Bill Sinclair the CEO of The Neighbourhood Group has recently been awarded the prestigious Social Planning Council Frances Lankin Lifetime Achievement Award. He is also a recipient of the coveted UWGT/ Bhayana Award for Partnership. Despite these laurels, he is humble and has strong community roots. He is entrepreneurial and has transformed organizations he has worked in – ensuring they are responsive to community needs. Please read how creatively his organization responded to community needs for food and housing during the pandemic.
1. What challenges and opportunities has your organization faced during Covid and what do you foresee in the Covid Recovery period?
It has been an incredibly challenging time for the community and our sector along with it. At first many volunteer-led services were forced to close – food banks, seniors groups, homeless supports – and services with staff like TNGCS had to step in with double and triple the amount of emergency food, food hampers and outreach. We operate many essential services, so our personal support workers (PSWs) continued providing health care to hundreds of seniors at home, and our tenants needed the same 24/7 supports as always. We never stopped delivering meals on wheels or our homeless drop-in or our overdose prevention site.
As the pandemic continued, we had to reinvent many indoor services to reach people differently. We offered classes, workshops, and counselling over the internet – which involved distributing new technology to staff and participants as well. For children, youth, and seniors we learned to offer virtual and outdoor services, including balcony concerts/balcony bingo for seniors in our apartment buildings. Our youth set up a peer helpline with youth available to speak to youth every afternoon. And our childcare was completely reinvented to meet new pandemic standards so essential workers could continue to go to work.
The crisis for people who are homeless was profound. With the City, many charities had to open emergency shelters in hotels to reduce the crowding in traditional shelters. TNGCS was asked to staff three hotels 24/7 specifically for people in shelters who tested positive for COVID. They needed a lot of support to isolate and recover, especially for people who could not easily sit still within four walls. TNGCS has been working with people who are homeless for a long time, and we recruited over a hundred people who had this past experience but were now living in housing (some living in TNGCS housing) to help. They were paid Peer Workers and could relate to the people recovering in the hotels. The City also asked us to reach out to people staying in tent encampments to offer support, emergency, and health supplies, and help them get their identification in order to that they could apply for benefits or housing. A mix of professional staff and Peer Workers is immensely helpful to build trust and offer the best services.
At the same time during the pandemic, TNGCS worked with the City to open a new childcare centre in a fast-growing neighbourhood, and two new supportive housing buildings for 100 tenants. Some of the people staying in tent encampments were able to move into this housing, as well as other people on priority waiting lists. We also trustee grass-roots groups who have great local ideas but are not incorporated or registered charities so they cannot access funds to do their ideas. We, as a charity, can hold these funds and support these projects. During the pandemic, we doubled the number of groups we trustee – so they could access the quick COVID funds made available by the government and United Way. We trusteed 43 projects, including many “micro-grants” – small, quick projects under $3,000 that could be done right away.
Going forward, we have been able to open more and more indoor services, but we know that some of these on-line services are needed also and will continue. We hope to open more housing with the City this coming year and move more people from the temporary hotels into housing. We are working closely with our amazing Peer Workers on their career goals as many have had very positive and meaningful work experiences helping others during the pandemic.
2. The Sector appears to be facing a major problem with staff shortages and recruitment challenges at present. You have successfully addressed issues related to this during the pandemic. Please share your unique strategies for addressing this fundamental issue.
Yes, we are facing staff shortages in many areas, as is everyone in the non-profit sector. We are hiring Personal Support Workers (PSWs), childcare workers, and counsellors for all ages, and holding frequent job fairs. One strategy we are using is hiring participants from our programs. In working with people who are homeless we have drawn upon many participants who came to us when they were homeless and now are living in housing – including our housing. They have so much experience and are setting goals for their health, their employment, and their family relationships. We have always hired participants, but this has been accelerated in the pandemic and we have never hired so many so quickly. We also have decades of experience working with newcomers to Canada and have hired many refugees with international education and training into permanent jobs during the pandemic. For refugees, having Canadian work experience and new networks of friends and colleagues is vital, and they are eager to support their community in all kinds of roles.
3. The federal government is planning to add a quality-of-life index for Canadians –going beyond just looking at economic numbers. What does this mean for your organization and the work it does for the community? How should Quality of life be ‘measured’?
One big lesson from the non-profit sector is that most help in the community is local and unpaid. Family caregivers, neighbours and local volunteers are a giant unseen workforce that make neighbourhoods function. Some of this was revealed in the pandemic when these volunteers were unable to go out, and some was revealed as new volunteers stepped forward. There was more attention than ever before in the media about how organizations like TNGCS mobilize neighbours to do door knocking and help people get their vaccines in high-rise neighbourhoods, for example. I hope a quality-of-life index will demonstrate the unseen network or unseen caring economy that keep children safe, and families caring for family members with disabilities, and natural social gatherings in communities.
4. Can you comment on the issue of the value of digitization of the Sector-the value/drawbacks and your vision of how it needs to proceed going forward?
While a lot of innovative and important work has been offered on-line this year, we still believe in local storefront services. We face a digital divide in our country and many people living in poverty are at a great disadvantage in accessing government and community services on-line. We can look at the struggles of families to keep up with on-line school without adequate tools, and the challenges of on-line tribunals where a tenant can be evicted in seconds without speaking to an advisor. These are a misuse of digital services that we must guard against. As a sector that provides care – childcare, homecare, health care – there are also huge limits on what cannot be done on-line and can only be done face-to-face. Many in the sector are planning ‘hybrid’ services with both in-person and on-line options. This should be accompanied by a coordinated sector advocacy approach that internet, data, and technology should be essential services in reducing poverty. Too often phone and laptops are only available as charitable gifts to families in poverty and not a human right to provide equal access.
5.Your organization been in the forefront re: diversity, equity, and inclusion in its work. What changes/adaptations to do foresee moving forward?
By offering local storefront services, we naturally connect with communities and need to speak the languages and represent the neighbourhood we serve. We have staff offering services in the top ten languages of the City and especially languages of recent immigrant communities. Our targeted services also reflect other equity issues – poverty, aging, homelessness, living with disabilities, living with mental health and substance use – and populations such as the Indigenous community and LGBTQ+ community. We recently did an equity review of our organization and were pleased that our service users strongly reported our equity and inclusion commitment in our services. We also learned that we were advocating for issues that reflect the diversity of our community, but we could do more. And we learned that while our staff and volunteers were remarkably diverse, we could include all voices better in our work, and support more diversity at senior levels of our organization. Moving forward, Peer Workers in many programs – paid program participants who co-design and co-deliver our services – is an important best practice in inclusion that has accelerated during the pandemic. We also trustee grass-roots groups as part of the TNGCS family. These groups are tenant-led, youth-led and women-led groups, so their voices and skills are central in planning and delivering equitable services.