It shouldn’t be a surprise that poverty is concentrated in particular places. For many Windsorites, the fact that some neighbourhoods are “worse off” is readily apparent. Vacant buildings and rundown houses are the markers, the outcome of what a newly-released report by the local United Way calls “poverty of place.”
Photo from Windsor's Vacant Buildings and Lots Facebook Group
Pulling data from the last three federal censuses, the report maps a range of indicators correlated with poverty to show how it’s spread throughout the region. Blocks of dark grey, showing the highest concentrations of poverty, stretch from Windsor’s west end to Ford City, with a few chunks marking neighbourhoods like Meadowbrook and the Villages of Riverside.
And while the data itself should be concerning to all, it’s the impact of that localized poverty which has the United Way calling for action.
Poverty of place “is the structural impact of poverty on the physical environment,” explains the report’s author, Frazier Fathers, United Way’s Manager of Community Impact & Learning.
Essentially, areas with a high concentration of people with little to no income will see a number of spin-off effects. If people don’t have disposable income, businesses close down. Those who can afford it, leave the neighbourhood, leading more businesses and institutions, like churches and community centres, to uproot as well. Without anchor institutions, people are less likely to gather and get to know their neighbours, reducing social capital.
“When they become disenfranchised and isolated it contributes to the breakdown of social fabric in those neighbourhoods,” Fathers says.
With high tenant turnover at rental properties and low rates of homeownership, there’s little in the way of long-term personal investment in those areas. Vacant businesses and unkempt properties serve as visual cues for the state of the neighbourhood, further reducing private investment and contributing to a negative feedback loop which leaves the most vulnerable of people living in the most impoverished of places.
While the report paints a bleak picture of the situation, it also provides a path towards stitching together the social fabric that helps neighbourhoods thrive.
The report emphasizes the need to engage United Ways’ multiple community partners and stakeholders to come together to fix the problem, to strategically “overinvest” in the hardest hit places.
But the most important partners aren’t the businesses and organizations, they’re the people that call these neighbourhoods home.
“Without engaging residents, you can dump money into these neighbourhoods all you want,” Fathers says. “You can build new parks, but if the residents aren’t willing to take ownership of that space, and call it their own... it makes it very difficult to see sustained success in those areas.”
The report recommends the establishment of community hubs, a direct answer to the exodus of services these neighbourhoods have seen. Those hubs, which could host a broad range of services such as health care, legal aid, and food banks, would also be designed as spaces for community members to meet and discuss their needs, which would then influence which services the hub offers.
The report also calls for the establishment of “community action plans and tables,” a resident-centric approach to identifying needs and prioritizing action.
Fathers points to the success of the Windsor/Essex Community Garden Collective as an example of engaging residents in community action.
“You have to show physical change in order to help build and sustain momentum. You can only talk around the table for so long about doing something before people just get frustrated, or, because they’ve been disenfranchised for so long, they think nothing’s going to change so why waste my time,” he says.
It’s an approach that’s desperately needed. While politicians and parties pander to middle class voters, it seems the most vulnerable are left out of calls to be part of that much-needed change.
While planting carrots in a community garden down your street may not be exactly the same as casting a ballot, they’re two sides of the same coin. To successfully bring disenfranchised and marginalized people into the fold of sewing social fabric, they must be paramount in the decision-making process.
“People get tired of being asked what they want and not getting it,” says Lorena Shepley, a member of Windsor’s Voices Against Poverty.
The group is made up of people with lived experience of poverty. They advocate on a range of issues, sitting on local committees and working groups, and acting as a source for local media.
While she says the report on localized poverty didn’t surprise her, as many already know the hardest hits areas of the city, she’s hopeful that hubs and community tables will take the extra steps to encourage residents to get involved in their neighbourhoods.
“We have to recognize that apathy, and the reasons for it, when we’re talking to people,” she explains. “We need to let them know that we care and we want to engage and revitalize the neighbourhood and help people to thrive, but there has to be some convincing to make that happen.”
That convincing won’t be easy. Overcoming apathy and hopelessness doesn’t come from token gestures of community involvement, it comes from giving residents the tools and the power to be a part of change in their neighbourhoods.
Hopefully this report is just the start.