Youth voices across our communities: Winners of TCHC's 20-20 Vision Youth Essay Contest

Illustrations of a group of youth from the back, with their arms around each other facing a city skyline.

Introducing the winners of our 20-20 Vision Youth Essay Contest!

Noshin Ullah

First place

Noshin Ullah

Noshin completed her HBSc at the University of Toronto and is currently a third-year law student at the Lincoln Alexander School of Law at Toronto Metropolitan University. She is a long-time resident of Regent Park and has witnessed first-hand the shifting tides and changes brought on by the revitalization. Through local programming, she has been able to engage with and help preserve/curate oral histories of community members. Her interest in academia and experience working with patients and vulnerable groups has led her to conduct clinical and legal research on issues effecting these populations. She enjoys spending her time reading and writing stories just as much as she does binge watching television shows. Noshin hopes to one day travel and experience various parts of the world. She aspires to create a meaningful difference by contributing to developments in research, policy, and social change.

The Ache for Home

The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned. – Maya Angelou

Adequate housing is undoubtedly an integral human right, enshrined in Canadian policy and international covenants. Toronto Community Housing Corporation’s (TCHC) mission is to provide safe, affordable and secure housing for residents. It is to provide new beginnings for families, a refuge for youth who need a place to come back to, and a place for seniors to live out their days with dignity and surrounded by community care.

Over the years, Regent Park (much like many TCHC neighbourhoods) has changed and grown as new developments arise. Residents have first-hand witnessed the impact of gun violence and the community continues to mourn those lost to it. However, members continue to support each other and contribute to shaping our everyday experiences. Emerging artists and professionals strive to shine a light on the community and encourage residents to voice their concerns. The influx of private market residents has created a mixed income neighbourhood, which at times has caused tensions.

However, everyone is still able to unite in their love for where they live. The beauty of this diversity is displayed at the Cultural Bazars that occurred over the summer and into the fall. Residents from all walks of life came together to enjoy good food, music and the company of each other, including many small business owners and entrepreneurs making their start in Regent Park.

Our strengths come from being able to embrace our differences and celebrate our successes. At the end of the day, we’re here for each other, come hell or high water.

In light of the current housing crisis, it’s fair to say that many Torontonians (should they wish to continue to reside here) will not be able to afford home ownership. Many TCHC tenants are already coming from a place of poverty, and TCHC for most, is a lifeline in the storm at sea. TCHC continues to provide affordable units for residents who qualify, however the number of people needing subsidized housing is greater than the number of units available. An increase in demand, without the supply has forced many to shelters or to be thwarted into difficult situations in order to keep a roof over their heads. A short-term goal for TCHC would ideally focus on investing in making more units available for those that need it most, while also ensuring that there are strategies in place to maintain stable housing for those most vulnerable (i.e low income and homeless individuals).

As crucial as short-term goals are, a long-term goal is equally as important. TCHC exists because there is a need for housing for those who (for many reasons) may find themselves in precarious situations due to existing social barriers. The racialization of poverty stems from the idea that minorities and Indigenous groups in Canada experience poverty at higher rates because of structural factors related to race. This ultimately leads to difficulties that prevent individuals from breaking out of the cycle of poverty and elevating their socio-economic status. An impactful long-term goal for TCHC would be to help clients eventually move out of social housing. This is especially pertinent for younger families and/or youth tenants who have much to give but little opportunity to do so. TCHC might consider creating more employment or training initiatives to help adults and youth achieve higher levels of certification. For residents pursuing higher education, tuition and looming debt makes it difficult to balance finances. A greater number of scholarship opportunities, perhaps where individuals are awarded for their thoughts and contributions, could help alleviate some of this stress.

Ultimately, this will allow tenants to fulfil their potential and reach greater heights, leading to graduation from social housing, which will either provide units for others or result in more funds to invest in building units.

As TCHC continues to build on its mission and grow, it is crucial to ensure a diversity of perspectives is being brought to the table. It can be difficult to meaningfully engage with diverse clientele who have different needs, however this makes it more important to do so. Though TCHC has ample youth programming, youth are not always actively involved in decision making processes. Providing a seat at the table for youth representatives (perhaps from a ‘youth council’) may allow for fresh ideas or new perspectives, especially for decisions that impact their livelihoods.

