Magazines 2019 May - Jun Bucking the system

Bucking the system

05 May 2019 By Amy MacLachlan

Can we end chronic poverty in Canada? Christian advocates are saying yes.

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Angela Draskovic says she is accustomed to people looking at her like she’s crazy when she says we can end chronic poverty in Toronto in 20 years. As the executive director of Toronto’s Yonge Street Mission (, she feels it’s her job to make sure it happens.

"For me, as a [social] development professional, I don’t like the idea of a losing attitude," she says sitting in her office in Toronto’s east end. "So we’ve catalyzed a social dialogue and are forging a path forward."

Yonge Street Mission defines chronic poverty as living in poverty for three years or more. Draskovic argues that for a wealthy city like Toronto, with an overwhelming list of resources at its disposal, there’s no excuse for such a reality.

"If we were talking about Haiti, I’d maybe agree with you. But that’s not a valid statement here. It’s like the Parable of the Talents," she says. "We’re a 20-talent city. We don’t want to be the one who buries them."

Yonge Street Mission has been serving the city’s poor for 121 years, providing a growing list of services that includes things like food, employment and housing services, a clothing store, daycare, after school clubs and camps, drop-ins and counselling.

Its new model for adults living in chronic poverty, aimed at moving people from surviving to thriving, is called RISE (Respond, Invite, Support, Engage). It provides holistic, wraparound care and support through Yonge Street Mission and its partners using a special system of measurement that can be replicated by others doing the same work.

This Transformation Integrated Measurement and Evaluation System (or TIMES) provides the tools to accurately evaluate outcomes – an important ingredient for a 20-year plan.

"In the face of all that you’ve probably heard and seen, it would be pretty easy to think, ‘Oh, this is too big,’ " Draskovic says. But she’s confident the goal is reachable, even as she acknowledges the issue can be complex and overwhelming, and requires a shift in how we think about people in poverty.

THE SOUTHERN Alberta city of Medicine Hat (population 63,000+) committed to ending homelessness in 2009.

By 2015 they succeeded (noting short bouts of situational homelessness is still present and to be expected). Their reasoning is that once someone is house stable, they are better able to attend to other needs that keep them poor.

Draskovic agrees housing is an important piece to the puzzle, and laments that Toronto’s social housing model is sadly outdated and needs input from all stakeholders. "The time for tweaking is long past," she says.

"You could help someone heal and be healthy, educate them and find hope, etc., but if they can’t afford to live anywhere, well, there’s not a lot you can do about that. It just makes life harder."

Dion Oxford has been working with people on the streets for 28 years.

"I moved here from a small town in Newfoundland. In that year I got a job as a cook in a Salvation Army drop-in centre," he says. "I fell in love with the street and with people who didn’t have a home. I heard the voice of God. I had a strong feeling I was in the place I was meant to be."

Until recently Oxford ran a program in Toronto called Causeway (, an initiative that helps foster another important piece to the ending poverty puzzle – community. "Essentially, when someone moves out of one of our shelters and into a neighbourhood that you and I might live in, rather than being lonely where they don’t know anybody, [they find] Christians who come alongside and introduce them to what’s going on, and introduce them to other people."

Oxford calls himself a convert to "housing first." "I’ve learned that getting a house first and then providing support after is easier," he says, noting he prefers the idea of "homes first" rather than simply a house. He points out that even in Toronto, a city with about 600 agencies, problems persist. "Each has its own vision and attempts. And there can be competition between agencies to get government money. It’s so disjointed," he says.

Oxford calls himself a convert to "housing first." "I’ve learned that getting a house first and then providing support after is easier."

He’d love to see everyone get on the same page, and for him it starts with housing.

"Everybody needs a home, a decent place to live," says Oxford. "We all need three things to have a life – a meaningful job with meaningful pay, a home with your own key and safety, and because loneliness is such an epidemic, if we all had a friend and community, well, if everybody had those things, that’s essentially what could unite us all."

This is one reason Yonge Street Mission is rebranding itself as a local development agency, aligning their efforts with other agencies, working on changing the mindset of the community and helping clients develop life skills so they can move on. "It’s amazing how quickly it can happen when you give someone hope. With enough gentle steps forward, it makes them confident."

What’s the key? "Someone believing in them and forming a genuine relationship with them," says Draskovic. "None of the other support would matter if they didn’t sense that we really love them, believe in them, and are willing to go along on the journey with them. And the journey isn’t a straight line! It goes up and down and in circles.

"There’s never a setback that causes us to withdraw relationship with them, and people know that. And that makes all the difference."

