Mount Dennis Neighbourhood Centre

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Expansion South: MDNC

“What God does first and best and most is to trust His people with this moment in history. God trusts them to do what must be done for the sake of the whole community.” --Walter Brueggemann.

Weston and Mount Dennis have shared histories as former industrial and working-class communities which welcomed diverse, newer residents. There are also differences between the two communities. The proliferation of high-rise towers and Toronto Community Housing (TCH) in Weston has created a more diverse community and higher poverty concentrations. In 1954, Mount Dennis was physically altered by Hurricane Hazel. Today, Mount Dennis has a higher than average recent immigrant population, with 65 percent of residents being visual minorities. Mount Dennis is still dominated by homeowners, has strong community organizations and a high civic engagement level.

Speaking of Mount Dennis: “The suburb was anchored at the turn of the 19th century by a boatyard on the Humber River, while gravel and clay pits, interspersed with orchards, made for a sparsely populated rural setting. That was until Kodak Canada arrived during World War I….right beside the railway corridor. The community prospered as almost all employment was pegged to this one factory complex…….Workers at Kodak and the nearby stockyards built homes, gradually filling the streets with the current housing stock…… the most affordable housing in Toronto for both new immigrants and first-time homeowners. Then in 2005, Kodak packed up and left, as did many associated jobs.” (Toronto Star Report)

In 2012, after a long history of worship and community activity promoting social groups like Alcoholic Anonymous, and providing rehearsal space for yoga, bands and dance groups, Mount Dennis United Church (MDUC) closed and sold their building. Wanting a legacy and to keep a ministry in the area, MDUC chose, through the administration of the United Church of Canada, to give WKNC $500,000 to open a second drop-in centre in Mount Dennis. The money was held by Presbytery and allocated in portions to the trustees of Central United Church. There was funding for a three-year pilot project with a focus on reaching sustainability.

A steering committee comprised of WKNC staff and Board members and former members of the Mount Dennis congregation formed to plan the new development. It was an opportunity for the United Church to create local agents of change. The idea was not to replicate programming already in place, apart from essential harm reduction and housing, but to explore social enterprise and partnership trends, helping people incubate their businesses interwoven with all aspects of food access.

The drop-in sector now emphasized participant engagement, community building and knowledge transfer, within a measurement and evaluation framework.

“Our next business venture will be a satellite in another part of our priority at-risk neighbourhood – to create a vibrant community ready to help itself. We won’t repeat the current model but experiment with community kitchens and gardens, and space for community development. We will incorporate more political advocacy for change in policy”. 2013 Annual General Meeting – Mount Dennis Neighbourhood Sub-Committee Report Steering Committee members developed an estimated budget for 1.5 full-time staff of $492,500 (including fuel and insurance for a donated vehicle, not including renovations) and sought a suitable location. The search was a longer process than anticipated to meet the requirements of dedicated space, public frontage, and facilities ideal for creating a fully working kitchen.

Finally, in April 2013, a mile and a half south of WKNC, a site was rented belonging to The Learning Enrichment Foundation (LEF). Space included an office, a shared accessible washroom, an activity room with a street-facing glass garage-door type window, and room to build the community kitchen. LEF is the largest agency in the northwest part of the City, providing job training, settlement support, youth, and enterprise programs supplementing the appropriately named Mount Dennis Neighbourhood Centre (MDNC).

In an early discussion, it was suggested the five apartments above 1267-69 Weston Road be managed by WKNC as transitional housing. The steering committee also envisioned a roof garden. LEF is the Social Enterprise Network trustee with staff and office space at their Industry Street location. This Network is the umbrella group for all the social enterprises in Toronto. LEF themselves have been active with social enterprise – including a bicycle repair shop and janitorial training programs.

The Planning Coordinator/Program Facilitator hiring called for an experienced, self-motivated staff person who would be the only full-time worker at the site. The job description included program planning, staff and volunteer management, partnership building, and administrative responsibility. Also, taking the lead for fundraising to build a commercial-grade communal kitchen.

After various bidding processes, a space designer and contractors were hired, and shopping lists for equipment developed. The open-concept kitchen was built around a work island and various countertops. Show-case and regular refrigerators, a dishwasher-sanitizer, sinks, convection ovens and stoves were purchased and installed. ($150,855) The funding came from the City of Toronto Sue Cox Community Action Fund, Health and Safety and the Homelessness Partnership Initiative (HPI)

In the summer of 2013, MDNC held a grand opening. Local entrepreneurs showcased their products, and workshops featured local art and food preparation. The next public event was in January 2014, where a community meeting invited others to share ideas for MDNC’s future, creating exciting graphics as whole families vocalized their needs.

MDNC received support for ongoing programs through the United Church Mission Support funding of South West Presbytery.  This $20,000 grant came from funds held in trust within the Presbyteries of the Toronto Conference Corporation. It also received two small grants (totalling approximately $5,000) from the Toronto United Church Council Treble Fund. The Treble Fund supported home economics education, helpful for participants in managing their lives on low incomes.

The MDNC three-year pilot project had extended its time frame to July 2017. By December, a decision about the future partnering, programming and sources of funding was necessary. City (and provincial and federal) budgets were no longer able to sustain the not-for-profits supporting people living in poverty. Funding emphasis from all areas, including corporate, was now concentrating on the environment and youth.

By May 2018, MDNC was facing a shortfall by year-end. Fundraising was hard, and entrepreneurs few. One of the challenges was people wanting to rent space in the off-hours and staff being responsible for the space. By this time, drop-ins were encouraged to collaborate in their applications and programs. An agency such as WKNC had to be clear about its competencies and community value compared to others. City funding became very specific and narrowly focused on goals – primarily housing. WKNC needed experienced leadership and an engaged Board of Directors to succeed.