While technology continues to become increasingly mainstream, TCHC should take every opportunity to make communication with and between tenants more seamless and accessible. Often, an individual tenant may not be aware that others share the same concern. A centralized online forum or app, moderated by TCHC staff, can allow for residents to post issues and/or find/support others experiencing the same. This can also signal to TCHC staff about widespread maintenance or security issues, as opposed to having multiple people call/email in. Furthermore, security concerns can also be posted, to provide warning and keep community members safe from local events. This allows for everything to be visible on one platform as opposed to groups convening on various social media platforms that others may not be a party to. It also shortens wait times and ensures greater transparency.

Though challenges remain, TCHC is and will continue to provide homes and hope to many. It is with this hope that we tread towards a brighter future for all of us.
Ahmed Adan

Second Place Winner

Ahmed Adan

Ahmed Adan is a 24 year old Somali-Canadian Muslim. He’s a TCHC resident and active member of the community who tries his best to shed light on youth engagement and empowerment. He’s also a student at McMaster University studying Power and Energy Engineering.  He is a poet who uses his creative platform to uplift youth and motivate others to strive to be better every day.

Throughout the years, TCHC has had the objective of “providing clean, safe, well-maintained, affordable homes for residents and to help foster neighborhoods where residents have opportunities” as stated on the TCHC website. TCHC is always looking to adapt, improve, and innovate new ways to improve resident experiences. However, one thing TCHC can improve is utilizing the voice of the residents when making these decisions to improve resident experiences, and I’m saying this as a 19-year resident and youth leader within one of TCHC’s biggest communities, Lawrence Heights. In this essay, I look to highlight key points that can improve the experience of residents living in TCHC. TCHC should focus on improving mental health services within communities, introducing more job opportunities for residents and should collaborate with youth leaders & grassroot initiatives to create tangible solutions within TCHC communities.

As previously stated, TCHC has had the objective of “providing clean, safe, well-maintained, affordable homes for residents and to help foster neighborhoods where residents have opportunities”. However, in recent years, especially amplified by COVID, there has been an increase in many mental health issues due to community violence, poverty, PTSD, anxiety and many other factors. Residents often can’t afford to pay for professional services outside of community to aid in their mental well-being, and this is an area TCHC must improve in by providing resources that can aid residents in improving their mental health. TCHC says they are here to help foster neighborhoods where residents have opportunities, but these neighborhoods can’t be communities without unity and togetherness.

Residents make up community, and their mental well-being allows more opportunities to open and results in successful communities where youth can thrive and accomplish their goals and in return benefit their community. There is a lack of therapists and mental health specialists who work in TCHC communities and can relate to the hardships residents and youth go through daily. Providing more services that specialize in mental health can directly impact residents and promote overall wellness, and this improvement in mental health can result in improvements in school, employment, community engagement and overall lifestyle. The next point where TCHC can improve on to benefit their residents is creating job opportunities for residents to support residents.

Creating job opportunities for TCHC residents that directly work with other residents can result in an increase in community engagement, community wellness and unity.

There are many residents in TCHC communities that are more than capable and qualified of providing mental health services, therapy, healing circles and rehabilitation. Youth often don’t have professionals to turn to who have been in their shoes and can relate to the hardships and struggles they deal with, so they turn to negative outlets to release the emotions and built-up anger within.

On the other hand, other youth who are qualified and are relatable to the youth don’t have a means of income and are usually supporting family financially and can’t afford to do this work for free. As a result, qualified workers work outside of the community to earn a living and financially support family, while the youth in TCHC communities don’t have anybody to turn too and resort to negative outlets as a cry for help or a release of built-up emotions.

Creating job opportunities in the mental health field in different communities solves problems that TCHC has been working hard to solve. Qualified youth can earn a living, support TCHC as an employee and in return can provide their expertise and services to youth who have similar upbringings, hardships and experiences. This relatability builds trust and can aid youth in using positive outlets to turn their negative experiences into something beautiful and uplifting for the community and other youth going through the same hardships.

The final point I believe will make TCHC serve their residents better is collaborating with youth leaders & grassroot initiatives to create tangible solutions within TCHC communities. TCHC should provide a seat at the table for youth leaders & advocates who have consistently been working within the community to promote healing, positivity and unity. Youth are often overlooked by outsiders, without realizing youth are the key to community healing.

Youth leaders have the trust of the youth in communities and residents overall and have been working to better their communities daily. I can speak on this from experience because I have been working within TCHC communities, to combat the hardships we face and to promote overall well-being. I’ve hosted open mics, workshops, healing circles, youth trips, community BBQs and many other initiatives and our community needs to be united now more than ever. Us community leaders have been doing this work because we care for our community and are passionate about change, and our communities’ greatest strengths are love and resiliency.

No matter what happens, we show love to one another and are resilient in the face of adversity.

