From Streets to Homes: fight to end street homelessness in Toronto

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Many Furniture Bank clients have the need to lean upon multiple sources on their journey towards fresh starts and new possibilities.

Our organization has a long list of partner organizations that complement the services we offer. The Streets to Homes (S2H) program, funded by the City of Toronto and other levels of government, is one such partner.

S2H was created in 2005 in an effort to curb the number of individuals living on the streets of Toronto. The need for such a program was partially fuelled by high-profile examples of widespread homelessness in the city, such as the Tent City community that emerged on the Toronto waterfront during the early 2000s. The mandate of the program was simple: to end street homelessness in Toronto and find housing environments for those living without basic needs.

According to an infographic published by the City of Toronto in late 2012, more than 3,800 clients have been housed by S2H and partner agencies since the program’s 2005 inception.

A considerable effort is needed to fully transition even a single client from the city streets into comfortable, personalized accommodation. However, with 25 partner agencies and a legacy approaching the decade mark, S2H continues to move forward in its efforts to help Toronto’s homeless.

“Housing is one thing but it doesn’t really become a home until you furnish it,” says Gord Tanner, manager of the S2H program. “Furniture Bank has been an important partner for us because it helps create those ‘homes’ for our clients. I’d estimate 90-95 per cent of the people we house become Furniture Bank clients as well.”

There is a degree of commonality to the individuals that S2H helps most often. Approximately 75 per cent of its clients are male. Aboriginal populations have a heavy representation and a majority of the clients classify as long-term homeless (i.e. people who had been homeless for over a year).

These are challenging populations to service because of the deep-rooted social and economic issues that these individuals face. However, as a veteran social worker with more than 15-years experience in helping others, Tanner has seen numerous turnarounds emerge from S2H’s efforts.

“One of the most memorable success stories [ of S2H] is when we were able to help a lady who was living on the streets for over a decade. After that much time, adjusting to housing can be a real challenge when you’re accustomed to sleeping on grates or in parks for so many years. In this case, the program worked and she now wants to volunteer, build her skills and help give back to others. It’s been an amazing process to witness.”

In late 2010, the City of Toronto’s Streets to Homes Assessment and Referral Centre opened on Peter Street in downtown Toronto. This impressive facility gave the program a boosted image and an upsized outlook from which to coordinate mobile street outreach services in the downtown core and in other parts of the city.

However, with more than 5,000 individuals still in shelters, on the street, in corrections and health care facilities as a whole, there continues to be no shortage of clients for programs such as S2H. Luckily, the dedication of the program and its partners (including Furniture Bank) means that these populations can rebound when provided with a helping hand.

As Tanner notes, “As an organization, [Furniture Bank] has always been a remarkable partner with respect to choice that they offer their clients. They are treated like customers in a retail space and make choices based on their style and comfort preferences. That ability to choose is a very powerful thing on the road to change.”

Cam is a Toronto-based PR professional and freelance writer. He volunteers his time to write for Furniture Bank. Follow him on Twitter at @cam_gordon.

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A Moment of Kindness

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Frank (left), Don (right)

Frank, whose family received similar support years ago, strongly connected with our work in the community. When he came to Furniture Bank wanting to volunteer, it was humbling to hear that he had a previous connection to our cause.

Don, a longstanding staff member at Furniture Bank (over 15 years) quickly developed a mutual rapport and respect for Frank and vice versa. Don’s tireless efforts steaming mattresses and sofas, sorting inventory, always with a positive attitude and smile on his face, inspired Frank to do something that went beyond his volunteer duties.  Something from the bottom of his heart.

One of the appliances crucial to what we do, is our industrial steamer. The steamer is critical in ensuring that our clients receive the best quality furniture we can provide. That particular Friday morning, the poor old steamer finally gave up the ghost after years of hard labour.

Later that day, Don was looking for Frank but he was nowhere to be found. Some of the warehouse staff told him they saw Frank driving off in his car. Don, ever the busy man, shrugged as he tinkered with the tired steamer, in a last ditch effort to get it working.

What happened next was a great moment. After lunch, Frank quietly walked in the back door carrying a big box. Before Don could ask where Frank had been, he looked more closely and saw a photo of a steamer. Don was speechless. Frank had gone to Canadian Tire and replaced the old steamer with a brand new one, entirely at his own expense.

Don said, “I’ve been with Furniture Bank for fifteen years, and I’ve seen it all. But what Frank did on Friday brought a tear to my eye, and I’m not the sensitive type!”