What is the picture of poverty in our heads?

Angela Draskovic, executive director of Yonge Street Mission, challenges what we think we know about people living in poverty.


"We all have the successful immigrant narrative in our heads," says Draskovic. "We think you come to Canada, work hard and make it happen. But Canada and Toronto have changed."

She presents this typical scenario: A professional couple comes to Canada with their two children. They can’t get a job in their fields, and their resources quickly erode. They land part-time work, where their boss offers 30 hours at $14 per hour, so they are making $1,680 per month. In Toronto a one-bedroom apartment costs $1,200 a month. That leaves $480 for everything else with no funds left for saving and getting ahead. If a family member gets sick, there are no health benefits for antibiotics or other needed treatment. Forty-six per cent of recent immigrants to Toronto are living in poverty.

"How do you work your way out of that?" asks Draskovic. "You’re basically a paycheque away from homelessness."


"Sometimes we have this idea of, ‘Why can’t those bratty kids just get their stuff together?’ " says Draskovic. "These are children of society who are broken and discarded."

The reality is:

  • 43 per cent of homeless youth have been in foster care, often between seven and 12 homes
  • 70 per cent have experienced trauma or abuse
  • 90 per cent who come to Yonge Street Mission for psychological support have symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder
  • 18.1 per cent are unemployed.


"Many people who have been on social assistance have been so for multiple generations," says Draskovic. "It comes down to subculture. The system holds them down because they can’t accumulate wealth."

Forty per cent of those living with poverty in Toronto and surviving on social assistance fall into this group. "There are significant developmental and life skills gaps," says Draskovic. "They don’t know what they don’t know."

Draskovic says, "People signal to them every day that they will never amount to anything, that this person has no value. They are marginalized, ostracized and therefore there’s hopelessness. But we created it." – AM

WHAT IF poverty were actually a human rights issue? Canada Without Poverty and Citizens for Public Justice say that is how we should treat it.

"It’s a violation of our human rights obligations," says Michèle Biss, legal educator and outreach co-ordinator at Canada Without Poverty, an Ottawa-based charity dedicated to the elimination of poverty in Canada (

"When we talk about poverty from the perspective of, ‘It’s a personal failure,’ and change that to the concept of, ‘It’s a violation of their rights that have not been protected or upheld by government and other actors,’ you change the dialogue," she says. "Thinking about human rights allows you to understand how important it is to work towards the end of poverty rather than the relief of poverty. Is it possible? Yes. It’s critical."

Biss says we need to name the rights that should be protected, and commit to nondiscrimination and equality. She advocates for a mechanism where people whose rights have been violated can bring claims forward in a quasijudicial manner for review. "It’s a way to concretely develop a strategy or policy based on directives from the UN and impose them on our local strategies and plans."

The shift to a human rights framework is a shift in thinking, says Biss. "We are all part of a human family. And that means so much more. It can be transformative."

DARLENE O’LEARY, socioeconomic policy analyst with the Ottawa-based advocacy group Citizens for Public Justice (, agrees with the human-rights approach. She notes that federal initiatives such as investments in housing, the Canada Workers Benefit, and the Child Tax Benefit are having a positive effect on lived poverty.

O’Leary was happy to see a national poverty strategy unveiled last year, noting organizations like hers have been asking for one for over a decade. The federal government unveiled Opportunity for All – Canada’s First Poverty Reduction Strategy last August. It clarified that the Market Basket Measure, based on a "basket" of goods made up of essential items a person needs to live (adjusted for family size and location), will be Canada’s official poverty line.

"A big one we wanted to see was support for universal childcare," says O’Leary. "Another is stronger investment in health care. Currently there is no coverage for dental, mental health or eye care. As well as a guaranteed livable income."

Ensuring people with lived experience of poverty are at the table when decisions are being made is another important piece, advocates say, as is working in a co-ordinated way with provincial, municipal and territorial strategies. O’Leary notes most of us can agree we’d like to see poverty eradicated. But changing mindsets on how to get there can be difficult.

How churches can help

In Ontario, where 1.57 million people live in poverty, Karen Glass is a poverty expert working for the provincial government in policy development. "People believe they can have a better life," says Glass. "They know they don’t want to be stuck where they are. I actually believe we can end poverty. It’s a man-made thing. It speaks to how society has changed."

Glass, a member of Knox Presbyterian Church in Oakville, Ont., says there are many churches doing great work, but that most still generally think of the charity model.

"We need to work towards inclusion and participation," she says. "It’s about facilitating people’s ability to have some dignity over their ability to function in society."

