Regent Park residents say they can’t access their neighbourhood pool. City data backs them up

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“Where is our pool?” read one of the signs held aloft by children who had waded into the reflecting pool in Nathan Phillips Square on a summer day in July 1969.

Their protest was over the lack of recreation space in their Regent Park neighbourhood and their demand was for a wading pool for those hot days.

Mary Ann Scott, left, typically lines up overnight to register her children for programs at the recreation centres in Regent Park, and often still can’t get them in. She is pictured here with her children Tessa, 13, Selam, 12, and Abyssina, 7, outside the Pam McConnell Aquatic Centre.
Mary Ann Scott, left, typically lines up overnight to register her children for programs at the recreation centres in Regent Park, and often still can’t get them in. She is pictured here with her children Tessa, 13, Selam, 12, and Abyssina, 7, outside the Pam McConnell Aquatic Centre.  (Rick Madonik / Toronto Star)

It would take several more decades for their request to be exceeded by the state-of-the art Pam McConnell Aquatic Centre, which opened its glass doors in 2012 with a 25-metre lap pool, hot tub, water slides and more in the heart of a neighbourhood in the midst of revitalization.

But now that there is plenty of pool right in their backyard, Regent Park and nearby residents say they are consistently struggling to access the new space and that most of the people signed up for the popular swim programs are coming from other parts of the city, a claim backed up by City of Toronto data.

The data provided to the Star shows that only about a quarter of the registrations at the aquatic centre for the most recent fall/winter session of city-run programs were for registrants whose home address was in Regent Park or the area immediately surrounding it.

And while there continues to be a waiting list tens of thousands of people long for recreation programs across the city, the Star has learned that the most recent budget recommendations would significantly delay the council-approved goal of creating 70,000 new spaces in three years. Instead of 25,000 new spaces council had approved for 2019, the latest budget includes just 7,500 spaces and stretches the plan over five years instead of three.

Read more:

Regent Park community reflects and regroups as final chapter of rebuild begins

In response to questions about proposed delay, Mayor John Tory’s spokesperson, Don Peat, noted Tory’s earlier push to increase the number of recreation spaces funded in 2018.

“This is just the beginning of the 2019 budget process,” he said in a statement. “The budget committee will be reviewing the staff recommendations in the coming weeks and will make further recommendations.”

In the case of Regent Park, nobody is abusing the system. The city has a policy that allows anyone to access any centre regardless of where they live or their income level. Someone who lives in a suburb but works downtown might prefer to use a centre en route. Across the city, there are just not enough recreation spaces for those who want them, creating a competitive environment during registration and the long waiting list.

Mary Ann Scott, a mom of three in the Church and Dundas Sts. area and member of the group Access to Recreation, which was created by Regent Park parents over these types of concerns, knows how it feels to be missing out.

Scott said she typically lines up overnight outside a local community centre at 8 p.m. ahead of registration that begins 7 a.m. the next morning in hopes of getting her children into the programs they helped pick out — swimming at the aquatic centre as well as gymnastics and other programs at the nearby Regent Park Community Centre.

That’s because she’s competing with other parents, some who are using multiple devices and high-speed internet to get through the city’s often cumbersome online system in hopes of getting the spaces they want.

Hani Afrah, also mother of three who grew up and still lives in Regent Park, met Scott waiting in line to register. As a member of the Access to Recreation group since its inception, she said they have no issue with the aquatic centre attracting people from across the city. They just want priority to ensure local residents can use the space.

“We know that if youth know to swim, how to skate they’d rather be doing those things than getting into trouble,” she said, adding she feels sad to see that her children’s friends miss out on programs.

“They feel disadvantaged and the community centre is right there.”

The gleaming aquatic centre, with windows overlooking the park under a cedar-panelled roof, has been celebrated for its sleek and welcoming design. On a recent weekday, moms pushing strollers traded recipes in the warm, chlorine-scented lobby. A meeting was being held in a nearby multi-purpose room that’s sometimes used for kid’s birthday parties.

