With the City recently revising its priority-neighbourhoods list, we check in on the ones earmarked by the United Way’s extensive 2004 report on Toronto’s poorest areas.
Ten years ago, the United Way released Poverty by Postal Code (PBPC), a groundbreaking study that revealed how, over the course of 1981 to 2001, Toronto’s poorest areas had shifted out of the downtown core and into the inner suburbs—specifically, the former municipalities of York, East York, Etobicoke, North York, and Scarborough.
The United Way made recommendations for the former municipalities to build stronger neighbourhoods, help newcomers fulfill their potential, set youth on pathways to success, put neighbourhood development on the public-policy agenda, make housing affordable, provide livable incomes, create employment, and invest in social infrastructure.
“We wanted to champion the inner suburbs, and look for policy solutions: that notion of a placed-based strategy that would target efforts where they are needed most and target resources and funding where its needed,” says Glenn Ewald, United Way’s director of communications and public affairs.
In response to PBPC, The United Way devised the Building Strong Neighbourhoods Strategy (BSNS) to fortify these communities through targeted efforts, resident engagement, and improved access to social services and programs. From the BSNS, the Action for Neighbourhood Change revitalization program was established to develop local networks to create vibrant neighbourhoods.
Over the past 10 years, $209 million has been pooled into the priority neighbourhoods thanks to the United Way, three levels of government, NGOs, business owners, and other stakeholders. From this funding, seven out of eight planned community hubs have been built to serve the neighbourhoods with much-needed services and resources.
With the City of Toronto recently revising its priority-neighbourhood list, we went to each of the areas highlighted by PBPC in 2004 to see what’s changed in those 10 years since the recommendations were made, and to see if the hubs have benefitted the communities.
What PBPC reported: York had seen a 10 per cent increase in the number of total families over the course of 1981-2001, but a 54 per cent increase in the number of “poor” families over the same period.
What’s happened since: The former municipality of York is now home to the Jane Street Hub, which opened its doors to the Weston-Mt. Dennis community in January of 2011.
What’s still needs to happen: Councillor Joe Mihevc (Ward 21, St. Paul’s West) says there aren’t too many pockets of need in his ward, but notes that York is a diverse area and there are vast differences between areas such as Mt. Dennis and Forest Hill.
“Very often, when public transit is upgraded in the area, the area becomes stronger and more vibrant,” says Mihevc. “That’s why we need to do a lot of light rail in the inner suburbs because that will change the Poverty by Postal Code map.”
While Mihevc says there has been positive change in his neighbourhood since PBPC, he also thinks that poverty in the suburbs is still a big issue in Toronto.
“Downtown has become a much more expensive place,” says Mihevc.
What PBPC reported: East York had the highest concentration of poverty among all of the former municipalities, with an increase from 0 high-poverty neighbourhoods in 1981 to eight in 20o1
What’s happened since: The Victoria Village–Flemingdon Park Hub and the AccessPoint on Danforth Hub have both opened since 2004 and, though both are technically in Scarborough, they serve priority neighbourhoods on the East York side of the border.*
“We are a settlement agency, so in addition to wanting to work with people from the neighbourhood in general, we have a specific focus on newcomers,” says Luanne Rayvals, manager of Victoria Village–Flemingdon Park Hub. “If newcomers are not integrated into the neighbourhood, then we don’t feel that it’s going be a strong community.”
Rayvals’ hub works with stakeholders, agencies, community groups, and residents to provide activities and advocate for community involvement; yoga, knitting, and cooking classes are just some of the activities the hub offers.
Rayvals says they encourage residents to bring new ideas to the hub and “celebrate and explore life in Victoria Village and the surrounding area.”
What still needs to happen: Councillor Janet Davis (Ward 31 Beaches-East York) believes there hasn’t been much change since the study. She found the first round of priority neighbourhoods were too varied to focus the efforts of the United Way, government, and other stakeholders involved. The results were hard to measure and the next phase will demonstrate clearer outcomes.
“The factors that contribute to healthy neighbourhoods, such as employment, income, access to services, education and recreation…I just don’t get a sense that we have seen any significant, ongoing, new investment in those neighbourhoods,” says Davis.
Despite this, Davis notes how the hubs, particularly the AccessPoint in her ward on the Danforth, have benefited the community on a street level.
“We are seeing people starting to really connect with the hub,” says Davis. ”But now we need more.”
