fare and the difficulty in getting to and from doctor’s appointments and job interviews. The Pilot, sponsored by Region of Peel and MiWay (Mississauga) Transit, initially ran from September 2014 to December 2015 and supported 250 people receiving social assistance.

As a result of the pilot, participants had improved access to employment, education, food, recreational and medical services. The program became permanent in Brampton and Mississauga in 2018. Eligible applicants now receive a 50 per cent discount on their local monthly transit pass.

Whether it’s in Peel, Toronto or York Region, system change is possible when multiple community organizations come together to meet the needs of vulnerable individuals. 

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