The Regent Park Community Centre was also rebuilt as part of the revitalization, featuring a gym, indoor track, dance studio, weights room and more.

Both centres in Regent Park — which the city still officially designates as a priority neighbourhood based on low income and other factors — offer free programs for children and adults, and they are both “at or near capacity with extensive wait lists,” according to recently-posted city budget documents.

Scott said their community has also been squeezed every time there are local emergencies. Recent cold-weather alerts and a fire at the 650 Parliament St. apartment building have seen the community centre taken over for shelter, cancelling programs for residents.

On one such day in September of last year, Mackai Bishop Jackson, who had just turned 15, was shot and killed up the street from the centre while outside an apartment building with his friends. He often attended the after-school programs at the community centre, which was closed at the time because of the 650 Parliament fire. His death has left friends and neighbours wondering if his fate would have been different had the centre been open that day.

“What’s the logic in closing down a recreation centre in a community that needs places for children to be?” Scott asked. “It should have never been closed in the first place.”

The aquatic centre replaced an existing recreation centre and outdoor pool in what was once an insular Toronto Community Housing complex of interlocking lowrise apartments and highrise towers. The long-term revitalization of Regent Park, still underway, has seen TCH units demolished and rebuilt alongside market condos and townhomes surrounding a park and the new aquatic centre.

The site is one of 38 city-designated free centres, which are selected based on their proximity — within 1.5 kilometres — of census areas where at least 30 per cent of families are classified as low-income.

However, the city has a policy that allows anyone to access any centre regardless of where they live or their income. City staff say participants “typically travel within 3.5 (kilometres) of a recreation centre” for registered programs.

The city also has what is called a “welcome” policy that provides a limited amount of funding to low-income families to access programs at paid-for centres.

The city provided data for all fall/winter registrations in Regent Park by “forward sortation area” — the first three digits of a postal code. The area for Regent Park also includes neighbourhoods including Cabbagetown and St. Lawrence.

That means it is likely that of the 326 sign-ups in that immediate area captured in the data provided to the Star, not all were made by Regent Park residents, meaning even fewer than 25 per cent of all registrations came from Regent Park.

The data shows residents living as far away as the Kingsway and Malvern are accessing the centre for programs. And there are more sign-ups from East York, The Danforth, Riverdale, Leslieville and the Beach combined than from the Regent Park area.

At the Regent Park Community Centre, which is also a free centre, registrations from the immediate area made up 40 per cent of all sign-ups.

Both recreation facilities also offer free drop-in hours.

Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam, who represents the Regent Park area, said the data confirms what those in the community already knew — that the majority of those signed up for swimming programs live outside the community.

After advocates recently organized to demand Regent Park residents be given priority access, Wong-Tam moved a motion at committee earlier this month to have staff explore a pilot project to increase recreation availability at local schools. Staff say a pilot could be launched in the fall of 2019 but the $160,000 cost is currently unfunded.

“They had already said quite eloquently and with a lot of urgency that we needed to reform the system so that people who had championed these facilities, who had borne the brunt of construction impacts, who had waited patiently, could have access to their own swimming pool,” Wong-Tam said. “It reconfirms what communities are feeling, is that they’re struggling to get their children and themselves and families into recreation programs.”

The city has 123 community recreation centres, 119 splash pads, 61 indoor pools, 59 outdoor pools, 68 outdoor artificial ice rinks from Etobicoke to Scarborough, serving 10.7 million programmed visits each year, according to the most recent budget documents.

But not all neighbourhoods are treated equally. While there are a number of recreation centres, not all have the same amenities. For example, there are large areas that are not served by an indoor pool, such as most of Etobicoke North and large pockets of Scarborough. There are only four indoor pools in all of northern Scarborough, where staff have had to scramble to find temporary program spaces after one centre in Agincourt caught fire Thursday.

There is a concentration of free centres in or near the eastern part of downtown, including the aquatic centre, Regent Park Community Centre, Wellesley Community Centre, John Innes Community Recreation Centre and the Jimmie Simpson Recreation Centre. Another free centre, Secord Community Centre, is near Danforth Ave. and Main St.