What PBPC reported: The total number of families in Etobicoke increased by only 6.6 per cent between 1981 and 2001, but the number of “poor” families grew by 70 per cent, and that the concentration of family poverty increased from 7.7 per cent in 1981 to 35.3 per cent in 2001. In 1981, the area had two higher-poverty neighbourhoods, but by 2001, the number had increased to 10.
What’s happened since: The neighbourhood now boasts the Rexdale Community Hub, which opened in March 2012.
“The Rexdale Hub is huge,” raves Ewald of the massive community space located in a 62,000 square-foot building that used to be a Catholic secondary school. The Rexdale hub offers a health centre, a legal clinic, and employment services to people in the community.
The Rexdale hub offers a homework club, a health clinic, and housing services. A gym, which opened here last March, is very popular and is always booked in the evenings by community soccer clubs and basketball leagues, says Amra Munawar, the hub’s director.
“Forty per cent of the population here in Rexdale is under 24, so there is a huge need for programming for youth and children,” says Munawar. “The hub overall doesn’t just provide services but the space, which is needed as well.”
What still needs to happen: While the hub has brought agencies together in the Rexdale community, Munawar says there is still much work to do in dealing with the “massive level of poverty,” citing that the average income in the area is $17,000.
Munawar says connecting people to various services through the hubs is always a good idea, but there are other connections that need to happen at higher levels, namely, between the non-profit sector and the three levels of government.
“We can actually put a real effort together where we can use these people’s skills—who actually live here and are newcomers come to Canada—to get them out of these poverty cycles,” says Munawar.
What PBPC reported: North York had more higher-poverty neighbourhoods than any other former municipality, increasing from seven in 1981 to 36 in 2001. The number of families living in North York increased by 8.7 per cent, but the number of “poor” families grew by 81 per cent.
What’s happened since: The Bathurst-Finch Community Hub now serves North York and the surrounding area, however, the aforementioned Victoria Village Hub in East York somewhat overlaps into this area as well.
What still needs to happen: Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong (Ward 34 Don Valley East) isn’t completely satisfied with the changes that have been implemented since PBPC was released.
“My observation is that I see mixed results,” he says. “There is a centre that is near Victoria Park that is a really good positive step, but I don’t think enough of the funding filters down to the people that actually need it.”
Part of this stems from Minnan-Wong’s assertion that the priority neighbourhoods identified were too broadly defined and not focussed enough on the specific areas that needed funding.
Speaking specifically about his ward, Minnan-Wong says, “I see this mad scramble of these groups and organizations scrambling to take away money for themselves to the exclusion of others.”
What PBPC reported: There was a 31 per cent increase in the number of families in Scarborough, but a dramatic 136.6 per cent increase in the number of “poor”families between 1981 and 2001.
What’s happened since: The United Way has created two community hubs within Scarborough. The Dorset Park Community Hub and the Mid-Scarborough Hub both serve the surrounding communities and have numerous partners working out of them.
For example, the Dorset hub partners with the Daily Bread Food bank; Rachel Langley (pictured), a hub placement student who works with the food bank, says that, Wednesdays through Fridays, people in the community can get boxes filled with produce, canned food, and juices.
The food bank also has “intakes” with the people they serve where they evaluate their eligibility (based on proof of income and proof of residency) to determine how many times they can pick up food in the month. The food bank, which serves five postal codes, also gives the people it services the option to pick up miscellaneous items like diapers, and feminine-hygiene products.
“You start to build a relationship with people and start remember that some people like certain things—you learn who’s a vegetarian, who’ s halal, who’s allergic to peanuts,” says Langley. “It’s not just a place to come get food; we come here to see them and talk to them and we enjoy coming here, too.”
Where do we go from here?
The United Way is now working on a new strategy for 2014-2019 to further implement the BSNS and re-evaluate Toronto’s priority neighbourhoods.
Although it’s difficult to precisely measure the successes of the PBPC recommendations, the 2012 United Way Building Strong Neighbourhoods report offers some insight: It says 155 new community groups have been established through Action for Neighbourhood Change in the 13 priority neighbourhoods and 230 United Way programs and services are now available to the residents in the inner suburbs.
However, Councillor Davis has concerns about the priority neighbourhoods being re-evaluated because she doesn’t want the City to abandon the first 13 when the funding dries up.
“We can’t turn around now and withdraw the resources that have gone into the first 13 neighbourhoods,” says Davis. “We can’t say well that was nice and now we are going to move on to another 10 or 12 neighbourhoods and say good luck to the old ones.”
CORRECTION, MARCH 13, 2014: The East York section has been updated to reflect the fact that the community hubs discussed within are technically located in nearby Scarborough.