In this next installment of Stories From the Field, we bring you news from St. Stephen’s Community House in Toronto. We first heard about the work at St. Stephen’s house 5 years ago, when they joined us for a training full of innovative service providers in Toronto looking to solve the systemic issues their clients were facing. This year, in the face of budget cuts that would drastically limit funds for the city’s homeless shelters and public housing units, program participants at St. Stephen’s Community House rallied together to ensure that the city did not cut off these vital resources.
One participant in the Corner Drop-In’s Member Advocacy committee proposed that they start a petition with other drop-in users to protest the cuts. More specifically, they wanted to save three shelters that provide support to Toronto’s homeless and which were slated to be cut in the 2013 city operating budget. This client constituent group has run for more than three years at the Corner Drop-In, and the staff wholeheartedly supported their plan. Staff members accompanied program participant visits to a range of other drop-ins, but took a back seat while the constituents spoke out passionately as former shelter users who are opposed to these cuts. They obtained more than 250 signatures on their petition from drop-in users across the city.
The next step was to meet with the local city politicians. Their city councilor paid a visit to St. Stephen’s, where a program participant from the Corner Drop-In’s Member Advocacy Committee presented him with the signed petition and outlined the process of getting signatures at other drop-ins. This prompted the councilor to invite the group to attend a city council meeting several days later. When the councilor presented these petitions at the meeting, the program participants were asked to stand and be introduced as the main instigators of the petition drive. This was a proud moment for the program participants! They were recognized as leaders within a wide movement to oppose this regressive cut. The cuts to shelters were voted down at City Council later that day.
The Member Advocacy Committee is now energized to take up the fight to save more than 700 public housing units from being sold off.
St. Stephen’s Youth Arcade has also been working hard to fight cuts to city programs, including funding for programs for marginalized youth. One young program participant was supported by staff at St. Stephen’s to make a deputation at the city’s Executive Committee, to oppose cuts to grants to community agencies. The youth’s deputation was well-received, and the event was picked up by local media. Later, Youth Arcade staff and participants took part in a lobbying session with their local city councilor. Community grants were saved from cuts in the proposed budget, with councilors voting 23 to 21 in favor of keeping the grants- one of which served as a major source of funding for St. Stephen’s Community Development and Social Action program.
Through learning circles, trainings, and attending outside events, program participants and staff members at St. Stephen’s Community House continue to ramp up their advocacy work. They serve as a true example of how service providers can achieve social change within their communities.