Of those, three have pools. The Pam McConnell Aquatic Centre provides more than twice the number of time slots for swim programs than both the Jimmie Simpson and John Innes pools, offering a total 208 options for swim classes during the fall and winter registration.

Across the entire city there are 11 free centres that have pools, two in the Etobicoke and York district, two in North York, one in Scarborough and six in the Toronto and East York district.

The Pam McConnell Aquatic Centre has features including a lap pool, hot tub and water slides.
The Pam McConnell Aquatic Centre has features including a lap pool, hot tub and water slides.  (Tom Arban)

According to a staff briefing note provided to council during the 2018 budget process, there were more than 600,000 recreation spaces across the city and more than 198,000 wait-listed spaces representing more than 62,000 people on the waiting list. Those are 2016 numbers, but said to be the most recent, verified data.

To try to address the waiting list, city staff proposed a growth plan in 2017 to add 60,000 new spaces over three years. During the 2018 budget process, council increased the number added in that first year, bringing the total new spaces planned to 70,000 at a net cost of $2.4 million.

City staff say both Regent Park recreation centres directly benefited from that growth plan, with the total number of registered recreation spaces increasing 22 per cent in 2018, creating more than 1,500 new openings.

But after staff were asked to bring forward budgets this year that froze spending at last year’s levels, the 2019 recommended budget from staff only plans for 7,500 new spaces to be added in the second year of the growth plan — 17,500 fewer than the 25,000 council approved. It will now take five years, staff say, to reach the goal of 70,000 new spaces. The budget process continues for the next month and will be finalized by council in March.

Responding to the Star late Friday evening, city staff said they “misrepresented” council direction in their budget notes, saying council had decided to “fast-track” the plan and that council never intended to actually expand the plan from 60,000 to 70,000 spaces.

“There is nothing we can find in council’s decisions and direction that indicates council’s intention to expand the plan from 60,000 to 70,000, but rather that they wanted staff to implement more spaces in the first year,” a city spokesperson said, adding they would be correcting a budget note.

A 2018 budget briefing note from staff outlined how adding an additional 10,000 spaces in the first year of the plan would increase the total number of spaces to 70,000. Council later voted to “further increase” the number of spaces funded in 2018 to 20,000.

The original three-year plan would have seen 35,000 spaces approved by the end of 2019. The current budget plan would see just 27,500 approved even with the increased number of spaces council added in 2018 — still 7,500 short on the original growth plan.

Asked about stretching the original plan over five years, the city spokesperson said: “Given our experience in the accelerated implementation of the first 20,000 new spaces in the first phase of the program, we have recommended a more gradual implementation of the remaining 40,000 spaces.”

Wong-Tam said the city should be able to set a target and then allocate the resources needed to make it happen.

“Clearly there’s a disconnect there,” she said.

Jennifer Pagliaro is a Toronto-based reporter covering city politics. Follow her on Twitter: @jpags

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Regent Park community reflects and regroups as final chapter of rebuild begins

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Sureya Ibrahim stands on an icy sidewalk in Regent Park and surveys a neighbourhood she fears is headed toward an uncertain future.

Beyond the new townhouses and the state-of-the-art aquatic centre, she points out a site under early construction, the future home of a condominium building that will also house space for a catering collective and sewing studio.

A change in plans for the redevelopment of Regent Park has residents like Sureya Ibrahim worried. “We are still going to be here. We are still going to be doing what we love to do and building the community, identifying who the leaders of the future are and passing on the torch.”
A change in plans for the redevelopment of Regent Park has residents like Sureya Ibrahim worried. “We are still going to be here. We are still going to be doing what we love to do and building the community, identifying who the leaders of the future are and passing on the torch.”  (Rene Johnston / Toronto Star)

That property will be built by The Daniels Corporation, in partnership with Toronto Community Housing — the third of five phases that make up a massive redevelopment project that began more than a decade ago and was designed to transform what was once one of Toronto’s poorest neighbourhoods.

