While many recognize the value and unique character that Kensington Market adds to Toronto, few appreciate that the neighbourhood — surely one of the quirkiest in the city — is also home to a large number of new immigrants to Canada, many of whom face significant economic hardships in their new homes.
Students who walk through the Market may not pay much attention to St. Stephen’s Community House, the large building that sits between Supermarket and Urban Herbivore on Augusta. But it doesn’t sell vintage clothing or cheap pints of Mill St. Organic. What St. Stephen’s provides to the community is something intangible, yet absolutely essential to thousands of people, building and strengthening the community itself.
The social service agency has been serving western Toronto neighbourhoods since 1962, and over the subsequent decades, it expanded outwards from Kensington in order to serve communities as far north as North York.
Eileen Shannon came to St. Stephen’s Community House six years ago, bringing with her a wealth of experience gained from working with a variety organizations in Toronto, Europe, and Africa. As program director, she is responsible for seven programs within the agency.
The Varsity had the opportunity to speak with Shannon at her office in the Kensington Market location of St. Stephen’s. She provided unique insights into the inner workings of the community development and social service organization, and how they keep up with the changing qualities of Toronto’s immigrant and poor communities.
The Varsity: St. Stephen’s Community House serves areas of Toronto beyond Kensington Market. What services do you provide at the Kensington location, where are some of your other locations, and what services do they provide?
Eileen Shannon: We have eight different locations in the downtown west and we have recently opened a new location for language classes in North York. Kensington is certainly our busiest site, but not our only site. We see ourselves as being based in Kensington; this is our home community and it’s where we started. Our youth program is here, our homeless program is here, our language training and newcomer services’ main office are here, and we have a small supportive housing program on the top floor.
There is a range of programs for newcomers, programs for adults and for seniors. Some of our services are providing for the immediate area, and other services take from a broader community base — throughout the western part of downtown. There’s basically three program areas. One of them is employment services, which is located at Bathurst and St. Clair. We have licensed, fee-for-service child care in four different locations in downtown Toronto. We also have a cluster of community programs that include services for seniors, programs for the homeless, language training for newcomers, youth programs, conflict resolution resources, and wellness programs. The wellness programs include HIV prevention in the Chinese and Portuguese communities, and prenatal support for newcomers who are pregnant for the first time.
TV: Toronto has changed a lot in the past fifty years in terms of immigration patterns. How has St. Stephen’s been affected by these changes?
ES: We’ve had to really examine the question of what our geographic base is. For example, one of the biggest strengths of St. Stephen’s is newcomer services. English as a second language classes were one of the first services we offered, back in 1962. There’s been a big demographic shift in Toronto and this area is no longer the first-stop for a broad range of immigrant groups that it was up until the ‘60s and ‘70s. The shift began in the ‘80s and
‘90s — more immigrants have been living in the suburbs. At this point, Chinese newcomers are the only significant newcomer group that is still living in this area. We’ve had to come to terms with the necessity of eventually seeing ourselves as less tied to this location, though we’re still very committed to downtown Toronto.
TV: Why are services like St. Stephen’s so essential to community-building in Toronto?
ES: The people who use this service find that it’s not simply a service — we’re not a supermarket where you just walk in and get what you need. It is also a community, a place where people make connections and can volunteer and build community by making friends and learning new skills. Both our youth program and homeless program have very extensive volunteer and peer development components. All of those skills that build strength in individuals, and build connections between individuals, [also] help to build community. For newcomers, for example, it’s a sense of belonging and connecting as well as learning about their new country and different aspects of life in Canada.
If you think about newcomers from mainland China, they could move into this area and remain extremely isolated because they can get almost everything they need in their native language. So we help individuals to integrate and to become engaged. It helps to build the community at large. Take this building, for example — we have new immigrants coming in here, we have people who are homeless, and we have young people. And though we don’t do much inter-program work, it’s still a place where all kinds of people come in and out every day.
TV: What are some of the challenges that you are faced with when trying to foster a community in the neighbourhoods that St. Stephen’s serves?
ES: Many newcomers are having difficulty and [are] living in substandard housing. When they do succeed and get through those first couple of years, when they’re learning English, and finally get a job that is close to the skills they come to Canada with — they’re moving out of this area. One of the challenges for us, as a city and as a community, is how do we retain the diversity of downtown Toronto?
What was very characteristic for a long time was not just the cultural diversity, but also the economic diversity of downtown Toronto. There had always been people who were well-off, students, new immigrants — it created an area of tremendous economic diversity, and I think this has been shrinking recently.
TV: So do you believe its better for immigrants who have just arrived in Toronto to be living near the downtown core rather than in more suburban areas?
ES: I don’t think it’s just better for immigrants, I think it’s better for everybody. I think economic diversity makes a city better — mixed income neighbourhoods are healthier than neighbourhoods that are either very poor and very wealthy. It’s well known that concentrations of poverty within cities are also concentrations of other social problems. I think it’s healthier for our community, as in our whole city, to have this kind of diversity.
When you talk about community, what exactly do you mean by the word? Community can be very small but it can also be very large. I see the whole city of Toronto as a community. What happens in one part of it affects what happens in another part, and the decisions that are made at the municipal level will affect a community the size of Kensington Market. Kensington is an extremely unusual community — there really is no area in the city quite like it. So there are specific community issues here that only have an impact on us in this area.
TV: Would it be fair to say that some communities within Toronto are becoming more homogenous and isolated?
ES: I think we’re certainly shifting away from diverse communities. Isolated? I don’t know, I don’t have the answer to that, but I’d say a lot of suburban neighbourhoods would say they’re isolated for reasons like lack of transportation. There are many people who live in places like Jane and Finch [in North York] and Malvern [in Scarborough] who would never go outside of those areas. In our new site in North York, we’ve met some newcomers who have been here for more than a year who have never been downtown.
So there is that isolation — we’re a very big city and people do live in their own neighbourhoods. While they may cross neighbourhoods to get to work, there is an isolation in the sense that those neighbourhoods are essentially foreign countries.