St. Christopher House, 1912-2012: a century of social services in Toronto

Increasing presence in Parkdale

In addition to the employment programs, various home support programs for seniors and people with disabilities such as Meals on Wheels, operated in Parkdale for some time. In 2000, Parkdale Focus merged with St. Christopher House  at their initiative. This organization began in the 1980s as a neighbourhood response to preventing addictions and increasing the well being of the community. The merger brought the New Hope Drop-In for adults, largely people living in rooming and boarding houses in Parkdale, as well as the Community Parents Outreach Project, which featured multiethnic staff finding newcomer families with young children and accompanying them to various services such as daycare, school, community health centres, among others. On the community development side, the House participated in many neighbourhood planning processes, including a lengthy and intense Parkdale Conflict Resolution process where local tenants, landlords, businesses, social services and city government representatives worked toward resolution of the long outstanding dilemma of illegal ‘bachelorette’ housing in the area.

Community research collaborations with Richard Shillington, John Stapleton, and J. David Hulchanski

St. Christopher House recognized the importance of working with research centres and scholars in order to ensure that disadvantaged communities benefited from relevant research and policy ideas. In 2002, statistician and policy expert Richard Shillington partnered with St. Christopher House to study the personal financial decisions of low-income seniors and the extent to which they were taking advantage of government benefits. The study concluded that a large number of them were unaware of their entitlements and were making poorly informed financial decisions. As a result of this Community Undertaking Social Policy (CUSP) study, the federal government proactively notified low-income seniors across Canada about their eligibility for the Guaranteed Income Supplement. A second CUSP project in 2002-03, involving policy analyst John Stapleton, developed a new tool to protect and save assets appropriate for people with low-incomes. This study proposed a “Registered Development Savings Plan” as an alternative to RRSPs.

Toronto is a city of neighbourhoods with various life cycles. Throughout the 2000s, the changes taking place in the neighbour-hood where the House operated were evident. More affluent people were living in the neighbourhood, attracted by the large-scale condominium redevelopments on King Street. To study these transformations, the House partnered with the University of Toronto’s Centre for Urban and Community Studies, and Prof. J. David Hulchanski, and embarked in a five-year long community research project about local gentrification and the ways to build and maintain an inclusive community. This study resulted in the publication in 2007 of the report The Three Cities Within Toronto: Income Polarization Among Toronto’s Neighbourhoods, 1970 – 2000. An updated version including information from the 2006 Canada Census was released in 2010.

Modernizing Income Strategies for Working Age-Adults and Financial Advocacy and Problem Solving

St. Christopher House’s multi pronged approach to poverty included services to diverse people living with poverty as well as working to improve income security policies. A number of financial programs aimed at low-income individuals developed in the 2000s. The Financial Advocacy and Problem Solving (FAPS), which started in 2002, grew out from the experience of the Parking Banking Project. In its first year, its income tax clinic assisted 305 people with diverse financial problems stemming from incomplete or inaccurate information, scams, inaccessible financial services and managing with limited income. In 2004, its work completing income tax files resulted in over $1 million in tax refunds and credits going into the pockets of low-income people in the neighbourhood. In 2004 another initiative was introduced, the Modernizing Income Strategies for Working-Age Adults  (MISWAA). It involved diverse stakeholders, bringing together opinion leaders from the business sector and community, a wide range of policy experts from Canada’s leading think tanks, frontline agencies and diverse low-income individuals. Its goal was to design and test practical strategies for improving income security programs and policies.

The Health Action Theatre by Senior (H.A.T.S.)

The Health Action Theatre by Seniors (HATS) emerged from the Elder Abuse Prevention and Awareness Project. Staff in that program realized that public education that relied on written materials or passive learning was not effective, especially with seniors with low English language or literacy skills, and felt the need to communicate in ways that transcended these barriers. In 1997, a group of seniors and community workers from St. Christopher House participated in a 3-day workshop facilitated by Warren Linds, who used theatre to work on health issues in British Columbia. Linds was inspired by the work of Brazilian theatre director, Augusto Boal, author of the influential The Theatre of the Oppressed, who saw participatory theatre as an effective tool for social action.  Based on Boal’s methodology, the House started its own Action Theatre, initially on an experimental basis. In 2000, it received the Innovation SHARE Award.  The award money allowed the Action Theatre to develop and deliver training to seniors’ groups of diverse backgrounds. They also performed for medical students in Toronto, Hamilton and Philadelphia. Through play, HATS disseminated information about various health issues affecting older adults and encouraged people to engage in dialogue and civic action to increase appropriate health care.

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