“We went through so much and we built relationships,” said Ibrahim, the supervisor of community connections with the Centre of Learning and Development. “Now, we don’t know the future because there will be a change that is taking place that wasn’t revealed to us.”

The root of Ibrahim’s apprehension comes from what she describes as a surprise announcement last spring, that new developers could bid to build for the final two phases of what was originally meant to be a 12-year, $1-billion project.

A shortlist of bidders has not yet been made public and the people at the heart of what many already hail as a success story are worried about what an unexpected shift in course and lack of communication could mean for completion and hard-fought-for community benefits.

Older buildings, like the one seen above, are still part of Regent Park, though new buildings now outnumber them.
Older buildings, like the one seen above, are still part of Regent Park, though new buildings now outnumber them.  (Rene Johnston / Toronto Star)

“Are we a stakeholder or are we just going to be on the side?” asked Ibrahim. She believes having one company at the helm has allowed the community to form a relationship with the development team, and that communication is key if the actual needs of Regent Park residents are to be considered and met.

That uncertainly is fuelled by instability at the top of TCH — the country’s largest housing provider, responsible for some 110,000 people and $9 billion in public assets — with yet another scandal putting senior leadership of the corporation in question.

The Regent Park revitalization was designed to leverage the 28-hectare site by offering developers the opportunity to build more than 5,000 market-rate units. In return for the prime downtown land, they would rebuild all of the area’s roughly 2,000 rental housing units.

TCH awarded the first phase to Daniels in 2005. When the second phase was officially awarded to Daniels in 2009, TCH said the developer would handle the remaining stages of the project as well; TCH would provide the land in exchange for a large share of future profits on market-rent units, which would be built alongside public housing buildings.

But as phase three approached, TCH decided to go in a different direction — Daniels was sold a chunk of land instead of continuing the previous profit-sharing arrangement, and Daniels no longer had the automatic right to develop phases four and five. A tender process is now underway.

Phase four and five are made up of the final seven blocks to be redeveloped, and include the northern quadrant from just east of Parliament St. to River St. and north of Oak St. That area’s iconic lowrise brick buildings with their green awnings are some of the final remnants of the old Regent Park.

Vincent Tong, TCH’s chief development officer, said the public corporation has an obligation to undertake a “fair, open and transparent” process rather than awarding a sole-source contract to Daniels.

He also acknowledged the failure to properly communicate that process to residents. TCH learned from those concerns, Tong says, and redesigned the current tender process to require shortlisted bidders make community presentations. He said scores from residents based on those proposals will be factored into TCH’s ultimate decision.

But with that next stage yet to get underway, it’s not clear what weight the resident feedback might have in the overall selection of a development partner.

New townhomes are part of the changing landscape in the neighbourhood of Regent Park.
New townhomes are part of the changing landscape in the neighbourhood of Regent Park.  (Rene Johnston / Toronto Star)

Tong said TCH hopes to make that decision by the end of the year, with the final phases now expected to be completed in 10 to 15 years.

Daniels declined to answer the Star’s questions for this article. But in a statement provided to media in May, after the new bid process was announced, vice-president Martin Blake wrote that, despite the change in course following the 2010 election, “Daniels would very much like to continue the partnership with TCH and the residents of Regent Park through to completion of the revitalization.

“The work of this transformation, which is as much about building social infrastructure as bricks and mortar, is far from complete,” he said.

As the revitalization now moves toward its final chapters, the question that remains is, did it work?

Regent Park was a place, it was noted in the early 2000s, where it was difficult to even have pizza delivered to your front door through its winding maze of lowrise buildings and highrise towers, in an insular neighbourhood largely free of sidewalks and set back from main roads. There had never been a supermarket or a bank branch, and the overall design meant that parts of the cut-off properties were fertile ground for criminal activity.

But still, a community existed there. It was home for many new Canadians who were trying to raise their families amid the poor design, lack of services and a dearth of government support.

