How Do We Solve the Ongoing Issue of Poverty in Toronto?
Throughout human history, poverty has posed as one of the greatest challenges within society. Although the prevalence of poverty has significantly decreased in the modern era, we still have a long way to go. One in four children and one in five adults currently live in poverty in Toronto. What we have discovered though, is that the prevention is key and creating wrap-around solutions that target every step along the path to poverty can help produce more powerful and long-term changes.
WoodGreen Community Services is an organization that aims to do just that, it focuses on the social determinants as a way to lift people out from poverty. WoodGreen provides a path that targets the root problems and offers supports that allows the people they help to gain independence. To 40,000 people each year, WoodGreen offers housing, childcare, after-school programming, support to newcomers, mental health supports, and employment training. Together, these programs empower Canadians to overcome the systemic issues that create the uphill battle and downward cycle of poverty.
We had the privilege of interviewing Teresa Vasilopoulos, Executive Director of The WoodGreen Foundation, to learn more about the current programs and initiatives, and to discuss the changing atmosphere since COVID-19.
Homeward Bound empowers single mothers to break the cycle of poverty
Homeward Bound is one of WoodGreen’s hallmark programs that demonstrates their immense impact on the community of Toronto. It is a four-year program that supports women and their children fleeing domestic abuse or living in shelters. The program is much more than a band-aid solution, it offers education, counselling, daycare, after-school programming, and housing which allows the women to shift their focus on developing their career.
“Housing is a big issue across all of our clients, but just giving somebody a key to an apartment isn't the solution they need. They need the supports in order to be successful tenants. It's really that wrap around solution that helps people to successfully transition from poverty and achieve financial independence the four years.” - Teresa Vasilopoulos, Executive Director, The WoodGreen Foundation
The statistical results from this program speaks to its significance. 90% of the individuals upon intake are living in shelters, whereas after graduation from the program, 94% of them are living in stable housing. Within 5 years, 8% of these women are homeowners and 88% of them are employed in positions that earn $45,000 annually. Clearly, the Homeward Bound programs provides the tools to enable women in these difficult situations to break the cycle of poverty, escape abuse situations, and become independently empowered for the long run. They are currently looking to double their capacity, currently at 76 units, with a second campus.
First Step to Home gives veterans of the streets a fighting chance
Another important program offered by WoodGreen is First Step to Home, which targets the population that they call the “hardest to house”. These are often older men (55 years and up) who have been on the streets for over 6 years. They often struggle with mental health disorders and addiction. They have lost their jobs and can lack a social support system. First Step to Home approaches this slowly by going back to the basics and focusing on equipping them with the skills needed to look after themselves. This can include skills such as cooking, cleaning, access to community programs, and access to primary health care. The ultimate goal of this program is to get them back on their feet and give them the feeling like they are able to make a contribution or find greater fulfillment. There are often cases of clients in the program who end up reconnecting with their family and thus rebuild the supports that allow them to prosper on their own.
COVID-19 exposed the harsh reality of homelessness and hunger
Inevitably, we ended up speaking to Teresa about COVID-19, and how WoodGreen has endured through these challenging times. Along with many other organizations, WoodGreen looked towards virtual strategies for a lot of their programming. They were able to partner with telecommunication companies to receive tablets for their clients, which enabled them to do video visits with their social workers and counsellors. In the first few weeks of COVID-19, there was a massive shortage of access to food banks and communal food programs. WoodGreen was able to mobilize a temporary food bank internally, by reaching out to their donor base and secure funds to purchase large amounts of food for clients.
Most importantly, COVID-19 helped to shine a light on the social service sector, as well as the important work that WoodGreen does. Sadly, the most vulnerable segments of our population were disproportionately affected by the pandemic. Vulnerable seniors, people living in the streets, and people with mental health issues were impacted hugely, and access to the services that help keep them moving forwards were halted during the quarantine period.
Their world was turned upside down. We now realize how much we rely on organizations like WoodGreen, who are able to shift gears and quickly find resources to help these vulnerable populations in times of trouble. From an economic standpoint, there is clear evidence to support a large return on investment when using wrap-around approaches, and though social service sector is often overlooked in philanthropy, it has a huge impact of improving the health of our city. From a human standpoint, we are only as strong as our weakest link, and doing our part to improve the lives of those in need is an essential part of being a moral person and building strong communities.
How you can help
If you feel inspired and would like to contribute to The WoodGreen Foundation, they are looking for donations towards specific programs so that they can continue to offer these services to clients. They are looking for corporate partners and employee fundraising efforts. You can also support some of WoodGreen’s activities through gift-in-kind donations such as supporting their winter warmth kits, or food gift cards. Finally, you can become involved by volunteering in-person (post-COVID-19) or virtually by following and promoting WoodGreen on social media.