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 the Trustees of Central United Church and allocated to WKNC in as needed. 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 of $492,500 for for 1.5 full-time staff, with expenses (including fuel and insurance for a donated vehicle, but not including renovations) They then 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.

PROGRAMS AND PARTNERS

The Community Food Centres publicity, The Drop-in Review (2016) and the Measuring Success 111 (2011) directives encouraged changes in programming goals. “What is a ‘client-centred approach?’” was being asked. Was it more than being ‘non-judgmental? People were reminded that hunger, poverty and poor diet are policy issues, not individual failings. Now, the emphasis was on ‘intentional and systematic efforts to improve participants’ circumstances.’ Staff paid more attention to ‘participant engagement’ and the ‘change process.’ Toronto Drop-in Network (TDIN) discussions focussed on peer programs, advocacy, participant engagement, outreach, community development, skills development and empowerment. MDNC would not be a “Food Centre” but have “food-related programs developing skills and knowledge.”

Housing and Harm Reduction, Employment and Settlement

MDNC’s drop-in programming met the immediate needs of the marginalized since there are no such services in the vicinity (except for the Salvation Army offering a food bank and a drop-in.) Housing and Harm Reduction staff from other agencies – Albion Neighbourhood Services, Syme-Woolner Neighbourhood and Family Centre and Unison Health and Community Services - shared their allocated time between WKNC and MDNC. With its larger immigrant population, types of services and delivery differed from those at WKNC. Helping people’s situations, the housing and harm reduction programs gave referrals to shelters, detoxification centres and addiction centres, arranging help with income support (includes PNA, OW, ODSP, etc.) legal services, identification and other such services.

Community Advocacy Programs for Both Sites

A project invited participants to undergo training covering OW/ODSP, housing rights, media skills, and legal issues and become peer advocates helping other community members. Those with lived experience are supported to speak for themselves. Meanwhile, the Toronto Drop-in Network was forming an Advocacy Committee and looking for representatives. They advocated publicly on issues affecting drop-in populations – homelessness, poverty, lack of access to transportation, food security, etc., gathering information on topics such as shelter beds and garbage fees. Now they were hoping drop-in participants could become engaged directly in the advocacy.

Food Security and Learning Centre

The new purpose-built kitchen was used by MDNC staff and volunteers for various meal programs, and by entrepreneurs to prepare products to sell. Brunch and dinner, scheduled for weekends, had volunteers being encouraged to help with all the aspects of preparation and serving. Children’s after-school cooking programs and youth programs proved popular. The Aboriginal Families Kitchens had as many as 20 people turning up. (2014) Community meals, where people enjoyed cooking and eating together, gave opportunities to teach each other or invite leaders for specific projects such as jam making. MDNC’s goal was to encourage social enterprise linked with potential future opportunities to sell products when public space opened with the Metrolinx community hub concept.

Urban Agriculture and Community Gardens

As renovations to the building progressed, the outdoor activities – Getting Rooted: a Community Garden Mentoring Project - saw planters built alongside the building filled with donated vermin-free compost. The goal was to heal the disconnect between the food and its origins. Tools were purchased, and soil beds turned over at WKNC’s premises and Emmett Gardens. A garden peer program, where volunteers maintained the gardens and harvested the food, was developed with gardening mentors for both sites.

Food Desert/Markets

Mount Dennis is a “food desert” - few grocery stores sell fresh produce. To remedy this, MDNC developed a “Market” involving the weekly sale of fresh fruit and vegetables from a stall outside MDNC. The fruit and vegetables were purchased in bulk from LEF and packaged and arranged on the tables. Street sales provided a way to attract new program participants; however, there was minimal foot traffic or parking for motor vehicle drivers to stop and buy.

Leasing of Space for Social Enterprise and Public Events

Income for sustainability was to be generated by leasing space and equipment for social enterprise activities, such as food and craft production, and for training facilities, either prolonged or one-day workshops; and in off-hours (evenings and weekends) offer space to community groups or individuals.

“Social Enterprise: A business operated by a non-profit… that is: a) directly involved in the production and/or selling of goods and services to customers; b) for the dual purpose of generating income from sales and achieving social, cultural, or environmental aims.”

One funding body for this type of activity is the Toronto Enterprise Foundation (TEF), a United Way partner. MDNC applied to their Business Plan Seed Funding program for a year, with the idea of supporting some social enterprise. Although presenting in the last four applicants, MDNC was not successful in their first application. Rental agreements, hourly pricing, safety and security measures, audio-visual guidelines for the use of equipment, along with colourful pamphlets advertising the availability of the space and costs.

The Hospitality Workers Training Centre (HWTC) built a partner-ship around offering training in the hospitality industry “Culinary Skills Launch Program - at the MDNC site, opening course entry spaces to program participants and local job seekers. In 2019, they rented the space daily for a term.

Cash is needed for business start-ups. The challenges of engaging local entrepreneurs were mostly financial. MDNC needed to be paid for its facilities, but developing entrepreneurs did not have the cash to lay out. MDNC staff gave opportunities for showcasing at local events and on-site, but their assistance in a start-up was limited.

Challenges for Programs: Concern about extending more social service programs into the neighbourhood; duplication of services (e.g. The Hub); Retail competition; providing free or low-cost food where restaurants exist; Food production licenses and zoning restrictions for producing food and selling items, need for public washrooms; Costs for property taxes, utilities, etc. if not in the lease; Cannot sell items made using donated food from Daily Bread and Second Harvest (adds to costs.)

Indigenous Programs for Women and Children

Native and Child Family Services (NCFS) partnered with MDNC. (Mount Dennis having a relatively large First Nations, Metis and Inuit population) Focus groups found what was needed. The group grew to around 30. These were mostly women and children, so a child-minding program was developed with the NCFS bringing in two part-time childcare workers.

The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) provided a Strengthening Families program. A drum social helped launch the Aboriginal Families Kitchen Program and MDNC participated in the national rivers day/multi-cultural water festival /first nations youth event on the Humber. Funding from Jane Goodall Institute will provide funding for a small food and environment demonstration and staffing support for the day.

In 2019, a Drumming Circle met at WKNC and MDNC on alternate weeks. Using sweetgrass and sage, people were invited to speak in turn and join in the drumming, singing and prayers of the Indigenous people. More non-Indigenous attended, interested in learning views on Truth and Reconciliation

Mental Health Support/Health and Wellbeing

A strong case was made from both Centres to invest in mental health first aid. It was thought 85-90 percent of WKNC’s population dealt with some form of mental illness. One in five people in Canada will have some form of mental illness each year and, by age 40, around half of the population has been impacted. However, treatment is not suited to more than small groups and even when offered, workshops were not well attended by program participants.

The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) provided funding ($500) to run the Mood Walks hiking program for over 50s. This program developed by the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport is administered by CMHA) for over 50s with mental illness. MDNC put out a call for donations of hiking boots. Both WKNC and MDNC sit close beside the Humber River with its associated parks, trails and outdoor spaces. Some of the client base use the river landscape as a place to build a camp and sleep outdoors, to fish and catch wildlife.

Emphasis on Volunteerism

The aim was to create opportunities for volunteers to serve as leaders and on planning committees—this required recruitment, training and skills development. Staff perform in the role of facilitators or resource people in the context of getting participants engaged in activities “A hand up rather than a handout.”

The plan was for the more experienced volunteers from the WKNC site to “graduate” to leadership roles at MDNC. Neither site can afford more staff, so volunteers become essential to meal planning, preparation, service and clean-up of meals, the maintenance of the site and programs like Bingo. In reality, high attention seekers found they liked the smaller numbers at MDNC and drifted from WKNC.