To understand what is at stake requires some reflection on the mistakes of the past. Regent Park was Canada’s first public housing project and one frequently described as a failed experiment. Planners tore down slum housing in what was South Cabbagetown and the first part of what would become Regent Park was ready for habitation in March 1949.

For Toronto’s low-income families, it was meant to be a safe and modern community in the heart of the city, one with green space for children and close to public services; thanks to poverty and poor design, it resulted in them being separated from their fellow citizens.

Today, the heart of the area that’s already been transformed is barely recognizable. A green central park is home to a gleaming aquatic centre and nearby there are colourful community spaces like Daniels Spectrum, which hosts both the arts and public meetings. There is a bistro that hires local residents. New TCH apartments are difficult for outsiders to differentiate from their condo counterparts, and both are now accessible from a simple city street grid. There is a Shoppers Drug Mart, a FreshCo and a Royal Bank branch. Residents flock to farmers’ markets in the summer months.

But in hindsight, says former interim CEO Greg Spearn, TCH should have planned the rebuild differently.

“There should have been a contractual arrangement that identified one developer for the entire revitalization, with a structure that protected both parties,” Spearn, who was pushed out of the organization in the spring of 2017, told the Star. Guaranteeing the whole project to a single developer would have allowed the public housing agency to leverage more assets for the community, he said, and avoided ongoing funding shortfalls and confusion over its future.

Since the beginning, the revitalization was never fully funded. City staff projected an early shortfall of just over $50 million — but where that funding was to come from was unclear. As the project continued, construction costs and changes to the redevelopment plan saw that figure climb to $108 million in 2017. City council, at the recommendation of housing officials, agreed to take on that debt to complete the project in a “timely manner,” leaving city taxpayers on the hook for up to $6 million every year for the next 30 years. The shortfall for phases four and five is expected to be as much as $182 million. It’s also unclear how that will be covered.

Spearn said how the final phases will be financed will be a key aspect of any proposal going forward.

Whether there will be a steady hand at the head of the housing corporation is also uncertain.

Since the Regent Park revitalization was approved by city council in 2003, TCH has been destabilized by corporate churn, with numerous senior managers embroiled in controversy and the departures of four chief executive officers. Its current CEO, Kathy Milsom, was put on paid leave in December after the board determined a “flawed” process” was used to award a $1.3-million consultancy contract.

Among the former CEOs is Derek Ballantyne, who advocated for Regent Park before leaving TCH in 2009.

The early vision for redevelopment, Ballantyne told the Star, was to avoid previous mistakes by designing an equitable and integrated environment that was guided by clear direction from the people who lived there.

“Without a doubt, this is a very different place and it’s a very different place to live in,” said Ballantyne, who is now chair of the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. “This is not about being rich or poor. This is about simply having what anybody in other neighbourhoods in the city had.”

And while the goal was to create a healthier environment, Ballantyne said TCH never set out to design a perfect society.

“Was it going to get rid of violence? Was it going to end youth unemployment? It was never going to do all of that. I think what it did is it laid out the framework for how you might be able to better program into a neighbourhood and how you might be able to better address those issues.”

As of today, 800 of 1,360 households that had been relocated during the redevelopment are back and in new buildings. About 350 households have decided to stay where they are or have moved out of community housing. Another 200 are waiting to return as future phases are completed.

Construction by The Daniels Corporation, which is building a new condo building in partnership with Toronto Community Housing, is seen on Dundas Street East.
Construction by The Daniels Corporation, which is building a new condo building in partnership with Toronto Community Housing, is seen on Dundas Street East.  (Rene Johnston / Toronto Star)

Making sure that everybody in Regent Park gets a say in the neighbourhood’s future is why resident Walied Khogali Ali supports opening up the bid for the final phases. The neighbourhood has undergone dramatic change, not just architecturally but also in the composition of its residents — many who haven’t built relationships with Daniels and who would benefit from learning about past and future plans and get a new chance to engage in what must be a transparent process, he said.

“I think it is crucial for residents and the city to have confidence in a process where residents were not just consulted for the sake of consulting, but there was actual progress when it comes to specifically understanding the communities needs and building a relationship with the developer,” he said.

