The Hope Centre in Welland, Ontario, has a long tradition of providing services to people who most need support in meeting their basic needs – and the need has been great. Local residents sometimes have to travel on public transit to St. Catharines, Ontario for social and medical services, which can take two hours each way. In 2013 the Niagara Region had more than 8,200 affordable housing units, and its waiting list for these housing units then exceeded 5,800 households. Wait times ranged from a year and a half to 11 years. In 2012, Niagara had the sixth highest waiting period for affordable housing in the province (ONPHA, 2016) and over 11 percent of residents survived on social assistance and employment insurance.
The average household income is well below that of similar-sized municipalities in Ontario, and almost eight percent of residents have an income below the poverty line (Niagara Region, 2013).
In 1974, a group from the People’s United Church launched the Welland Community Resource and Action Centre. They decided they wanted to find a way to help people who were falling through the cracks of the social welfare system. As a volunteer organization, they began offering help with food assistance, emergency shelter, child care and advocacy. Later renamed the Hope Centre, today the Centre continues to offer a wide range of services addressing poverty-related issues and needs—addiction counselling, counselling for trauma and other mental health issues, and various other health and social services, including a food bank, soup kitchen, emergency shelter beds, and transitional housing.
From its earliest beginnings, the Hope Centre operated somewhat like a hub, offering multiple services as one organization, each funded by different agencies or levels of government targeted at the most marginalized people in the community.
Key partners of the Hope Centre’s hub include Community Addiction Services of Niagara (CASON), the YWCA, Return to Hope Counselling, the District School Board of Niagara, the Canadian Mental Health Association, and Ontario Addiction Treatment Centres. The Hope Centre provides transitional housing for men, while the YWCA provides transitional housing services for women. The District School Board of Niagara provides basic literacy, life and computer skills, and will help clients find a path either towards employment or going back to school.
Each of the above organizations are tenants – rather than a traditional ‘lease agreement,’ the partners have a ‘usage agreement.’ The Hope Centre covers the costs of hydro and cleaning and provides a common reception area for the partnering agencies within the hub.
Over the years, the organization began to professionalize. In 1985, it began hiring staff to run the otherwise volunteer-based social service based organization. But the Hope Centre has stayed close to its roots. It’s still an organization that helps those people who need help the most. “We work to address the root causes of poverty,” says Mark Carl, the Centre’s Executive Director.
In reviewing Niagara Region’s 2013 10-year Housing and Homelessness Action Plan (HHAP), Carl noticed that it recommended developing community hubs in 11 smaller municipalities. For Carl, the image of a community hub with additional social services reflected the needs of Hope Centre clients—all of whom needed multiple services. The concept of being able to address housing and health needs in one place meshed well with ideals and services the Hope Centre had already been working to provide on a smaller scale.
The hub would need extra space. “If one of our clients needed service from another agency, there was no room to bring in another agency. We had to send them to another part of town,” explains Carl. “The vision was to become a community hub. There was not enough dignity in the way we were able to offer services in such a small building. The clients were on top of each other.” Plus, it was important for the Hope Centre to complement, rather than duplicate, existing services.
So planning began.
The Hope Centre aims to move beyond simply offering services. Instead, it works to set up integrated approaches to help individuals lift themselves out of poverty. Its mission is “to assist the most vulnerable citizens in Welland and the surrounding area in their time of need by providing food and housing stability, and to empower change in their lives by increasing their future resilience to poverty and increasing their capacity to be self-sustaining through counselling and training.”
In 2014, Mark Carl, Hope Centre’s Executive Director, raised the funds to purchase a 16,000-square-foot medical arts centre, located next to the Welland County General Hospital and bordering the downtown area. The Hope Centre began inviting organizations to partner with them, offering social services under one roof as part of their proposed new hub. Some of the organizations Carl spoke with had offices in St. Catharines. He presented business cases demonstrating how it could be cheaper to rent an office in the new shared hub than to send a worker out to Welland a few days a week.
