Social agencies often tackle social issues on two fronts. In addition to focusing on their clients, for instance homeless adults or youth, they also need to guard against NIMBYism and pushback from their communities. It can be a tough balance to strike.
As part of the Yonge Love community consultation, Downtown Yonge BIA (DYBIA) wants to know how you believe social agencies contribute to the wellness of community. Share your opinion here.
In the City of Toronto as a whole, about 5,300 people are homeless on a given night. About 10 percent of those are sleeping outdoors which is 24 percent more than four years ago.
Those are the findings of the 2013 Street Needs Assessment, a survey undertaken every four years by the City to evaluate homelessness in the municipal region.
The report not only quantifies the extent of homelessness, but also tried to understand its underlying reasons. For example, seniors, Aboriginal people and LGBTQ youth are disproportionately represented among the homeless.
And here’s the thing.
A significant 93% of homeless people want housing but don’t know how or cannot afford to access it, as the City’s research shows.
There’s a web of social agencies doing frontline work across Downtown Yonge.
Yonge Street Mission (YSM)’s Evergreen centre has been on Yonge Street for 118 years and focuses only on street-involved youth, serving more than 5,000 homeless youth every year. It is one of six YSM locations in the downtown east core that together support over 15,000 individuals, from infants to seniors, a year.
Another established agency serving homeless youth in the neighbourhood is Covenant House, located at Yonge and Gerrard Streets. It’s been around for more than three decades.
“We see about 3,000 youth between the ages of 16 and 24 years old come through our doors every year,” says executive director Bruce Rivers.
“We offer not only a shelter with 94 beds, but also transitional housing for 28 youth, a health clinic in partnership with St Michael’s Hospital, and an on-site school and job preparation and training.”
That’s in addition to counselling, vocational and employment services, as well as drop-in facilities and programs.
Rivers believes that the diversity of their Downtown Yonge location is a strength. It’s close to Ryerson University and business partners, and more than 100 volunteers support the programs.
He emphasizes that Covenant House measures its success not only by the clients it serves, but also by how well it integrates with the neighbourhood and responds to its needs.
He sees their role as transitioning homeless youth back into the community, with the support of the community.
“Understand who homeless youth are. They’re kids. They don’t choose to be here. Half of the kids we see here are middle-class. The largest common denominator is a dysfunctional family,” he says.
“One of the most powerful things for our youth is to know that their community cares about them.”
But social agencies don’t simply get people off the street and into shelters or housing. They play a far larger role in a well-functioning neighbourhood.
Reverend John Joseph Mastandrea of the Metropolitan United Church – known to locals as The Met –points out that after both blackouts and ice storms in past years, there was a realization that there simply isn’t the capacity to help people if these disasters happen again.
“We’re working together at the Inter-Faith Council to identify solutions going forward,” he explains.
“Our aim is to create a seamless program that identifies a local crisis centre and equips it with blankets, water and other emergency supplies.”
Working together in times of crisis builds community.
Rev. Mastandrea remembers when a power line went down last winter, preventing Christmas celebrations at several Toronto churches.
“A nearby synagogue offered their space for Christmas services,” he says.
“That’s an example of how we can help each other.”
Indeed, there is a growing voice about the need for partnerships in the community.
For YSM President and CEO Angela Draskovic, a key goal would be employment partnerships.
“It would be my dream for businesses in Toronto to designate a certain number of positions for people trying to enter the workplace,” she says.
“It might be only one position, and it might take a little more patience, but the community contribution is significant.”
She says there is a growing awareness of the need to collaborate to tackle social issues, not just among social agencies but also with wider group of neighbours and stakeholders.
“Downtown Yonge is a community. We have more people living here; it’s not just a place for commerce or business,” she says.
“If we want to build a healthy community, we all have a role.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by local community activist Paul Farrelly who believes that neighbourhoods need to talk about how to build social capital.
“First of all, there needs to be a conversation. It’s incredible that there has been no conversation up until now,” he says.
“Everyone has lived on their own on Yonge Street and that needs to change.”