Collaborating with youth leaders & grassroot initiatives can bridge the gap that TCHC has when supporting youth within their communities. Also, youth often lack community space & resources to do the work that they do within their community. Collaboration between TCHC and community led grassroot initiatives will allow residents voices to be amplified and will result in positive change. Also, different communities require different support, and nobody knows better than the residents themselves.

Ridda Ahmed

Third Place Winner

Ridda Ahmed

About Ridda

Ridda lives in the Alexandra Park community with her mother and younger siblings. She will begin a career in nursing this year and has hopes of continuing further education once she gains more clinical experience. She hopes to take on leadership roles to address health disparities and causes that have been brought to her attention. Ridda is of South Asian background, loves to draw, and enjoys reading and learning about topics related to spirituality.

Having lived in the Alexandra Park community as part of Toronto Community Housing for the past 15 years, I have cultivated an immense sense of gratitude for the support, memories, and perspectives that my family and I would not have otherwise found. This tight knit and vibrant community has provided a safe haven to low income families facing societal pressures at intersectionalities that include experiences of recent immigration, homelessness, being refugees, and minorities.

As I witness fast changes unfold amid trends related to urbanization, I hope that this housing community may continue to remain unchanged from the values on which it was built such as diversity, inclusion, and equity.

In doing so, it can continue to optimally serve vulnerable and marginalized groups for many years to come. The current paper will synthesize an analysis of the strengths of my community and noticeable challenges faced by it followed by suggestions on ideas to implement through TCHC’s role as a housing provider and community leader.

One remarkable aspect of my community is the continuous investment that it puts forth into supporting the personal development, community participation, and celebration of tenants. Every so often my household receives decorated flyers notifying us of opportunities such as resume and skill building workshops, educational scholarships, holiday events, and school supply giveaways. This support is invaluable to individuals who may otherwise be disadvantaged in personal, educational, and work settings.

Yet, while such resources are available, there is an overdue need to install better forums of communication among tenants. That is, the current primary means of information spread are by word of mouth or door to door distributed flyers. However, as concentrations of low income TCH tenants transition into mixed income neighbourhoods on newly built streets residents may no longer encounter one another as frequently as they may have reported in previous years . This limits the effectiveness of information spread through contact and may decrease the overall sense of community cohesion. Further, due to common rebound effects of necessary social distancing throughout the pandemic, residents may no longer feel as closely connected to their neighbours as suggested by the recent low attendance at various community events. This loss of connectivity presents risks of social isolation and exclusion among vulnerable groups that might have cultivated resilience through support found in previously close knit communities.

One strategy to promote improved communication and connection among tenants is by increasing awareness of opportunities within the community through the use of technology including social media, mass text messaging, mobile apps, and email communication. For instance, after gathering a comprehensive list of cell phone numbers from tenant records, an initial text message can request permission from interested individuals for subscription to periodic text and email alerts for TCH news, events, and opportunities. Alternatively, an app akin to those used in many newly built condominiums may be a worthwhile investment for not only ensuring organization in the spread of information and communication but it can also support the community in navigating and booking new facilities that are expected to be completed in the future. Further social media in particular, can help support the engagement of certain target groups, enhance community visibility, and facilitate greater efficiency in responding to resident inquiries. In fact, establishing a social media team can provide an opportunity for youth leadership and employment among tenants.

Additionally, my personal experiences have highlighted a gap in community resources catered to tenants diagnosed with developmental disabilities. That is, diagnosis such as autism spectrum disorder, Down’s syndrome, intellectual disability, and Asperger’s Syndrome can foreshadow lifelong challenges related to rights, relationships, finances, and independence. Yet there are no specialized services for such individuals in our community. Since I began seeking Autism support resources externally for my brother who is a young adult, I have experienced many barriers in response to my efforts.

These have included an inability to afford some private programs, extensive waitlists for government funded services, long commute times, programs that were poorly organized, those that were discontinued due to low enrolment numbers, and a limited selection of resources available resulting in a non-optimal match between the needs of my brother and services offered.

In encountering these obstacles, I began to recognize how feelings of learned helplessness can manifest among low-income groups seeking aid for less accessible services and the challenges that must often be overcome for those who are persistent in their pursuit of help.

