United Way is addressing homelessness and improving access to affordable housing across our region
Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood has long been a landing pad for newcomers and others seeking low-cost housing. But over the past 10 years, the neighbourhood has been going through a rapid transformation.
“We’ve watched an enormous increase in rents and a dislocation of people who can’t afford them,” says Victor, Executive Director of United Way-supported Parkdale Activity-Recreation Centre (PARC).
This skyrocketing cost in living is pushing long-time residents out of their homes, hitting people living on a low income the hardest. According to Beryl-Ann, a Community Development Peer Worker with United Way-supported West Neighbourhood House, this is forcing people into untenable situations.
“Some people are living on peoples’ couches. You’re seeing multiple families staying in two- or three-bedroom apartments,” she says. “If you’re on Ontario Works or ODSP, or even if you’re making minimum wage, the money is just not enough to cover the rent.”
The average two-bedroom listing in Toronto rose by 19.4 per cent to $3,314 per month in 2023. To comfortably afford that, a household would have to be earning at least $130,000 per year.
It’s a story that’s becoming too familiar as our region battles the affordable housing crisis. People being forced to choose between basic necessities or paying their rent. Tight-knit neighbourhoods broken up. More of our neighbours finding themselves without a roof over their heads.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. United Way is working with Victor, Beryl-Ann and other partners across Peel, Toronto and York Region to keep people housed and neighbourhoods welcoming. Here’s how.
Keeping neighbourhoods affordable
United Way is uniquely positioned to address the housing issues facing our region. Not only do we sit at the nexus of government, corporate and philanthropic efforts, but we also support a network of 300 community organizations that are on the frontline.
“The community organizations we work with are in encampments, they’re providing housing for people, they’re trying to help people stay in the housing that they have,” says Ruth, United Way’s Vice President of Community Investment & Development. “We have that pipeline to understanding what is really going on for people who are at risk of homelessness or who are homeless.”
That insight and network means that we can bring players together to find out-of-the-box solutions to the housing challenges facing our region. One example? The Social Medicine Initiative (SMI) in Parkdale.
Created in partnership with the University Health Network and the City of Toronto, this first-of-its-kind development will create 51 units of permanent, affordable, supportive housing for people with chronic and complex health conditions who are at risk of or experiencing homelessness. It exists because of the research and advocacy of a host of United Way partners, including PARC, West Neighbourhood House and the resident-led Parkdale People’s Economy.
United Way has partnered with Beryl-Ann and West Neighbourhood House to launch a Welcome Committee that will help SMI residents get to know their neighbourhood. They are organizing a roster of local guides who will offer new residents walking tours of Parkdale, helping them connect to local resources and meet their neighbours.
The SMI is unique because in addition to housing, it ensures residents have a host of health and social supports, all of which will streamline access to healthcare, food, transportation, good jobs, social engagement, and life skills development. This wraparound support sets people up for success, helping to ensure they stay housed in the long term.
“It’s going to be a one-stop shop,” explains Beryl-Ann. “The residents are getting the social support and medical care that they need, all at 150 Dunn.”
SMI is just the most recent example of United Way’s work helping to improve affordable housing options in Parkdale. More than a decade ago, PARC, with the support of United Way, helped launch another innovative, community-led solution: the Parkdale Land Trust.
The trust is steered by local residents and was created to give them more agency over what was happening in their neighbourhood. Its goal was to purchase local properties and make sure they were used to meet the needs of the community. Today, the trust owns 84 properties in the area, including a number of affordable, supportive housing units managed by PARC.
“A Land Trust, which at its roots is democratic, encourages residents to do the kind of work and thinking and problem solving that’s required in order to have good housing,” says Victor. “That’s very different than the experience with corporate landlords where there’s often no way for tenants to intervene or have their concerns heard and to be taken seriously.”
These kinds of place-based, community-led initiatives are essential to ensuring residents not only have access to affordable housing, but also have a say in how their neighbourhood grows.
That’s why United Way is championing these approaches in neighbourhoods across Toronto and our region. But we’re not stopping there. To see how else we’re keeping people housed, we’re going to head north to the Region of York.
Read our Building Inclusive Communities Report
Land trusts were one approach recommended in our Building Inclusive Communities Report, which outlined practical insights and actionable steps to create welcoming places that provide equitable access to the resources, programs and services residents need to participate fully in society and to actualize individual and collective prosperity and well-being.
A regional approach to housing
While some may associate rising housing unaffordability and homelessness with downtown communities, the reality is both issues are present in York Region as well, even if they’re not as obvious.
In 2021, the region partnered with United Way on a point-in-time count to get a snapshot of who is experiencing homelessness in York Region. The results were stark: York Region saw a rise in the amount of people experiencing homelessness for the first time.
To meet this rising need, United Way has been funding new initiatives, including a land trust led by United Way-supported Blue Door, and continuing to support more than 35 housing programs across the region, which provide everything from transitional housing for youth and emergency shelter for refugees to support for people with hoarding disorder.
In addition to funding these vital services directly, United Way administers federal Reaching Home dollars across York Region. Since the pandemic, that responsibility has expanded significantly, to almost $6 million in disbursements in 2022.
One of the organizations using Reaching Home dollars to enhance housing supports in York is 360°kids, a long-time United Way partner. The organization, which supports youth at risk of or experiencing homelessness, is building transitional housing for youth and is currently working on a new initiative that will address the unique needs of Black youth experiencing homelessness. A key part of their approach is engaging youth in their work.
“We have an amazing youth council with over a dozen youth who are just so fired up,” says Clovis, the CEO of 360°kids. “They’ve developed a number of projects that are focused on advocacy, so more young people have their needs met, not when they’re homeless, but earlier.”
Providing mental health support is one way United Way’s network is keeping people housed. In York Region, CHATS is providing people with hoarding disorder with wraparound support, working to reduce the risk of eviction and improve the safety of living environments.
As we continue to invest and partner on this frontline work, United Way is also focused on creating long-term change. And we can’t do that alone.
“The real reason people become homeless is that they don’t have enough money to pay their rent. To change that requires an advocacy and public policy response,” explains Ruth. “The question becomes, how do we encourage our society and our governments to look at social assistance rates, poverty rates, bringing people out of poverty so they can afford their rents?”
United Way’s answer? Ground-breaking, informative research and community mobilization. Our Vertical Legacy and Building Inclusive Communities reports provide actionable recommendations for the corporate, public and social sectors that will lead to more inclusive, affordable communities. And we continue to petition government at all levels to make our region a more affordable place for all.
All of this work will help us ensure people have decent, affordable housing today, and in the years to come.
A place to call home
As we work to address housing insecurity at provincial, regional and municipal levels, United Way is keeping the focus on the local. Because having a home is about more than having shelter. It’s also about ensuring people can stay in the neighbourhood they love, surrounded by the community they know.
That’s why we will continue to partner with people like Victor, Beryl-Ann and Clovis and people across Peel, Toronto and York Region on solutions tailored to the unique needs of a neighbourhood. That can look like land trusts, like supportive housing, like temporary shelters for youth, or even like research reports.
We hope you’ll join us in this work. Housing is a right, something we all deserve. But it’s going to take all of us, working together, to build a GTA where everyone has a place to call home.
You can join us in this work.
Help us keep neighbourhoods affordable and ensure
everyone in our community has a roof over their heads.