A New York Times article from 2016 declared Regent Park “a blueprint for successful economic and cultural integration.”

But one need look no further than its aquatic centre, where many local children have not been able to get into programs offered there, to see the challenges that remain for Regent Park’s residents.

A city policy that dictates children from any part of the city can access any community centre’s programs, the lack of overall spaces and a notoriously challenging sign-up system have created a competitive process, one usually dominated by families with multiple adults using high-speed Wi-Fi on several devices to sign up online.

That means children who live within a block of the aquatic centre can be squeezed out of programs by people from as far away as Etobicoke, Scarborough and North York.

“You actually have some children who have never ever taken swim lessons in Regent Park because they couldn’t get in — because when they got to the front of line or when they got on the phone, registration was already filled,” said Mary Ann Scott, a mother of three and founder of Access to Recreation.

Scott’s group wants a pilot project that prioritizes local access.

Her family lives near Church and Dundas Sts. On the night before registration starts, she heads to the Wellesley Community Centre for 8 p.m., and stands outside until sign-ups begin at 7 a.m.

If she’s one of the first four in line — and lucky — her children might get spaces in the gymnastics, swimming and cooking classes they’d picked out, she said.

Jason Kucherawy and his wife had no luck enrolling their two sons in the last round of local programing, despite using every electronic device in their home. They moved to Regent Park in 2012 after buying a two-bedroom condominium in the completed phase one.

“We wanted our kids to be global citizens and we wanted them to have friends and schoolmates from different backgrounds and different cultures and grow up in that environment,” said Kucherawy.

Given the past history of Regent Park, he said the idea that the final phases could go to the lowest bidder, rather than a company that has built trust and relationships in the community, is concerning.

“We are building a neighbourhood here and definitely want it to last a very long time,” Kucherawy said. “This is not supposed to be temporary housing.”

Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam asked city staff earlier this month to continue reviewing the access problems for parents who pushed for these recreation spaces and participated in earlier consultations.

Wong-Tam said she want to be ambitious in filling the gaps and listening to what the community has long been asking for.

That includes a multi-faith space, she says, and the promise of a new library that could replace the Parliament St. branch and facilitate more after-school programs.

“Once those lands are developed upon, they are done,” she said. “I know that we can build it because there’s no point in finishing Regent Park and not completing all the facility service gaps.”

It’s important as well, she said, to build capacity for the future, not simply for demand that exists right now.

“I certainly do not want to see the problems that have emerged from the inequitable access to the recreation centre as well as the aquatic facility be replicated in the final development phases.”

New residents agree there is still more to do to make Regent Park a success story.

Megann Willson, who is part of the leadership team of the Regent Park Residents Association, said she was interested in the “intentionality of trying to build a different way of living” when she moved to a condo there more than three years ago.

She said the association is paying close attention to the redevelopment and said the change around Daniels not being signed on for the final phase came as a surprise to residents who were not consulted.

As for what comes next, Willson said she is wary about certain proposals, calling ideas like a new library “a carrot that’s been dangled” by prospective developers.

What’s clear, she said, is the need for more community space, improved neighbourhood safety and economic opportunities for residents.

“We want far more than just building buildings,” she said. “We have to move beyond the ribbon cutting.”

Ibrahim is also looking towards the future, focused on building a community that will continue to thrive long after the developers are gone.

“We are still going to be here. We are still going to be doing what we love to do and building the community, identifying who the leaders of the future are and passing on the torch,” she said

“They could do amazing stuff.”

With files from Toronto Star staff, Toronto Star library

Jennifer Pagliaro is a Toronto-based reporter covering city politics. Follow her on Twitter: @jpags

Emily Mathieu is a Toronto-based reporter covering affordable and precarious housing. Follow her on Twitter: @emathieustar

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$1-million fund aims to make Regent Park revitalization better for residents

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“I’ve been living in Regent Park for 22 years now,” Saquib Hassan says. “I saw the different stages of the revitalization process and learned what community development really is, and what gaps need to be filled.”