Rather than accept this as a bleak common reality, I propose viewing this as an opportunity for TCHC facilitated intervention to help some of our most vulnerable community members. To be able to attend respite programs, specialized workshops, as well as be trained for employment and volunteer opportunities in neighbourhoods that such individuals are most familiar with would lend them the extra support that they may require in their transition to new roles. Simultaneously they may be empowered through the knowing that they are giving back to and participating in networks of individuals with whom they share similar backgrounds and stories. Notably, this process may require collaboration between neighbouring TCH communities to ensure sufficient numbers in attendance for these programs. However, individuals seeking participation can be supported through information on resources such as Wheel-Trans for transportation and the Passport program through Developmental Services Ontario that is available to help those eligible through their diagnoses be reimbursed for expenses related to their community participation.

As a housing provider, TCHC holds significant influence over tenant experiences alongside a responsibility for ethical use of this power over vulnerable groups. Through intentions of continuing leadership and service, this energy can be translated into life changing opportunities for the betterment of not only TCH communities but also society as diverse individuals with insight stemming from personal experiences of disadvantage are elevated to positions where they can create positive change and give back to their communities.

Stories about community

Although we could only choose three winners, TCHC would like to thank all essayists that took the time to share their voices and perspectives with us.  We acknowledge their work by sharing excerpts from their submissions below.

Regent Park sign, grassy area, buildings in the background

"As a current Regent Park resident, I have observed that community events bring the
neighbourhood together. Regent Park is a very diverse community, therefore, community
events provide residents the opportunity to become familiar with different cultures and
interact with a diverse range of people."

- Danyal M.

Mural at Alexandra Park

"The strength of the community includes the diversity of its residents, the commitment of its leaders, and the vibrancy of its culture."

- Emmanuella B.

People behind a table in winter clothing handing out food in the community

One of the greatest strengths of my community is unselfishness. I grew up in a
community where if you did not have enough resources, you could reach out to your neighbors
and friends for support.

- Joshua P.

"Recently, we as a family, attended a pumpkin carving event and it was great. We met another family that was carving pumpkins next to our table and quickly began to work together and conversate. To foster a community, programs like this are very important.

The greatest strength of my community is the diversity. I live in a mixed-income community, and I really enjoy the different cultures and diverse demographics that we have here. I enjoy meeting new people and hearing their stories and learning about their own unique cultures. I believe that this makes our community strong as we all understand that we may have had different paths and experiences but now, we’re all in this together."

- Abdul S.

"Growing up, we had summer camps in my community that brought all the youth together. It was through these programs that I was able to start to foster relationships with community members that are still going strong till this day. Over the years, the programs in my community stopped being offered but as I grew older, I realized how important it was to teach younger generations the importance of community.

This led me to start working with the Toronto Community Housing Rookie League Summer Program. This program allowed me to spend countless summers leading hundreds of kids from many different backgrounds and teaching them the importance of life skills like respect, empathy, hard work, inclusion, and cooperation."

- Gabriel N.

Ideas for the future

Thoughtful ideas participants suggested for improvements at TCHC.

"Considering investing in more on-site interpreters for residents during council meetings may be a practical alternative to involving a larger subset of people and making sure council meetings are equitable in practice. This could be with translators and well as ASL interpreters for members of the community that are hearing impaired."

- Naziha U.

"For example, when events and programs are made available, they are posted in the elevator or on the walls, which is a very passive and unprofessional way of informing the community. Implementing an active approach, such as the use of technology (e.g., sending announcements via email, questionnaire or flyers) can be a more direct way of informing members about available public resources."

-Oyiza D.

"TCHC must take a bigger initiative in facilitating more community meetings addressing violent issues. More crisis intervention workers should be deployed in vulnerable communities of the city instead of regular police who may not have the knowledge to deescalate critical situations."

- Zahid D.

"TCHC could be partnering with different universities and colleges to help youth afford post secondary education. Many people in TCHC lose hope of going to post-secondary for 2 reasons: first, lack of academic support early on in their education leading them to fail classes and as a result not meeting the grade criteria to be accepted at a school. The second reason is that some students do actually have the grades, but simply don't have enough funds to be able to afford the education.

To mitigate these concerns, I propose TCHC support youth by working towards “creating a graduating nation” through academic support and opportunities to enter postsecondary. By partnering with TCHC, each post secondary institution could allocate a certain amount of spots and scholarships designed for TCHC residents in an effort of breaking generational cycles of poverty in our at-risk communities."

- Sara D.

"An approachable way to engage more in the community would be to start a program where people can be educated about nutrition. As we see a lot of our
elders suffer from high blood pressure, diabetes, and other food-related diseases. A program that we can attend at least once or twice a week where we can share recipes and foods from each other's countries. In this program, people can also learn how to cook foods with different and healthier alternatives.

If we could integrate nutrition, mental- health and well-being all together. TCHC would reach the inner core of many communities."

- Richard L.