Thanks Frank, for putting a smile on the face of everyone at Furniture Bank!

A Day in the Life: From Sorting Operations for Our Social Enterprise to Mingling with the Stars

As anyone who works in a non-profit might tell you, creativity is a huge asset. It takes a combination of creative minds to address the particular needs and challenges of non-profits, while offering innovative solutions. Luckily at Furniture Bank, we are never in shortage of creative minds to bring fresh ideas to the table. Take for example, Paul Farrar, Operations Manager.

Other than his daytime job of overseeing the operations at Furniture Bank, for the past ten years, Paul has been at TIFF every single year. Contracted to take photos of the world’s biggest stars, he came in the morning bright and early to make sure our social enterprise is running smoothly, and then left in the evening to cover TIFF happenings. Paul sat down with us to talk about how he got started with Furniture Bank, and where that creative streak helps in the non-profit sector.

How did you first become involved with Furniture Bank?

PF: My background is in logistics and finances, and I had a background of working in charities and nonprofit. When I heard about the opportunity at Furniture Bank, it sounded really interesting. To me, the most meaningful part of Furniture Bank is the services that we provide to clients and seeing it unfold first hand. For example, I clearly remember one time when a woman came in to select furniture. She looked at one particular couch, and started to cry on the spot. The couch was exactly the same one that her grandmother had, which reminded her instantly of home. As a new immigrant, this was very special to her.

You moonlight as a photographer. Can you tell us about that?

PF: I’ve been a photojournalist for years. That industry changed a lot over time. When my kids were born, it became harder to go out of the country. Nowadays, a journalist is a journalist, an editor, a photographer, etc etc. I started working for the American Image Press, and I ended up taking stock photographs, which they then sell to magazines. That’s how I started taking photos at TIFF. Around 10 to 15 years ago, TIFF became really well known, and I’ve been taking photos at TIFF for ten years now.

What are some of your most memorable moments at TIFF?

PF: Al Pacino was incredibly memorable. He is very funny. As an actor he is always intense, and you wouldn’t anticipate him to be this funny guy in person. My favourite photo so far is a toss up between taking a photo of the cast of The Big Chill – they had a showing at this year’s TIFF, and taking a photo of Brad Pitt. He was very humble in person, quiet, and soft-spoken. He does so much charity work that it was great to photograph him.

How has your own path in both the creative and operational side brought you to Furniture Bank?

PF: Being here at Furniture Bank really helps me with my creativity. Everything that I’ve learned is in this building – form the warehouse operations, client services my belief in helping others and building community – this place has everything that I like.

Furniture Bank, the Social Enterprise: Chatting with Toronto Enterprise Fund’s Anne Jamieson

Furniture Bank has always received high calibre support from its staff and volunteers but has also been  most fortunate to be strongly supported by various other organizations in the Greater Toronto Area.

One of these key partners is the Toronto Enterprise Fund (TEF), a funding partnership of United Way Toronto, the City of Toronto; , the Province of Ontario and the Homelessness Partnerships Initiative, a federal program administered by the City of Toronto. TEF is a partial funder of Furniture Link, our social enterprise, and a strong ally in our efforts to bring hope and dignity to Toronto’s marginalized population.

“I don’t even consider ourselves to be supporting Furniture Bank in a traditional sense since the relationship between our organizations is very integrated,” says the Fund’s senior manager Anne Jamieson. “We have been working with Furniture Bank since 2004 and during that time, they have grown to be one of the most successful social enterprises in all of Canada”.

TEF defines a social enterprise as “a business operated by a charity or non-profit organization that sells goods and/or services in the market place, for the dual purpose of generating income and achieving a social, cultural and/or environmental mission.” When an organization is able to achieve both objectives, it can be a powerful experience for all involved and Furniture Link  is a true blueprint for how a social enterprise can grow and thrive in the present day.

Furniture Link has the distinction of being the single largest social enterprise in all of Canada in terms of employment with over 30 staff, 20 of which are full-time. Furniture Link started as a repair workshop, focused on being a social enterprise focused on the   training ground for at-risk youth, , individuals receiving Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) benefits and other marginalized people across Toronto. These individuals would be able to grow their skill set by gaining on the ground experience  and eventually look to parlay these skills into job opportunities once their tenure had completed.

As Furnitue Link grew and eventually became the pick-up and delivery service of Furniture Bank,the enterprise started to operate as more of a hybrid model that also offered full-time employment opportunities in addition to the aforementioned skills training. This change was prompted by the growth of Furniture Bank itself and the fact that Furniture Link could operate in a similar fashion to traditional 9-5 workplaces based on the nature of the work.