"It’s not so much money we need, but time," says Dion Oxford. "The willingness to sit down once a week and build a friendship with someone over a cup of coffee…. Christians are good at charity, but not particularly good at justice. We’re good at giving things away, but not with walking alongside people. It’s harder work to sit at Tim’s and have a coffee than to make a casserole." "It’s about being a good neighbour," says Gordon Russell, director of shelters at the London Mission in London, Ont. "So when we think about the potential within the faith community, it’s important that individuals are getting support within the community in which they live. Many single males experience large doses of isolation once they leave the shelter. Shelters are not great places, but one thing they do have is a communal living environment. When you come out and get your own place, it can be socially isolating. So if we can build something that’s natural, that grows into something that’s much more vital."

Glass’ church is currently undergoing a renovation and revitalization with a view to doing just that. Located in wealthy downtown Oakville, Ont., poverty still exists only a few streets away. Plans for an Out of the Cold program, complete with a basement reno that includes showers for guests, is one way the congregation is hoping to forge relationships with people who may feel unsure about stepping inside for a Sunday service. A low-key, nontraditional dinner church on Wednesday nights is another way they have been opening their doors to people who are looking for a hot meal, and a warm community.

"It’s about attitudes," says Glass, "and how we treat each other."

Other ways churches can help:

↗ Organize and offer the skills of tradespeople in your church to help an NGO with a small budget that serves the poor.

↗ Walk around your community with people from your congregation. Talk to people. Take note of what might be needed. Talk to your MPP to find out demographics of your community of which you might not be aware.

↗ Hold information nights at your church. Invite guest speakers from local organizations working with vulnerable people.

↗ Inspire young people to be involved in a special project in co-operation with a local shelter, food bank or organization that helps children and families.

↗ Take a good look at your church building and dream up new ways to welcome the community inside. Revisit how you welcome people on Sunday morning. Think about how you would react if a homeless person walked through the doors. Discuss how your church can be more open and inclusive. – AM

GORDON RUSSELL is director of shelters at Mission Services of London, an organization he’s served for 27 years ( He’s also part of Street Level, a national gathering of people, agencies and organizations serving those struggling with poverty and homelessness.

"I call myself a Christian," says Russell. "And I think it’s virtually impossible to be one of those without being engaged with those individuals and families in our world who are disenfranchised, isolated, discriminated against – both individually and in a systemic way. Those folks are our neighbours. We walk with them as fellow citizens of the community. I think far too often we don’t want to see them.

"There is so much evidence within the biblical narrative. We need to pay attention."

Small business enterprises are a simple place to start, says Russell, where people in poverty are given the chance for real jobs. Laundromats, bike shops, even a soup-making business have already been set up that employ people who often find work difficult.

Developing programs that address basic needs and set people up for success are also important. And allowing families to enter the housing market at a slightly elevated level is key, says Russell.

Subsidizing the ability to pay rent, from $800 to $1,000, for example, means a person can enter the housing market at a level where there is actually housing available. "There are now programs in London where we give an allowance, and that difference allows them to pay what is being asked."

Like Dion Oxford, Russell recognizes there’s a lot churches and individuals can and should do, but is critical of how the Church sometimes operates. "People need housing, they need supports, they need friendships, they need relationships. I would argue that they fundamentally need to know who God is, but that particular belief should not isolate us from the issues people are experiencing. That’s what the nature of justice is. It’s not just charity."

Those folks are our neighbours. We walk with them as fellow citizens of the community. I think far too often we don’t want to see them.

Back at Yonge Street Mission, Draskovic has a reassuring message. "Don’t worry about the big, complicated picture and let that paralyze us and lead us to inaction," she says. "Just like we overcomplicate the gospel, and that Jesus says, ‘Just love,’ we’re overcomplicating poverty in our system. We need to bring it back to Christ. We have the opportunity to show society what can be done. By taking the time to understand, and then tangibly demonstrate what we believe, we can make change happen."

Amy MacLachlan is a freelance writer living west of Toronto.


We think this article would be great to discuss with your small group or Bible study. We encourage you to make copies and share a brief discussion using these questions. To share electronically just point group members to Let us know how it goes!

  1. Dion Oxford says we all need three things – meaningful job with pay, a home and a community. Would you add anything else to that list? Why or why not?
  2. The importance of genuine relationships and community arises a few times in this article. How does that resonate with you and your own experiences?
  3. "Those folks are our neighbours. We walk with them as fellow citizens of the community. I think far too often we don’t want to see them," says Gordon Russell. How can your community begin to pay more and better attention?


Listen to our conversation with Dion Oxford at