Author Archive

Community Through Food at Chandler Mowat

October 21, 2015

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House of Friendship (HoF) runs an Emergency Food Hamper program. If you’re reading this blog, you likely already know this. You might not, however, know that—or how—food is a big part of many other HoF programs. That’s a shame, because food is great. It brings people together, it is a vehicle for change, and it tastes so good! To help share the story of food at HoF, we enlisted our two summer students, Chloe and Khadija. Together they visited the Chandler-Mowat community centre, and what follows are their collected thoughts.

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Chandler-Mowat is one of House of Friendship’s four community centres, which the organization runs in partnership with the City of Kitchener. The community centre is also home to many City of Kitchener employees, volunteers, and so many of the wonderful folks around the neighbourhood.

Thursday afternoons are a busy time at Chandler Mowat. The food distribution program at the Chandler Community Centre is held once a week in their gym. It’s set up much like the farmer’s market with tables of food and community members walking by picking what they like. The only difference is that there is no exchange of goods – they are given away freely by program volunteers! Food distribution starts at 2:00, but it is not uncommon to see many patrons sitting in the waiting area well before it starts, catching up with neighbours. (more…)

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Healthy Communities Through Harm Reduction

October 7, 2015

In part two of this three part series, Sarah outlined a difficult tension in many social service agencies’s work. Agencies like House of Friendship often walk with people using drugs or struggling with their mental health, which can manifest in behavior likely to be deemed “difficult.” When so-called difficult people are barred or restricted from service, those agencies cannot fulfill their mandate, and individuals who might need the most support receive the least, if any. In this final installment, Sarah picks up on this idea, and explores creative alternatives.

Besides barring people, what might possible alternatives to dealing with substance use or conflict in a social service agency look like? One particular framework seems to offer a different, more inclusive approach. So, today I’ll examine why increasing available harm reduction services, and adopting a harm reduction approach to working with people who use substances may be beneficial for individuals and communities.

Harm reduction is… what?

Harm reduction” means different things to different people, but I’ll say here that it is any policy or program designed to reduce drug-related harm without necessarily requiring the cessation of drug use. In other words, you need not be clean to access services, or whatever. The focus instead is on reducing the harmful consequences associated with drug use. So, harm reduction approaches and practices could include needle exchange programs, methadone clinics, crack pipe kits and “wet shelters,” all of which aim to mitigate harms without requiring abstinence.

From CATIE

The Canadian Harm Reduction Network’s communications often includes the following quotation: “to act and not be acted upon is the essence of joy.” Harm reduction is an active process, or practice. Individuals must engage in self-management, and determine (with support) realistic goals that minimize risk. It is an approach that embraces working with people where they’re at and works to provide access to services regardless of a person’s substance use. (more…)

Community exclusion and ‘difficult’ patrons

October 5, 2015

In her first guest post, Sara started to discuss the relationship between well-being and community inclusion (or not), and the ‘reality’ that many non-profits feel under-equipped to deal some of their patrons who are experiencing mental health issues or are using drugs or alcohol. Today she continues her earlier thoughtful discussion, jumping into a Toronto organization’s survey of folks who have been refused service or have been banned from certain agencies.

In 2013, an organization called Rittenhouse completed a survey of 10 Toronto community organizations that work with these populations and found that 90% of the agencies used barring practices or restricted services as a response to client conflict. Restricting services or barring can involve asking someone to leave or preventing them from entering or accessing the service for any amount of time. Agency staff highlighted the issue that barring practices and service restrictions actually replicate punitive, exclusionary and stigmatizing approaches faced by marginalized individuals in other areas of their lives. However, data gathered through focus groups and workshops with these community organizations demonstrates that staff feel under-qualified to deal with the conflicts that arise in their spaces in non-discriminatory and supportive ways, while balancing the health, safety, and comfort of other clients and staff.

Frank Cotham at The New Yorker

Exclusion negatively affects health

Rittenhouse conducted interviews with another 30 people who identify as current or past drug users and have been barred from a community organization. Many participants reported that the service limitation impacted their access to support services, harm reduction services, and physical health services: 40% of participants reported feeling like the bar resulted in an increase in their risk of violence; 53% felt the bar resulted in an increase in their risk of contact with police; 40%  like they did not get enough chance to talk about what happened; 53% that agency staff did not understand them or their situation; and 53% reported feeling embarrassment, shame, and/or humiliation, among other findings. (more…)

Community membership and individual well-being

September 30, 2015

I am thrilled to share a post today from Sara, a recent MSW graduate from Toronto, now working in Montreal. Today’s post is part one of THREE, and in it she chews on some very difficult questions about community membership and exclusion, and the effects of both on persons struggling with their mental health and/or addictions.