In total, more than 100 individuals have been trained  under the Furniture Link umbrella and in 2012, Furniture Bank formalized the employment program, now known as Leg Up, training at-risk-youth and newcomers to Canada in both customer service skills and in warehousing. Furniture Bank regularly reports back to TEF in terms of how the program has positively impacted success metrics such as number of individuals placed into the labour market and improvement in terms of housing and lifestyle.

It has certainly been a journey with many ups and downs but Jamieson points to the program’s big picture goals at the true indicator of its success. “We worked for several years with Furniture Bank on their books to determine how our funding could be used most effectively and efficiently to impact the populations we were looking to service. In the end, it all comes down to skill development and the benefits these new skills can have for the individual.”

By Cam Gordon

Cam is a Toronto-based PR professional and freelance writer. He volunteers his time to write for Furniture Bank.

Volunteers Making a Difference At Furniture Bank

Furniture Bank is lucky to have a great number of volunteers to work with throughout the year. With over 600 volunteers donating over 11,000 hours, from both corporate groups and individual volunteers who seek us out – we are honoured to work with such a dedicated bunch.

Furniture Bank wouldn’t be what it is if it wasn’t for the hard work and daily compassion of volunteers. We talked to Scarlett and Keran, about their experience as volunteers and why they love being involved with Furniture Bank.

Scarlett:

I started volunteering this summer, in July. I read about Furniture Bank in the newspaper a few years ago, and volunteering here seemed like a good idea. I ended up having coffee with a friend, and her church group volunteered here, and I decided that this would be a good time to start volunteering as well.

I’m a people’s person, and as a retired teacher, I was looking for an opportunity to give back. From the start I thought that this was a fantastic organization. I like meeting different people, and in my role at Furniture Bank, I meet new people every day. Everyone that comes through here has a great sense of humour, and most of our clients feel really grateful for the services that we provide.

For me, one of my first clients was especially memorable. He was a gentleman who came in really grumpy and really miserable. My fellow coworker and I tried to help him and cheer him up, but at first nothing would work. First we helped him find a bed, then a dresser, and as he started to see all of the things that he was able to take home with him to furnish his place, his attitude began to change. By the end of the shift, his outlook was completely different. He had a sense of hope.

Keran:

I donated furniture and was very impressed with the people in the Call Centre, and throughout. I thought that this was an organization worth investigating. I stopped by to ask if there was volunteer opportunities and the staff were very excited to welcome me. I began volunteering here, and I’ve been doing so for over a year.

My favorite part of volunteering here is interacting with the people. The employees, the volunteers, and the clients of course – all make this a special place.

I remember specifically a young woman who came here with her daughter. They were coming out of a women’s shelter. The woman couldn’t afford a delivery of more than two pieces of furniture so two social workers offered to bring the furniture to her in their vans. It was a great example of everyone working together for the client. At the end of the day all of this comes down to the client, and how we provide service for them.

Aside

Furniture Bank as an organization has always been strongly buoyed by the talents and dedication of our community. Whether it is our warehouse support, community partners or board of directors, we have been beyond fortunate to have had such a deep roster of volunteer talent during each stage of our evolution.

When we moved to our current Etobicoke home in the spring of 2012, we took the opportunity to fully re-envision Furniture Bank as an organization and tapped into our community pool for an agency to help us with this task. This was a marketing exercise in part but it also sought to address the needs of our clients at a deeper level and the ways in which we could create a better, broader experience for the individuals who use our service every day.

Enter K+CO, a Toronto-based marketing and branding firm that specializes in engagement, who helped us meet our goal of evolving the Furniture Bank brand all around to better align with the possibilities that our new home offered.

 “The work we did for [Furniture Bank] went well beyond a branding exercise,” says Ahmad Ktaech, managing director and founder of K+CO. “Our goal was to totally redesign each aspect of the client experience and really freshen the entire experience for all involved.”

A veteran of the Toronto marketing agency community (Ahmad worked on a number of notable brands during his time with leading marketing/communications firm Cossette before branching off to startK+CO four years ago), Ahmad used visits to our former downtown home as a yardstick to base his recommendations upon for our first permanent home at 25 Connell Court.

He observed each aspect of the client experience, from how clients were greeted to the ways in which our showroom items were arranged to the core branding and messaging of our organization. This 360-degree perspective is fundamental to how Ahmad approaches his work and he comments that it typically requires a full “bird’s-eye view” of an organization to truly shift the ways in which an organization positions itself to its audiences.

