Need high as United Way launches annual campaign: Officials

·3 min read

Thousands of jobs are going begging in the London region, but organizers and agencies involved with the London area's largest fundraising drive for people in need say the basic needs of many still aren't being met.

United Way Elgin Middlesex, which offers financial support to social service agencies in the region, launched its seasonal campaign Thursday with its annual harvest lunch in St. Thomas, the first in-person event since 2019.

“It can feel a little bit rusty getting back together, but we're so thrilled,” president and chief executive Kelly Ziegner said.

“It really is our opportunity to connect with people in the community, let them know the impact of their giving and inspire folks to get involved.”

While there are thousands of London-area job openings – the jobless rate is 6.6 per cent, according to Statistics Canada – United Way and its partner agencies say the pressures facing individuals, who were on the margins before the pandemic, have increased.

“I think sometimes we feel a little disconnect because we're hearing on one hand, there are lots of jobs in the community. But then we're also hearing that there's a really big need,” Ziegner said.

“If you consider somebody who maybe has lost their housing and is homeless, getting a job isn't necessarily their first priority,” she said. “There may be some recovery that they need to go through, some counselling. They need a home. There are many steps before people are ready for employment.”

Record high inflation and a lack of affordable housing, coupled with the social isolation brought on by the pandemic, are some of the factors making it difficult for vulnerable people to receive the support they need, including building the capacity to get or keep a job.

“Adults and youth who are struggling day-to-day may be sleeping rough. They may be couch-surfing nights. They may not know where they’re sleeping that night or having their meal that night,” said Lindsay Rice, executive director of YWCA St. Thomas-Elgin, a social services agency supporting women and their families.

“Their basic needs are not being met. It’s impossible for them to start focusing on job search and employment,” she said.

On Thursday, attendees at Horton Farmers’ Market could buy $20 tickets that come with lunch from area food trucks and a “pay-it-forward” meal donation to the region’s most vulnerable. The money raised during the annual drive flows to United Way partner agencies working to tackle poverty, offer emergency and basic needs, provide affordable housing and promote social and economic inclusion.

St. Thomas and Elgin County have been particularly hard-hit by the pandemic. There are 100 youth experiencing homelessness on any given day in the region, Rice said.

“Youth homelessness is a very invisible problem . . . These issues really go unseen,” she said.

As for housing, the vacancy rate in the area is near zero and it can take years before people reach the top of the social housing waiting list, Rice said.

Last year, United Way doled out $6.65 million in grants for 52 programs at 41 agencies in London and Elgin and Middlesex counties.

To learn more about this year’s United Way campaign, visit unitedwayem.ca.

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Calvi Leon, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, London Free Press