My first internship was in a community-based setting in downtown Toronto. The organization offered programs and services including settlement services for immigrants and refugees, a transitional housing program, and an addictions program for people struggling with substance abuse issues.

As a student in this placement, I was responsible for case management tasks. I worked with people to complete government forms or subsidized housing applications and facilitated emotional support groups. All of the case files were kept in a secure computer system, and I recall one day inputting information and seeing a giant red X beside the name of a person on file. The more I looked, the more red X’s I found beside names of people I did not know.

Mike Twohy at The New Yorker

The challenges of dealing with people

When I next saw my supervisor, I asked her what the X’s meant. She informed me that those marked the people who were banned from services or from entering the building due to being under the influence of alcohol or drugs at previous appointments. I questioned further, asking if every X was simply for an instance of substance use. She replied that that was the case for most files although some Xs were the result of other “undesirable behavior,” or because of some sort of conflict on the property. (more…)

Volunteer Profile: Laura

September 28, 2015

[Khadija, Summer Special Projects Assistant at House of Friendship’s Emergency Food Hamper Program, wrote the following profile.]

There are very few people whom I have met that can be tenacious in spirit and have a calming effect on others. Laura illustrates that fine balance between the two valuable characteristics.  With approximately 93 hours clocked in so far as a volunteer at the Emergency Food Hamper Program (EFHP) since May 22 of 2014 she’s not turning back anytime soon – she’s hooked! Read on more to find out why.

Laura Allan photo

Can you tell me about how you ended up here at the food hamper program?

I looked for volunteer postings online and found out about it there. I’ve been looking for something like this for a long time; nothing else quite engages me as much as being able to have that connection with people coming in and really feel that I am making a difference. (more…)

A Green Community Is Growing At Supportive Housing

September 25, 2015

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This summer Chloe and Khadija had the opportunity to visit the gardens of the House of Friendship’s Supportive Housing Programs. You may remember in the spring we shared a lot about gardens at House of Friendship.

Chloe and Khadija met with Julie, who is the Garden Project leader at Supportive Housing this year.
(more…)

More Fantastic Reasons To Support a Basic Income in Canada

September 23, 2015

Part one of this series outlined the state of food security in Canada, explained that most Canadians are food insecure because they do not have enough money for food, and concluded with an idea: basic income programs, which guarantee a certain income to all adult residents of a specific territory, could be an effective policy tool to reduce poverty and so promote food security.

Part two of this series considered a range of practical and philosophical objections to basic income schemes, but as I further explained, no concern is insurmountable. In fact we–Canadians–have tried this before, more or less, and it worked!

I want to repeat that point, because I can: we implemented a kind of basic income in Canada, with positive recorded outcomes.

The MINCOME experiment in Manitoba

From 1974 to 1978, through the “MINCOME” project, the poorest residents of Dauphin Manitoba received monthly cheques whether or not they were working, or disabled, or whatever. The value of the cheques varied according to family income, and brought each family up to a living wage income. The payments were not universal, but like a basic income, they did establish a no-questions-asked income floor. Sadly, when a new government was elected in 1979 the project was scrapped without any analysis or final report.

However, the University of Manitoba professor Evelyn Forget revisited the project documents in the mid 2000s, and wrote a research paper titled “The Town With No Poverty: Using Health Administration Data to Revisit Outcomes of a Canadian Guaranteed Annual Income Field Experiment.” Among other conclusions, Forget found that

overall hospitalizations, and specifically hospitalizations for accidents and injuries and mental health diagnoses, declined for MINCOME subjects relative to the comparison group. Physician contacts for mental health diagnoses fell for subjects relative to comparators. Overall, the measured impact was larger than one might have expected since only about a third of families qualified for support at any one time and many of the supplements would have been quite small.

Forget additionally concluded that “these results would seem to suggest that a Guaranteed Annual Income, implemented broadly in society, may improve health and social outcomes at the community level.” Although she qualifies her conclusions, as a good academic ought to, Forget’s results are significant.

Basic income saves us all money? 

The results of her study are especially significant given what we do know about our current social assistance programs–how they work, or don’t. Don Drummond, the former Chief Economist of TD Bank, has described Canada’s welfare system as

a box with a tight lid. Those in need must essentially first become destitute before they qualify for temporary assistance. But the record shows once you become destitute you tend to stay in that state. You have no means to absorb setbacks in income or unexpected costs. You can’t afford to move to where jobs might be or upgrade your skills.

Drummond’s comments refer specifically to the consequences for individual recipients of social assistance, which I do not want to trivialize. I have never tried to survive on social assistance. The daily grinding poverty that Linda Tirado describes is foreign to me.

