St. James Town Community Corner

Located in what is possibly Canada’s most densely-populated neighbourhood, the St. James Town Community Corner acts as an important resource centre and service hub for more than 17,000 residents living in the downtown Toronto area. With a population that continues to climb and newcomers being the largest portion of St. James Town’s population, there is an increasing need for more accessible and equitable health services that meet the needs of an incredibly diverse and multicultural community.

The Health Access St. James Town initiative was established after a destructive fire at 200 Wellesley St. East in 2010. Following the fire, the need for more integrated and collaborative care became more evident, as many of the residents affected by the fire were socially isolated and faced various physical and mental health concerns, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and depression. There was an increased need for better access to health services in the community, especially for vulnerable populations, such as seniors and families of low socio-economic status. Furthermore, language barriers may limit newcomers’ knowledge of navigating the health care system, such health insurance coverage. Since its inception, the healthcare initiative has been led by the Sherbourne Health Centre and the Health Access Working Group, which is part of the St. James Town Service Providers’ Network. “What makes the initiative effective is that it uses a community-based and client-focused model that views health holistically and through a social determinants of health framework,” says Orit Adose, Hub Coordinator of the St. James Town Community Corner.

“Intake staff from the Community Corner also make in-home visits, as well as visits to schools and shelters.”

Health Access recognizes the complex and diverse needs of the St. James Town community and connects them to appropriate resources through a general intake form. Intake staff from the Community Corner also make in-home visits, as well as visits to schools and shelters, to ensure vulnerable populations with high need are able to access these health services. In addition, Health Access connects residents and newcomers to mental health counsellors and also informs patients about the various social support services that are available to them. These include settlement and employment services, housing, and food banks, all of which help to ease psychosocial stress. “We also encourage them to have a family doctor, whom they can see regularly,” says Nayanthi Wijesuriya, the Intake and Client Engagement Lead at Health Access St. James Town. Moreover, there are annual flu clinics held by Health Access at the Community Corner to ensure community members can be easily immunized. There are even income tax services that are offered to community members to help them with the transition of settling into the neighbourhood and into the country.

Wijesuriya also says that the “healthy immigrant effect” is kept in mind when her team connects people to services, as many newcomers are in better health when they first arrive to St. James Town, compared to several months after living in their new home. Therefore, social support plays an important role in alleviating the stresses that many community members face, including newcomers who are adjusting to living life in a new country and working multiple jobs to make ends meet. While the St. James Town Community Corner does not deliver the health services, it does help increase feelings of belonging by facilitating outreach and community engagement through various programming, which heavily rely on community volunteers and are geared to community members of all ages. These community programs for children, seniors, and newcomers at the St. James Town Community Corner are equally important because they help build social capital and increase social support in community members, among other direct benefits. For example, there are afterschool and homework clubs for children, computer literacy classes for adults, and seniors day programs run by different service providers and community organizations, but are held at the Community Corner; the Health Access team may also connect community members to these programs as part of their general intake process.

They help build social capital and increase social support in community members.

The St. James Town Health Access initiative is also in accordance to the Community Corner’s core values of equity and accessibility. By prioritizing vulnerable populations, such as seniors and low-income families living in the neighbourhood, the Health Access initiative contributes to the improvement of the overall health and wellbeing of the St. James Town community. It acknowledges the various social determinants of health such as race, gender, class, socio-economic status, and how these social categories interact simultaneously with each other to marginalize an individual, as well as affect their health and wellbeing.

According to Wijesuriya, mental health and addiction are issues that are increasingly being faced by clients. Thus, there is a greater need for better mental health and addiction services in the community, such as a crisis response team. “Oftentimes, our team ends up having to respond to crisis and provide counselling with other service providers who are part of the St. James Town Service Providers’ Network, when we are not prepared to do so,” says Wijesuriya. The lack of funding for better resources at the Community Corner may be due to the notion that the neighbourhood of St. James Town does not qualify as a “Priority Neighbourhood” or “Neighbourhood Improvement Area” by the city of Toronto.

Nevertheless, the St. James Town Health Access initiative at the St. James Town Community Corner improves health equity in this neighbourhood by promoting accessibility, which is an equally important social determinant of health. As a result, residents and newcomers feel more integrated in the community and better connected to the health resources they need, which contributes to an overall thriving neighbourhood that is healthier and more sustainable. The positive impact of the Health Access initiative brings a sense of hopeful optimism that is not only seen by staff and counsellors, but also by other St. James Town community members. Itultimately inspires and fosters a community that bravely and boldly cares for each other.

By Mehdia Hassan

 Mehdia Hassan is a life-long inhabitant of the downtown Toronto neighbourhood of St. James Town and an avid volunteer at the Community Corner. She holds an Honours Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Toronto in health studies and psychology, and is beginning her Masters degree in Social Justice at Lakehead University. A visual artist herself, Mehdia is interested in examining how arts-based methods and interventions improve health equity in marginalized communities.
This article is an “Equity in the City” feature, a Health & Science event that sheds light on health centres that cater to marginalized populations in the City of Toronto, Canada.


Please note that opinions expressed are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views and values of The Blank Page.