Using the proceeds from the sale of their previous building, the Hope Centre prepared a financial plan to purchase and renovate the new building, and a business plan focused on renting space. The transition to the new building was gradual, as the Centre had to wait for the various medical specialists who occupied the building to relocate. But in 2015, The Hope Centre moved in.
The Hope Centre’s new building still has approximately 3,000 square feet of empty space, and the Centre is seeking the right partners to fill the space. The Centre is currently undertaking a research project to identify and clarify the needs of clients and the local community, determine the right set of new partners. As well, the research will inform the Centre’s strategic goal renewal and identify ways in which the organization can sustain itself into the future so as to continue to help community members most in need of help.
A Service Hub
Niagara Region has officially recognized the role of what they refer to as “service hubs” (such as the Hope Centre) as part of its policies to prevent homelessness and provide services to low-income and marginalized people needing housing services. Niagara Region has had a service hub working group since 2015. Its key priority is addressing homelessness. Jeffrey Sinclair, homelessness action plan advisor for Niagara Region, says that service hubs address three main goals:
- Helping to house people who do not have a home
- Helping people find and retain their home, and
- Building capacity and improving the effectiveness of the housing system
The Hope Centre is one of number of service hubs across Niagara Region’s 12 municipalities. Jeffrey Sinclair, homelessness action plan advisor for Niagara Region, says: “Some of those hubs have been around for a long time, such as the Fort Erie Native Friendship Centre. There are two places where community has expressed interest in developing service hubs, the Crystal Beach area of Fort Erie and in the Beamsville area, where there is a great need for improved access to community services.”
Rather than building new hubs, Sinclair says, “It might make more sense for us to strengthen existing hubs – or help an existing organization expand into a hub. In this way the Hope Centre could refer clients for health services to Bridges Community Health Centre in Fort Erie and Port Colborne, while clients in these communities can be referred to The Hope Centre for other services, such as transitional housing or Housing First.”
As the lead agency in the hub, the Hope Centre provides a common reception area for the hub, which doubles as a small drop-in area. While technically there is no common intake, the Centre’s intake coordinator does refer people to different services at the hub or elsewhere, as do frontline staff of the different services in the hub. Frontline staff meet approximately every two months.
“It’s important that frontline staff from all the programs know each other and work together and are familiar with each other’s programs,” emphasizes Mark Carl, executive director of the Hope Centre. “At the Hope Centre, clients need to feel comfortable. They report that they don’t feel like ‘I have to tell my story a million times.’ It is not a stigmatizing environment.”
A community room seats approximately 100 people; during the day it houses a soup kitchen used by approximately 80 people per day, run by volunteers and Hope Centre staff. On evenings and weekends, the community uses the room for a variety of activities, including exercise classes, training for various programs, bridal showers and memorial services. The full kitchen is also available for use.
One of the most successful and innovative programs run by the Centre is a catering business called Giving Hope which is run as a social enterprise. A very well-known chef, Verner Hauer, leads the program. Hauer is from Niagara Falls and has worked internationally in prominent restaurants such as the Sofitel Hotel in Buenos Aires. At the Centre’s kitchen, he teaches clients culinary skills to help them find employment. They prepare and present meals for the business community’s corporate functions. Some people volunteer in the program and others are paid a small stipend.
The Hope Centre also has a resource centre, with computers for public use, fax services, and photocopying; a telephone is also available. The original plan was to build transitional housing. That project is now on hold, but, according to Carl, the Centre remains committed to developing transitional housing as an option. In the meantime, the YWCA offers women’s transitional housing and the Centre offers its own nearby transitional housing services for men. At this time, Hope Centre’s transitional housing programs leases apartments and rooms to 14 men. Clients are allowed to occupy transitional housing up to a year. Carl explains that for people coming out of shelters, raising money for first and last month’s rent can be very difficult. This program, which provides some supportive services, aims to help people move out of homelessness.