Implicit in Drummond’s comments is the point I’ve already made here, and elsewhere: poverty is expensive, and so are our social assistance programs. We all must pay, every time those programs fail to provide real opportunities to the people they purportedly serve.

Canadian seniors have a guaranteed income

So we had the Dauphin “experiment,” which was a relatively small and successful demonstration of the positive effects of a basic income. We should not forget that our Federal Government every day administers another kind of guaranteed income scheme, which most every Canadian who turns 65 benefits from: Old Age Security (OAS). According to Statistics Canada, “your employment history is not a factor in determining eligibility: you can receive the OAS pension even if you have never worked or are still working.” If you are quite rich, you do not get OAS. If you have no other income, you receive a top-up, called the Guaranteed Income Supplement.

So here is more good evidence that guaranteed incomes make people healthier. In her research about food security, the Nutritional Sciences professor Valerie Tarasuk highlights an important connection between a guaranteed income and food security. Her point is simple: Canadians over 65 are the only group in this country to have a guaranteed annual income indexed to inflation, and a basic ‘suite’ of in-kind benefits, like drug coverage, transit subsidies, and various kinds of ‘senior days’ at private businesses. With that in mind, consider the following graph, from Tarasuk:

 

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Of all the groups of Canadians receiving financial assistance from the Canadian government, seniors (65 years and older) are the most food secure. They are the only group whose income, meagre as it may be, rises with inflation; and they have the most comprehensive benefits package. (And still there are over 600,000 Canadians 65 or older living in poverty.)

Guaranteed incomes promote health and ensure wealth

In their paper “How a Guaranteed Annual Income Could Put Food Banks out of Business,” researchers from the University of Calgary enlarge upon this point. They start with the remarkable fact that “Canada can boast of having one of the lowest rates for poverty among seniors in the world, largely due to its guaranteed income programs for those 65 years and older.” What’s more, “when low-income Canadians turn 65 years old and leave behind low-paying, often unstable jobs, their poverty levels drop substantially.” They explain how seniors enjoy a unique protection from budget shocks, and how this “disaster insurance” translates into better health: “Self-reported rates of physical and mental health improve markedly as well after low-income Canadians move from low-wage, insecure employment to a guaranteed income at the age of 65.” So while it is true that Canadians in general are among some of the most well-off in the world, it is also true that many Canadians get healthier and wealthier when they turn 65. In other words, we can still do better, and especially for non-seniors living on a low income.

The Calgary researchers’s solution is also fairly simple, and probably not surprising: expand the basic income program that already positively serves so many Canadians, to the rest.

We cannot end poverty, we are told, for so many reasons. It’s complicated, it’s inevitable, it’s not our problem. And yet, a basic income scheme could address the root cause of poverty–not enough money–and free up funds to address what remains.

“Faaantastic!”

Fantastic Reasons Why A Basic Income Makes Moral Cents

September 21, 2015

Ontarians of a certain age and inclination know Mr. Brown, the terribly obnoxious (and fictional) winner of the Ontario Lottery and Gaming’s “Cash For Life” prize. Each week the same mailman delivers a one thousand dollar cheque to Mr. Brown, and each week Mr. Brown crows with delight. “Faaantastic!” he says.

As a child I thought this was a lame commercial and a lame prize. As the spot progresses we see evidence that Mr. Brown is making modest material gains: golf clubs, a boat, incremental additions to his home. I had decided then that winning the lottery should mean being able to check out of life as we know it, buying a castle like Mike Tyson’s, tigers and all. This was not the case for Mr. Brown, who we see pathetically and predictably by his fence each week waiting for the mail man to bring him his cheque. I imagined Mr. Brown driving his slightly better car to his same crappy job; taking marginally better vacations; and maybe, finally, buying organic!

I am older now, and if not wiser, more experienced. I think: maybe Mr. Brown was home to meet the mail man because he quit his job. I think: maybe he quit his job to build the studio he needed, so that he could spend his days drawing charcoal portraits of golden retrievers, as was his childhood dream. I think: what would I do if I had a thousand dollars a week? And although that question invites all kinds of existential anxiety – because what should I be doing with this wild and precious life? I assume I’d eventually figure things out. (more…)

Eat, Think, Vote and Organize for Food Justice in Canada

September 17, 2015

This piece, by Kelly Hodgins, originally appeared in the Guelph Mercury. Kelly is the program co-ordinator for Feeding 9 Billion at the University of Guelph. She and her colleagues are hosting an Eat Think Vote event to discuss these issues with Guelph’s electoral candidates this Saturday (Sept. 19) from 12:30-3 p.m. at Innovation Guelph. All are welcome.

