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Working together to build strong, inclusive and vibrant communities

November 07, 2023 by Daniele Zanotti, Special to the Star

Daniele Zanotti, President and CEO of United Way Greater Toronto, stands in front of a gray wall. He is wearing a white shirt with blue dots and a tan jacket.
Poverty hurts people and families, and you can see it cutting deep in the Greater Toronto Area today as more people depend on food banks and are struggling to pay rent despite having two jobs in some cases writes Daniele Zanotti, the CEO of United Way Greater Toronto.

Photo by Daria Perevezentsev

We need to partner together, said the United Way’s Daniele Zanotti, to ensure long-term systemic change

In 2004, with its Poverty by Postal Code report, the United Way Greater Toronto called attention to the increasing number of high-poverty neighbourhoods, literally marginalized to the city’s edge. Then we sounded the alarm, not just on growing poverty, but polarization, with neighbourhoods segregated by income, splitting our community into haves and have-nots.

During the pandemic, findings documenting the intersection of poverty, geography and equity were no longer academic — and reality hit with appalling consequences. COVID “hotspots” weren’t just unlucky neighbourhoods where more people happened to get sick. They were structurally vulnerable to COVID: places with the highest number of people living in poverty, with precarious jobs, underhoused, and predominantly from equity deserving groups.

Poverty hurts people and families. And in today’s GTA, it is cutting deep. You can see it, feel it. Friends that were able to make ends meet are now depending on the food bank, despite working two jobs. Neighbours who were managing rent have been evicted and, unable to gain a shelter bed, are ending up in encampments. First time callers are flooding distress centres looking for help — or at least someone to talk to.

Poverty plays out in place, too. On the streets where we live. In the four blocks we think of as home. Poverty in the extreme. Poverty at the roots. Poverty that must be assessed and addressed at the neighbourhood level.

This means meeting surging human needs though our network of local frontline agencies. It means deepening the hyper-local approach and place-based strategies that have been a constant for us — in building resident leadership in Toronto, health equity in Peel and mental health resources in York Region. And developing broad partnerships to deliver on neighbourhood priorities, scale neighbourhood solutions and strengthen all our neighbourhoods across Peel, Toronto and York Region.

Partnerships like FOCUS, or Furthering Our Community by Uniting Services, a united response to the spike in drugs, guns and gangs in Toronto a decade ago. Together with community agencies, the City of Toronto, Toronto Police Service and United Way established local situation tables. Meeting weekly to triage cases in real time, they successfully diverted 80 per. cent away from the justice system and back into community, with full supports. Today, this model — so successful in several neighbourhoods — is expanding to Peel, York Region and Calgary.

Another example is our 10th community hub, Bridletowne Neighbourhood Centre. Ten years in the making, a labour of local love made possible together with YMCA GTA and Scarborough Health Network, it is set to be 142,00 square feet of health services, recreation and community space — all coming soon to a long-underserved neighbourhood.

From language learning and legal counsel to cooking for beginners and Zumba class for women; from central food portals in COVID to social enterprise space for entrepreneurs, these community hubs — true neighbourhood anchors — house hundreds of agencies and associations and have served more than four million to date.

Now, as we are seeing rapid growth in the GTA — with more cranes in the sky than Chicago and New York combined — our local approach to community development is more important than ever. It can ensure that instead of compounding and reinforcing inequalities through gentrification and displacement, we leverage growth to strengthen and revitalize our neighbourhoods.

We can do this by building on the strength of people and partners. Shifting the bottom-line paradigm with community-minded corporate leaders. Advocating for program and policy interventions like community benefits frameworks and social procurement that make social and economic inclusion foundational in neighbourhood redevelopment.

And protecting and preserving local community-owned space and services — vital community glue — when the affordability and housing crises are jeopardizing access, pushing food pantries and the like to the outskirts, far from the people that need them.

This is how we can build better communities; inclusive, vibrant neighbourhoods across Peel, Toronto and York regions, where everyone enjoys income security, affordable housing, access to services and the opportunity to participate fully in shaping and sharing in a prosperous future.

The result of a long and valued partnership with the Toronto Star, this special section takes you deeper into our work: the urgent issues challenging our community and the people most impacted by them. The immediate response we are working with others to provide, and the local solutions and long-term systemic change that we, unrelentingly, are steering towards.

You’ll learn more about United Way’s efforts to:

  • Support refugees and other newcomers settling in the GTA
  • Create affordable and supportive housing – homes for the most vulnerable members of our region
  • Partner with Black, racialized and equity-deserving community leadership to better serve people
  • Listen and learn in our collaboration with Indigenous leaders
  • Meet the rising need for diverse mental health services for youth
  • And build inclusive communities

As big and daunting as these challenges are, our hopes and dreams for our community are bigger. What’s more, we have a plan, grounded in research, strategy and a history of success. We just need to scale it. Through working with residents, agencies, business, government, labour, institutions and you, we will. Together we can meet urgent human needs, strengthen neighbourhoods across Peel, Toronto and York Region, and transform our region’s future. In a united way.

Daniele Zanotti signature

Daniele Zanotti
President and CEO

Double your impact

Thanks to the Canso Leadership Team Challenge Grant*, your gift can have even more impact!

All new Leadership gifts of $1,200+ this year will be matched. If you donated $1,200 or more last year, then any increase to your gift to United Way this year will be matched dollar for dollar. That means you’ll have an even bigger impact on our community and help even more individuals and families across the GTA build a better life.

* Canso Leadership Team Challenge Grant only applies to gifts of $1,200 to $9,999 to United Way Greater Toronto; not to gifts designated to other registered charities. The Gift will match up to $1 million in total donations. Gifts must be received by December 31, 2023.


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