“Moving to the new showroom was a big catalyst for change. We took a lot of time to fully analyze how their past home operated and identified a number of elements that could enhance the experience for all involved. They were doing a good job but as an outside observer, we were able to see additional opportunities to enhance the Furniture Bank experience all around.”

In terms of his overall approach to the project, he continues, “Engagement is key because otherwise, a traditional branding exercise can only take you so far. The goal was to mirror something that resembled more of a retail experience rather than a handout.”

The client experience design, followed by the formal rebrand (launched at our Open House in March) was the first step in our relationship with K+CO and we look forward to executing on other initiatives in the coming months. We are extremely grateful for the invaluable gifts that Ahmad and his dedicated team have given to Furniture Bank. The transformation they helped to catalyze informs the current Furniture Bank experience and will continue to be our foundation for many years to come.

By Cam Gordon

Cam is a Toronto-based PR professional and freelance writer. He volunteers his time to write for Furniture Bank.

From Nepal to Toronto: A Furniture Bank Story of Perseverance

The story of transformation and growth here at Furniture Bank, is one that is a familiar story in Canada – the journey of immigration, perseverance, and hard work. At 26 years old, Sushma Subedi weathered the winter storm when she first arrived to Canada in March 2010, travelling all the way from her small town of Itahari located in south-eastern Nepal. From Nepal to Delhi, then from London to Toronto, two and a half days later, with only her husband, new-born daughter, and four suitcases in tow, she began to embark on an uncertain journey. This is half of Sushma’s story.

Sushma was born and raised in Itahari, where she shared childhood experiences with her two older brothers and where she would ultimately start her own family before migrating out to Canada using the Permanent Residence (PR) system. After completing her Masters in Business Administration at Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu, Sushma agreed to an arranged marriage fixed by her parents through some mutual friends at age 23. A half hour unsupervised conversation at her parents’ place and a single coffee date later, the two were engaged in just seven days with wedding festivities to follow in the next few months. The couple quickly settled into their married and career life, her husband a university finance lecturer, and she an account officer for a trading company that facilitated financing for individuals buying and selling motor vehicles. At that time, Sushma says her husband had no desire to give up his job and travel half way across the world for an unpredictable and unstable future. But that all changed when they learned she was expecting their first child, a precious baby girl.

It’s not uncommon for individuals immigrating to Canada to sacrifice their security and homeland for what they believe to be higher standards of living, more employment options, and especially for the future welfare of their children. Sushma expressed that unlike her husband, even long before her pregnancy, she dreamt about the world, of going somewhere that had a vibrant city life and endless possibilities for both personal and professional development. Her ticket out of what she describes as a mundane static way of life came in 2009 when she received confirmation from the consulate that her application to Canada had been approved. As luck would have it, her and her husband’s credentials happened to align directly with what the Canadian government was looking for in recruiting foreign trained professionals. And so the packing began and farewells were exchanged.

Sushma left her native Nepal with a promise to do more with her life and it is with this same determined attitude that she has been able to accomplish so much in so little time. From securing an apartment three days upon arrival to taking up her first job at McDonalds in order to provide for her family when their 3 months life savings had dried up, to then enrolling into a skills training program which she found while researching employment opportunities online, are all only a few examples highlighting her strong will.

After successfully completing the 6 months computer training program, Sushma was connected to Furniture Bank for her 1 month unpaid internship. Having received a few other applications and resumes from recent graduates of the same program, Sushma already stood out as the strongest candidate for the bookkeeping position. And this experience would mark the beginning of her Furniture Bank endeavor, on May 16, 2011. Over a year into her transition, at last she felt a sigh of relief having found a job that matched her skills set and welcomed professional growth. When asked about what her future plans entail, Sushma answers obtaining her CGA accreditation and increasing her capacity at Furniture Bank. In her current position of Finance Associate, she is inspired to be a part of an organization that “helps thousands of families in need each year” and is happy to know that a service like this exists for other newcomers to the city who she said like her, “arrive with nothing other than clothes, maybe some pots and pans, but not a single piece of furniture and not knowing a single soul.” In fact, in 2012, more than 45% of Furniture Bank’s clientele were newcomers – that’s over 900 newcomer families who were able to furnish their new homes, and receiving a solid foundation for a fresh start.

By Kamaldeep Grewal, Program Manager at Furniture Bank.