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opinion

Daniele Zanotti is president and CEO of United Way Greater Toronto. Darryl White is CEO of BMO Financial Group and United Way Community Campaign 2022 chair.

We have reached an inflection point for economic and social progress. With the Canadian Consumer Price Index reaching a new multidecade high of 8.1 per cent in June, affecting the cost of basics such as groceries, gas and housing, an affordability crisis now directly threatens communities across the Greater Toronto Area, particularly those disproportionately affected by the pandemic.

Over the past two years, distress centres serving the Greater Toronto Area had a 400-per-cent increase in calls, with 50 per cent coming from first-time callers. Food Banks Canada tracked 1.3 million visits – its highest on record – with more than 33 per cent of recipients being children. Community social agencies delivering front-line services are being squeezed on both ends. Demand for their services is rapidly increasing, their cost of gas, supplies and food is affected by the very same inflationary forces as other consumers, while the public and private revenues needed to run their organizations are not keeping pace.

More than 300 community agencies supported by United Way Greater Toronto provide support to more than two million members of our community struggling to recover from the dual threat of the pandemic effects and today’s affordability crisis. If ever there were a time to address the gaps that continue to grow wider in our social safety net, it is now.

Long-term systemic change requires a fundamental shift in how we approach solutions. It requires leaders across private, public and community sectors to come together and collaborate. The key is in an inclusive approach because everyone – regardless of who they are or where they live – has a role to play.

It starts with listening and involving those experiencing these issues first-hand to ensure we get it right. And it must start at the neighbourhood level in the postal codes where poverty is most concentrated, exposing the factors that keep people living in poverty.

How do we know this will work? We’re seeing progress with a series of pilot projects we’re undertaking in the Greater Golden Mile community of Scarborough through the Inclusive Local Economic Opportunity (ILEO) initiative. Led by BMO Financial Group and United Way Greater Toronto, ILEO is a partnership of 32 senior leaders representing a cross-section of the private, public and community sectors.

This initiative recognizes a need and a responsibility to ensure all members of a community benefit when large-scale infrastructure investments are made in their neighbourhood. With income and employment rates far below the Toronto average, the pace of economic growth within Greater Golden Mile neighbourhoods is not keeping up. In the coming decades, with real estate development momentum spurred by large-scale rapid transit projects, more than 75 new mid- and high-rise buildings, including 32,000 residential units and more than a million square feet of office and retail space will be built there, offering an opportunity to develop a community accessible for residents of all income levels.

By bringing community agencies, corporate and government partners to the table to explore innovative approaches to address disparity, together we’re mapping out ways to create local economic opportunities and drive social change from the ground up, with residents at the centre.

The initiative prioritizes hiring residents in this community with a special focus on members of underrepresented groups – including women, newcomers and racialized communities – and offers skills training, competitive pay and opportunities for advancement. It focuses on a range of pilot projects, including a community-owned construction joint venture, a storefront starter and local procurement of products and services to support established and emerging local businesses. It also serves as a forum for new partners to tackle old problems together, such as local retailers working with community agencies to disrupt systemic barriers to economic participation for residents.

ILEO has the potential to be replicated in other communities, offering just one example of a new approach and a deeper working relationship across public, private and charitable sectors. This approach has the power to effect social change at the neighbourhood level for a more equitable future and to help counter the effects of affordability and pandemic challenges.

These opportunities are not just game changing, they’re life changing. When the private, public and community sectors come together, the results can be transformational, and the progress we achieve can make our communities more resilient to the greatest challenges facing us all.

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