Farm from road

courtesy of K. Hodgins via D. Vlug

I recently received a set of old photos of my parents’ British Columbia farm from a woman who grew up there in the 1950s.

Each was accompanied by beautiful descriptions: the apple tree that fed a family of nine; the pigs that prepared garden beds; the butcher shed my father ran to serve local farmers; the kids’ chores feeding cattle. The captions spoke of a time when food production, processing, and consumption were integrated into our homes, lives and community.

Today, our food system is undeniably disjointed. Approaching the 2015 federal election, I can’t help but reflect on these issues and how they impact all Canadians — rural, urban, Northern, immigrant, adult and child.

Four in particular deserve attention on the 2015 election agenda. These have been identified by Food Secure Canada as the most necessary first steps to a more healthy, equitable and just Canadian food system.

First, we must understand that food has been commodified. Food production has vacated our backyards and has been assigned to an ever-shrinking, aging group of farmers. Food security is compromised when the majority of Canadians rely on purchasing food instead of growing or sharing it. This has serious implications for those who cannot afford adequate, nutritious diets. Four million Canadians are food-insecure today — a figure that is unacceptable in a developed, wealthy nation. Food insecurity is a symptom of poverty, and poverty is a problem of politics. Food Secure Canada is calling on a feasibility study into a basic income floor, to lift the most vulnerable Canadians out of poverty, thereby improving diets, stimulating demand for nutritious food, and lowering health-care burdens.

Barn from house

courtesy of K. Hodgins via D. Vlug

Second, we must pay serious attention to our children, specifically through a national student food program. The frolicking children in these old farm photos had an innate connection with food, and they were (like it or not) involved with its production. Today, my parents host school tours, in which a fraction of the students have ever set foot on a farm, and an astounding majority admit knowing little about cooking. A school food program will improve food literacy, as well as help address the deplorable rate of food insecurity noted above. As the only G8 country that doesn’t provide healthy meals for its kids, we are failing to support our young people’s well-being, as well as their learning capacity.

At the opposite end of the age spectrum, Canada faces an unprecedented farmer-succession crisis. The average age of producers is 55, and there is marginal incentive for any young person to take over. Policy is critically needed to make agriculture a more attractive and viable profession for the next generation of farmers — policy that allows energetic young agrarians like myself to realistically consider moving from talking about food to actually producing it, or that allows new immigrants with invaluable agricultural expertise access to land and capital.

Barn

courtesy of K. Hodgins via D. Vlug

At the same time, those of us trying to create a sustainable food system are facing greater threats every year. The water tower featured in the old farm photos is now replaced with a well — digging deeper for water as summer rains become more sporadic.

But Western Canada’s dry summers (typified by the devastating 2015 drought) are not the only climatic shift affecting our food system. Climate change is intersecting negatively with food-security most dramatically in Canada’s North. There, food gathering traditions are being upturned due to changing migration patterns and weather systems.

Each year, vulnerable northern Canadian communities are made more reliant on imported food. We urgently need politically mandated action that takes direction from those most affected to rectify the astonishingly high food prices and skyrocketing rates of diet-related diseases, which is set to only worsen as centuries-long traditions are erased through irreversible ecosystem change in Canada’s North.

The woman who sent me these old photos of our farm ended her note by saying: “After mother sold the farm, I stopped driving by. The buildings were gone, the fences down, and fields empty. A few years ago, I cautiously decided to come to take another look. My heart soared to see the farm up and running again. Thank you for returning my childhood home back into the land it was intended for.”

I call upon the next governing party in Ottawa to similarly revitalize our Canadian food system.

We cannot afford to see a nation of empty fields and collapsed fences while remaining complacent with four million hungry bellies. We must stimulate our national food system into a healthy and just one: a food system that supports livelihood-insecure producers and food-insecure consumers in tandem.

photo courtesy of Hodgins Farm Valley Road

photo courtesy of Hodgins Farm Valley Road

 

Volunteer Profile: Ernst

September 14, 2015

[Khadija, Summer Special Projects Assistant at House of Friendship’s Emergency Food Hamper Program, wrote the following profile.]

I remember when I initially met Ernst I liked how friendly and warm he was to everyone around him. I appreciated not only seeing that but also experiencing that when I started working here. Always happy and always ready to help a hand, Ernst has definitely made his impact here since he started volunteering this past April–already a whopping 92 hours!

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Can you tell me about how you ended up here at the food hamper program?

I also volunteer at the Charles Street Men’s Hostel and one of the staff there was bringing a volunteer group to the Food Hamper Program. He asked me if I wanted to come with him. I liked it here because it reminded me of when I also volunteered at the food bank in Amsterdam–where I used to live. (more…)