East Scarborough Storefront: Building community together

In East Scarborough, local residents and organizations have come together to build a thriving community in the face of adversity.

The inner suburb of East Scarborough is located just a short train ride east of Toronto’s downtown core. It has the highest concentration of social housing in Ontario. One third of people here live below the poverty line. Unemployment, substandard housing, poor transit, and lack of community services are just some of the complex challenges that people here have faced over the years. This may conjure up images of despair, failure, and missed opportunities, but the truth is, the tenacious and determined spirit of the residents of East Scarborough have transformed their neighbourhood from a place of lack into one of vitality and abundance. At the heart of the community, located in an old, repurposed police station, is a place called the East Scarborough Storefront, and it is here that local residents and organizations have come together to build a thriving community in the face of adversity.

In the 1990s, there was a lack of social services in the community. But instead of bringing in individual organizations that would run programming in isolation of one another, residents requested a different approach. In response, East Scarborough Storefront was launched in 2001 to leverage the power of collaboration to support residents with much-needed resources. With this approach, The Storefront’s unique “hub” model was the first of its kind in North America, offering services, free of charge, from 40 partner agencies under one roof.

Children and adults planting outside The Storefront.

Children and adults planting outside The Storefront.

All too often, people in marginalized communities are in danger of being disconnected and disenfranchised from the very systems that support them. The Storefront is committed to doing things differently. By working together with local residents, staff, partner agencies, funders, volunteers, and academics, The Storefront produces results that would not be possible by any group working alone. The hub model’s benefits are many. It is cost effective: with only one overhead expense for 40 agencies, the savings to each organization, the communities, and the funders is significant. And, because The Storefront is so trusted in the community, agency partners gain credibility by association and can build stronger relationships with residents.

At The Storefront, East Scarborough residents facing diverse challenges—like a woman seeking help to leave a violent relationship, or a new immigrant looking to receive skills training to get a job—can access up to 40 partner agencies in one location. Services available include job search support, mental health counselling, after-school programs, legal advice, community kitchens, and seniors and youth groups. Someone visiting The Storefront for support does not need to know what specific service they require. They can describe their circumstances to staff who match them up with the appropriate help. In addition, the space offers resources that are hard to come by: shared computers, printers, telephones, and meeting space for community groups.

“When my family arrived from Ethiopia, we felt alone and confused,” says Yosef, a Storefront community member. “My school recommended I get involved at the Storefront. On my second day, I went home and told my parents about all the services they offer.” With the Storefront’s help, Yosef’s father found his first job in Canada; his mother became eligible for a micro-loan to start her own flower business; his older brother found a part-time job; and his younger sisters joined several youth groups and began making new friends. Yosef also started working part-time at The Storefront, helping to lead the Community.Design.Initiative (CDI), working with architects and planners to help them mentor youth during the design of the new Storefront building. “With my parents working and even the kids contributing, we can afford to move out of this neighbourhood. But we won’t move. We live here because we live beside The Storefront and if we move we will not have access to it,” Yosef says.

Although The Storefront started out in a trustee relationship with The Boys and Girls Club of East Scarborough, as their vision expanded, they sought out a new structure that aligned with their unique culture and approach. “When determining the best legal, organizational, and governance structure for The Storefront, we knew we had met an organizational kindred spirit when we learned about Tides Canada,” says Anne Gloger, Director at The Storefront. “Tides Canada embodies all of the values we had been striving to implement: leveraging the power of collaboration; allowing each party to bring his or her strengths to support and solve issues; and clearly articulating roles, responsibilities, and expectations, thereby allowing us to maintain the innovative power-sharing processes central to our success. Tides Canada creates ‘uncommon solutions for the common good.’ That’s exactly what we needed.”

The Storefront joined Tides Canada’s shared platform in 2008. They could have opted to become a stand-alone charity, however, they knew they would face the challenges that all small agencies face, striving to support the community while managing administration, annual filing with Canada Revenue Agency, board requirements, annual financial audits, donation tax receipts, grant applications, insurance, human resources issues, and financial transactions. With Tides Canada, The Storefront was able to move beyond the restraints of other organizational models and become part of a larger community of changemakers across Canada. Each of the initiatives on Tides Canada’s shared platform benefits from shared financial, legal, human resources, and governance support. Although each project is working on unique environmental and social challenges, together we are working to catalyze new models of collaboration and partnership on the ground across Canada. Powered by Tides Canada’s shared platform, the Storefront can focus on what they do best: facilitate collaboration, support people, and build community.

Celebrating the opening of the Sky-o-Swale.

Celebrating the opening of the Sky-o-Swale.

Beyond the smart operational structure, building strong resident leadership is the secret to The Storefront’s success. Decisions are made based on active participation and input from the people that programming supports. Residents discuss local issues and brainstorm solutions at regular meetings called “Community Speaks,” leading to projects like the CDI, the Storefront’s renovation and expansion project led by local youth. “The design mentors [taught] them the design process, the principles involved, and things they needed to consider when making decisions. The Storefront staff [told] them functional things like how many offices or program spaces we needed. The youth had full authority over everything else,” says Jaime Elliot-Ngugi, Coordinator, Special Projects at The Storefront. “[Now], we have a beautiful new resource centre, local youth made all the design decisions, learned more than we could have imagined, and have an enormous sense of pride and ownership in the building and the community.”

The youth and their architect and design mentors—archiTEXT, Sustainable.TO, and ERA Architects—also co-designed the Sky-o-Swale, a shade-water structure that filters rainwater through a green roof into an underground cistern. The project was a creative response initiated by youth after learning that the soil at The Storefront would not allow for proper water filtration. The water gathered is now used to irrigate the Community R.O.S.E (Roots of Scarborough East) Garden, and the structure doubles as a shaded gathering space for spectators of performances and sports events.

Since joining Tides Canada, The Storefront has gained momentum, gaining much public recognition along the way. They have received multiple Vital People and Vital Ideas awards from the Toronto Community Foundation, two Queen’s Jubilee Medals, and the model has been cited in many academic and mainstream media publications. Recently, 235 community members, corporate supporters, and faith groups came together to do a neighbourhood cleanup. And they kicked off an impact assessment initiative in partnership with the University of Toronto. But their work does not end here. In fact, there’s plenty in store for The Storefront, including Community Building through Play, which focuses on capacity building through resident-led sport events, and the neighbourhood-based Community Wealth workforce development strategy.

The Storefront is an example of how innovating and doing things differently within the charitable sector can achieve next-level impact with scarce resources. With over 50,000 visits each year and over 11,000 volunteer hours contributed annually, The Storefront truly is building community together with the people it serves.