“We are in the midst of developing a business case to best decide how to use the rest of the vacant spaces in the building,” says Carl.
The Centre applied to several foundations for financial support—including the Keg Spirit Foundation and Canadian Tire Financial Services, Walker Industries, Niagara Prosperity Initiative, McLean Foundation, and Niagara Community Foundation amongst others—to renovate the building. Canadian Tire helped renovate an entire floor of the building where the Centre now houses its food bank. With the help of Niagara College’s Event Management program, the Hope Centre raised $50,000 for materials and its construction program helped renovate the community room where the soup kitchen operates. The City of Welland funds the food bank and the soup kitchen. Niagara Region funds the housing program, which is also supported by the provincial government and local municipality. The Ontario Trillium Foundation assisted with the Centre’s air conditioning expenses.
With funding designated for specific programs defined by each granting agency, the rigidity in financing a building to run a hub presents challenges.
Carl, Hope Centre’s Executive Director explains, “The capital stuff is very expensive.” It is easier to get funding for particular programs than to find funding to replace air conditioning and heating units, for example. Carl continues to apply to foundations for assistance with capital expenditures.
Reflecting on the Hope Centre’s growth and success, Jeffrey Sinclair from the Niagara Region, remarks, “The Hope Centre lucked out. They found someone who was selling a property and was not just interested in maximizing their profits. They saw the social benefit of selling to the Hope Centre.” The seller was very generous, agreeing to sell the building for $275,000.
Sinclair also recognizes the lack of resources to help hubs sustain themselves and expand and how hubs needs to be innovative to thrive. “I do see that a sustainable way to find income for hubs is through social enterprise,” Sinclair says.
The Hope Centre’s board of directors hails from a broad cross-section of occupations, including parole officers, real estate professionals, social workers, and others; all assist the Centre’s staff in developing strategic plans and fundraising. The board is responsible for the operations of the hub, while each partner organization operates independently with its own user agreement with the Centre. The Hope Centre’s hub does not have a separate governance structure from the Hope Centre’s board of directors. However, as the lead agency, the Hope Centre is responsible for the hub.
Lessons Learned and Advice
Fundraising and finding affordable way to undertake major renovations can be very challenging. Hope Centre Executive Director Mark Carl has found that working closely with foundations makes a difference. Carl emphasizes two points which have increased the organization’s success, the first of which involves “working closely with foundations or agencies such as the United Way and Trillium that have funded us, and then negotiating a deal on building renovations and construction work.” Finding partners and supporters who donated their services in fundraising and construction has been indispensable to the Hope Centre in renovating their new building and turning it into a community hub. Students from different programs at Niagara College helped tremendously with fundraising and construction of the Centre’s community room. The second major contributor to Hope Centre’s success was from receiving assistance to pay for renovations. “All of these services can be very expensive,” explains Carl.
Creating an environment that is supportive, collaborative and non-judgemental, is one of the goals towards which Carl has worked diligently. Staff of organizations at the hub work together and collaborate rather than merely co-locate. They refer clients to each other’s organizations. Regular meetings of frontline staff ensure they all know about each other’s programs and what services they are offering. Creating a genuinely collaborative and supportive atmosphere amongst hub partners is not always easy to achieve; regular meetings and good communication are just two things which can assist in helping a cooperative environment to thrive.
Carl applied innovative tactics to convince potential partners to join the Hope Centre in their new building as tenants and partners. In order to recruit the right set of partners, prospective or interested candidates often require a business case to prove that partnering makes economic sense. When meeting with executive directors of organizations which he viewed as a good fit for the new hub, Carl presented business cases demonstrating how it would be more economical for their organization to move into the hub, rather than sending workers out, on an itinerant basis, to meet with clients. Carl’s success in recruiting partners for their hub demonstrates how traditional business skills such as preparing a business case can work successfully in the nonprofit field.