When most people think of the massive Regent Park revitalization, they picture the new buildings, but less visible is the upheaval residents experience. However, just as those buildings had architectural blueprints to guide their construction, a social development plan, created by residents themselves, aimed to ensure social cohesion during and after the revitalization. To ensure it succeeds, the United Way is helping create a new $1-million Social Impact Fund to fill some of the gaps Hassan speaks of.

From left, Heela Omarkhail, senior manager of strategic initiatives at Daniels Corporation; Saquib Hassan, Regent Park resident; and Paulos Gebreyesus, executive director of the Regent Park Community Health Centre.
From left, Heela Omarkhail, senior manager of strategic initiatives at Daniels Corporation; Saquib Hassan, Regent Park resident; and Paulos Gebreyesus, executive director of the Regent Park Community Health Centre.  (Naomi Hiltz / for the Toronto Star)

“This community impact investment fund asks how can we continue to activate some of the recommendations in the social development plan,” says Ruth Crammond, vice-president of community investment and development at the United Way. “You can change the built form of the community, but it’s really important to look at the social fabric and how all the people interact together.”

Some of the community-identified priorities the fund will contribute to are neighbourhood safety, access to space for meetings and group activities, improved communication and employment opportunities, as well as other projects residents will propose.

The United Way was approached by a coalition that included local residents; the Daniels Corporation, which has been building the new Regent Park; the City of Toronto; the Toronto Community Housing Corporation; and other community service agencies in the area. They were tasked with helping these partners create and manage the fund, and to figure out who is eligible to apply for it. That last part is important; the fund is being designed to be open to as wide a variety of applicants as possible.

“The plan is still coming together, but there will be four tiers of groups and individuals who can apply,” explains Hassan, who has been part of the steering committee developing the fund.

The tiers include individuals with a project idea, local grassroots groups, larger grants for established groups and a final tier for collaborations between residents and organizations from outside the community.

“It ensures people aren’t left out of the process and that residents are always involved,” he says.

Though fundraising is still underway, the fund was launched with a $250,000 gift from Daniels.

“It’s been a really awesome process to sit around a table and co-create the fund,” says Heela Omarkhail, senior manager of strategic initiatives at Daniels. “For me, representing a donor, that has been the most amazing part: to come into it not telling people what the fund is, but asking them how they’d like to be a part of it and what they’d like it to do for this community.”

One of the social service agency partners involved is the Regent Park Community Health Centre at Parliament and Dundas Sts., active in the community for nearly 50 years.

“One of the most important indicators of wellness is a sense of belonging,” says Paulos Gebreyesus, executive director of the Regent Park Community Health Centre.

The centre, one of the service agency partners in the fund, has been active in the community for nearly 50 years and understands that social conditions have a tremendous effect on an individual’s health.

“We’ve seen the risk of alienation for long-term residents who see their neighbourhood radically transformed, and the alienation of families returning to the neighbourhood who are trying to reorient themselves to this new space, and we’ve seen other Torontonians who’ve chosen to make Regent Park their home.”

Gebreyesus says he and his organization want to nurture a sense of belonging and that an effective way of doing that is getting people involved in the process. That requires time and money — resources many residents don’t have — but the fund can help them participate and give a sense of control over the changes they face.

“Here’s my little piece, here’s my contribution to the change,” says Gebreyesus of that empowering feeling. “I think that’s a really important element of feeling at home, feeling like you belong and that you have a role to play and a voice.”

The fund should be launching the application process in early 2019 and have projects started by spring. Once up and running, the hope is it will be a model that can be replicated and adapted to the needs of other communities.

For his part, Hassan, who recently completed a political science degree at the University of Toronto and is thinking about law school, would like to see projects that are intergenerational and bridge the condo and social housing communities.

“There’s a lot more that we have in common than we think,” he says. “I want to see projects with condo residents alongside social housing tenants, and some of the most valuable things I’ve learned are from my elders. That mentorship is so important; youth can learn a lot from people who’ve been here a while.”

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