London leans into innovative anti-poverty effort
Karen Lynch never imagined she’d go to college. But she says a group designed to lift people out of poverty gave her the confidence she needed to hit the books.
It’s part of an innovative approach to stop generational poverty in its tracks, and address other flashpoints, like social assistance — rates in London are high, and climbing — and finding jobs.
Bridges Out of Poverty saves thousands of dollars a month in welfare and disability payments and gives Londoners a push to finish high school and college.
It started in Lambton County, but London now has the largest Bridges and “Circles” program in Canada. Four circles of as many as 20 people connect volunteer mentors with people in need.
“I was a single mom with no real support system. I had kind of given up on trying. I tried handing out resumes, but it was just too much and I gave up,” Lynch said. What can a weekly meeting do? Lynch, 35, says it comes down to support. The mentors — dubbed “allies” — are problem-solvers, cheerleaders, friends.
“I did not grow up under the best circumstances and I never really had any real self-worth, because I was told that I had none,” Lynch said. “To have people come around . . . and say, ‘Yes, you are worth it,’ . . . is life-changing.”
She’s training to become a parts technician at Fanshawe College, through a free, one-year preapprentice program.
The group is all about breaking down barriers and building a network with guest speakers, workshops, services, maybe a meal.
And in a city where people stay on social assistance nearly twice as long as they used to, labour market participation lags neighbouring mid-size cities, drug addiction is at crisis levels and shelters regularly operate over capacity, this different approach seems to work.
People entering the program have been on social assistance for four years. Close to half of those who graduate have a stable job that pays enough to survive. Another 14 per cent are employed and getting “topped up” by Ontario Works benefits. Others are in school or some other kind of intensive program — like addictions treatment — and the rest depend on disability payments or stopped participating.
The paycheques help people come off social assistance. By 2019, the annual savings to Ontario Works from employment income and from those leaving the system is expected to reach $430,000.
But it’s the personal connection that stands out for participants and people monitoring the program.
“The biggest thing is that it creates a sense of community,” said Kevin Dickins, who oversees social assistance at city hall. “When you’re in a room, a very close and safe environment with people who have found success, it gives you hope.”
He thinks Bridges Out of Poverty works well in London because it builds support networks, then models success.
“It’s so encouraging when you see a bunch of people . . . you’ve started with that are now doing better,” said Margaret Stout, a mom of three who joined the program in 2017.
“I was kind of lost and not sure which path to take,” she said. Her group has since become “almost like a family.”
When her daughter was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, the circle wrapped her with support.
She’s had members offer to hang out with her girls while she takes care of schoolwork for her Fanshawe program. When she completes a foundational program, she hopes to get into social work.
“The relationships I’ve made through Circles (are) pretty amazing,” she said. “The encouragement — you could be having the worst day, and you don’t really want to go, but then when you go, it’s just so overwhelming because everyone is so supportive.” email@example.com twitter.com/MeganatLFPress