This report explores the role that community hubs in Toronto have played in responding to resident needs during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the lessons this experience holds for planning for and responding to, future emergencies, including health and climate-related shocks.
The Toronto Environmental Alliance (TEA) worked in collaboration with 25 representatives from community hubs, civil society organizations, and City of Toronto divisions to capture key observations, experiences, and learnings related to hubs’ pandemic response. Through a series of discussions with the Climate Change and Community Hubs Advisory Group, interviews with individual members, and feedback sessions, TEA gathered recurring themes in the Hub pandemic experience on what assets hubs brought to their pandemic response, what challenges hubs faced, and the key lessons hubs learned in responding to the pandemic.
Our key learnings were:
- A wide range of urgent needs emerged at the neighbourhood level as a result of COVID-19 including food insecurity, housing instability, financial hardship, social isolation and safety concerns around domestic violence, extreme heat and more.
- Hubs played an important role in responding to these needs, including providing meals and emergency supplies to vulnerable households; sharing essential information in accessible, easy-to-understand formats; activating and supporting mutual aid networks; adapting programming to an online format; repurposing and sharing building spaces and physical assets.
- Key assets that allowed hubs to play an active role included pre-developed emergency and pandemic plans; trusting existing relationships with residents; agency collaboration; pre-existing online capacity; and staff experience and capacity.
- Challenges that hubs faced included building and program shutdowns, and lack of adequate resources, technologies and staffing.
Looking ahead to the recovery and rebuild from the COVID-19 pandemic, hubs shared the following key lessons they learned that may be applied to future health and climate shocks:
- Hubs are a critical part of the emergency response system and their on-the-ground connections, local expertise and small-scale approach should be utilized to the full extent in future emergencies.
- Preparation and emergency planning are vital for managing unexpected situations.
- Serious inequities in access to basic services that existed pre-pandemic were exacerbated by COVID-19 (such as food insecurity, housing instability, and lack of decent work) which need to be addressed to improve resilience to future shocks.
- In the chaos of the early pandemic, official information was unclear, inconsistent, and difficult to access, particularly by residents without internet access and who speak English as a second language. Hubs played an important role in relaying accessible, relevant and trustworthy information to local residents.
- It is important to improve resident access to computer technology and the internet in underserved neighbourhoods in order to ensure information access and combat social isolation.
- Adapting programs and services to a digital format allowed hubs to enable greater reach and participation amongst residents.
- Hubs were not able to access adequate resources to meet the overwhelming increase in demand for their services and aid. In addition, some hubs had resources frozen or withdrawn because they were linked to the provision of certain services or programs that could not continue during the pandemic.
- Formal and informal neighbourhood/grassroots groups and local resident leaders played key roles in the pandemic response. Funding support for hubs’ community development initiatives, which are critical to building and sustaining resident leadership, should be enhanced to build resilience for future shocks and crises.
Hubs have been a lifeline in Toronto during the pandemic. Their exceptional ability to aid their communities should be recognized, supported, and celebrated. To prepare for future climate shocks, it is important to support hubs in the important role they play in building strong, resilient, and sustainable neighbourhoods.
ABOUT THE CLIMATE CHANGE AND COMMUNITY HUBS ADVISORY GROUP
The Climate Change and Community Hubs Advisory Group was convened by the Toronto Environmental Alliance in 2019 to make recommendations on the role of community hubs in shaping and contributing to the implementation of Toronto’s TransformTO climate action strategy. Members of the Advisory Group include multi-agency community hubs, faith-based hubs, community centres, civil society organizations, and City of Toronto divisions. Together, we’ve put forward recommendations for the next phase of the TransformTO climate action strategy and we continue to collaborate to explore and advance the role of hubs in building an equitable, low-carbon, and resilient city.
THANK YOU TO OUR FUNDERS
Thank you to the City of Toronto, Environment and Energy Division for their support in producing this report.
Thank you to The Atmospheric Fund and Ontario Trillium Foundation for their support of the Accelerating Neighbourhood Climate Solutions Through Community Hubs project and for financial support to convene the Climate Change and Community Hubs Advisory Group.