Michael Braithwaite, CEO of Blue Door
1. You have achieved extraordinary milestones in your career Michael. Can you tell us about some of the challenges you have faced?
While it’s very kind to use the word “extraordinary”, I’ve been fortunate enough to work with extremely talented people over the years to make some pretty cool things happen. Probably the biggest challenge over the years and one we continue to face is sustainability. Many of our programs and interventions rely on government funding, which in some cases come in the form of one time grants, or short term agreements. Governments change and so do their priorities so funding can shift at any given time. The need never stops so it’s always extremely challenging to make sure our most vulnerable don’t suffer by coming up with new funding strategies and programs.
On another note, I did my undergraduate degree while working in the field full time, which was extremely challenging. As I tell many youth experiencing homelessness while encouraging them to further their education, I knew that if I didn’t finish my degree, there would be doors that would not open for me in the future, so I pushed through.
2. As you look back, what might you do differently?
I’ve been extremely fortunate to have worked with so many mentors who have let me fail forward without punishment but with forgiveness and learning. Looking back I would have been a little more patient and may have slowed down a little. What I’ve realized is that everyone does not move at the same pace. By not realizing this and adjusting accordingly, you can burn people out and grow faster than the organization is ready for.
3. What are the barriers that prevent us from effectively addressing homelessness?
This is a complex question. For the longest time the sector has put all of it’s resources and time into reacting to homelessness through emergency housing and services. If we are truly to end homelessness, we have to make a shift to put resources into the early prevention of it, and as well to the aftercare of individuals once they’ve found housing or left the system. As a society, we have to see homelessness as the crisis it is, and give real teeth to housing as a human right. While homelessness has been around for a long time, it didn’t become a crisis until the 1990’s when the federal government stopped building thousands of units of social housing each year. We need all levels of government to work together to build deeply affordable housing across the country if we hope to end this crisis. Lastly, we need to look at income supports. Fifteen percent of people living in Ontario receive Ontario Works or ODSP. The amount they receive is still less than they were receiving in 1995 due to a 21% cut back by the government that year. We need to do a huge overhaul of our social assistance program and look at programs like universal basic income, so everyone can afford dignified housing.
4. What are your thoughts on youth engagement in our Sector? How can we attract their drive energy and passion?
Youth coming into our sector give me great hope. Their passion, advocacy and energy to help our most vulnerable has never been higher, and I believe they are going to be the change we need to see for real change. To engage youth even more, I believe we need to make sure the sector stories are being told to create the awareness needed to attract youth into the sector. The sector really needs to reevaluate our pay scales so we can attract and keep amazing people. While there are so many that are passionate about ending homelessness, the reality is to live and work in the GTA and across Canada has increasingly become more expensive and wages have not kept up.
5. How can we raise the profile of the Nonprofit Sector to ensure our work is valued and esteemed?
We have great stories to tell, and so many heroes doing great work in our sector. We need to share our big wins(reductions in homelessness for example) more, so the public will understand the value of the work we do. We need to create opportunities to showcase the work we do i.e. Bhayana awards, so greater value is associated with non for profit. Since 2019, Blue Door along with the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness have been producing a podcast called “On The Way Home”. The main driver for this was to create awareness of the challenges, successes and needs in the sector and to showcase the incredible work being done. We need more of this type of promotion to reach a greater audience and to grow the sector.