Corporita Bonanza – Interview with Elizabeth Clarke

Interview with Elizabeth Clarke by Hanan Awaad

There is no meeting, relevant committee, or a worthwhile cause in the Region of Waterloo that you won’t find Elizabeth Clarke participating in. Clarke is the Executive Director of the YWCA in the Region of Waterloo, Ontario. She is also a regional councillor with the Region and involved in so many local committees. I don’t think there is someone that I came across with such diverse interests and so active in the community like her.

Q. For our audience that doesn’t know much about, as you might know, our audience is from all over Canada and across the globe. So, tell us who Elizabeth Clarke is?

Well, you hit the main ones. I am a very busy person who doesn’t get a lot of time to sleep. I have my day job is running a large social service organization called YWCA, and I am a member of the regional council representing the city of Kitchener and I am a part of a service club called Zonta and I sit on several boards and organizations as well.

Q. Education-wise you have a degree in psychology and English, and then a master’s in social work, and also you teach social work

Yes, I’m a practicum associate practicum professor with the laboratory at Wilfred Laurie University.  So, I work with students who are doing their placements yeah and I help them to meet their educational goals and also to tie the theory that they’ve learned at university with the practice that they’re that they’re getting during their placement.

Q. And you have a long experience, 15 years, with the YWCA

Yes, I’ve been with the YMCA for 17 years … so, yes, longer than I’d like to admit.

Q. You should wear this as a badge of honour

Yeah, we’ll talk about my grey hair.

Q. One of your specialities is in social policy and our communities in general in Canada and especially our community here in the region of Waterloo witness recent development in our social systems so from your experience and your work how these developments or changes are reflected in our social policy?

At a regional level, I think one of the things that we’re seeing is the great changes in how we understand such issues as poverty and homelessness.  I think we’re evolving quite a bit in how we address those things. So, we’re trying not just to put bandages on injuries; we are trying to get to the causes of the problems, and be more preventative and have a longer-term solution. So, that’s something that I am happy to see happening. We’re doing that regionally because, of course, here our Region has the mandate for social services, but it’s happening provincially and federally as well.

Q. Some experts object the involvement of the government in social issues as social engineering. Should the government not be involved much in the social system? What do you think about such statements?

I disagree completely with that. I think that the role of government isn’t simply to be reactive and try to fix problems. I think the role of government is trying to be ahead of the problem, so they don’t occur in the first place and be preventive. So, we anticipate what problems could happen, and we start developing programs and really trying those. The planning function of the region is probably as important as anything else that’s the government do. So, we will not go far from social systems and social policy when we talk about the safe and healthy community then.

Q. You are a member of the Regional committee for safe and healthy communities. And I feel that there are still so many challenges that face either residents or government or government officials to maintain a safe and healthy urban atmosphere. I personally understand and aware of the tremendous work done in this area, but still, we have you know some challenges especially in certain neighbourhoods or particular issues. How can we maintain our communities as safe and healthy?

 Well, I think Waterloo Region is quite a wealthy community overall, and we have a lot of advantages that that many other regions don’t have. But we do have in our community a very large gap between the haves and have-nots. So I think we tend to focus on those of us who are doing quite well and benefiting from our economic growth and we forget about the people who are being left behind. and we actually have a larger income gap in Waterloo Region than in many other places in the province.

Q. Do you feel there is a polarization? I can see that when it comes to literacy when I was involved with The Literacy Group, I learned about the polarization and literacy. So, there is also in income you say!

Yes, definitely we have a lot of people that are for one reason another in poverty. Could be one of the reasons, newcomer status,  another one is literacy. But various reasons. These people are marginalized, and I think that that’s probably the biggest barrier. We have to be able to say that we truly have a safe and healthy community. we do have too many people that are on the outside looking in and everything else that we enjoy and we’re seeing that even more with some of the great urban development that we’re having, with all the intensification in our core, and stuff that we’re really proud of. But, we have people who live in lower income and were being pushed out of those areas and really struggling.

Q. One of the issues that were bothering me personally is underemployment. So, we know employment we know unemployment, but there is a shady area in between unemployment and underemployment, where people have low-paying jobs or part-time or seasonal jobs so they work but they still are in poverty.

Yes, I was actually just talking last night to some younger women, who are quite recent graduates of a good university program, and they were talking about just that thing; their inability to find to find the full-time work and their inability to find work that is in their field. I know that we see that a lot of newcomers as well. They may have qualifications, but, they’re not working in jobs that recognize those qualifications. I think part of our problem is that we do have two universities and a large college that are graduating so many people. And people want to stay here because it’s a great place to live. But that really means that there are a lot fewer good jobs to go around. So, definitely unemployment and underemployment of young people and newcomers is a big problem we have.

Q. So, how can we bridge that gap? We hear in the news about so many good projects and good companies coming to in our region, and also we have the heritage of being an industrial area; on the other hand, now with the struggling industries and Heavy Industries leaving the region, we don’t have these jobs anymore. At the same time tech companies come here, and they don’t employ that many employees and some other businesses leave, like when a big food chain left our Region.

Yes, I think you nailed at the problems. We’re working really diligently municipally. We now have the Economic Development Group that sort of amalgamated from all of the different city groups that used to fight with each other to bring business to this area. We now have one group that’s working really hard to bring employers here, and we’re having some success I think. I hear a lot that our focus – as we’re very proud of our of our tech sector and we should be –  but that’s not going to employ everybody. And I think some of the things we are hearing are that we do need to focus on other kinds of employers. We do need to have some manufacturing.

Q. I agree, I’m from an industrial engineering background, and I know that these types of businesses can accommodate a large workforce.

So, I think it’s a combination of continuing to work to bring those employers here, and we’re seeing some success as the LRT has certainly attracted the interest of a lot of major companies. I also think that our educational system has some responsibility for where we are. You know, people are not necessarily getting trained for the kind of work that’s now available. And I think that’s something that we had in our control.

Q. It’s very interesting because with Conestoga College we have excellent programs that are geared toward industry and trade. And also with the University of Waterloo, we have programs for engineering, mechatronics, and all these things. I believe many of those graduates would like to stay in the region and some of them leave, even to the State, so not even to other places in Canada though … they fly away.

Yes, that’s always a problem. People tend to go where there are opportunities and money. And we are in a bit of a housing bubble right now housing hazards, but so people are leaving just to be able to save a couple of hundred thousand dollars on their housing.

Q. And this is the third theme that I want to talk about with you. You are also involved with community housing and supportive housing and homelessness. I don’t understand what the difference between housing and community housing and then supported housing is!

So, what is complicated is that there are many different pieces that are needed to make sure that everybody is adequately housed. And for most people, what they need is housing that’s simply affordable, and that’s typically defined as not much more than thirty to thirty-five percent of your growth income. If you’re spending much more than that on your housing – unless you’re very high or just choosing to live in a luxury high place. but if you’re spending much more than that, then you’re at risk of not being able to pay what you supposed to pay, if there is another critical bill. For most people, that’s all they need. For some people though, their housing problems are deeper than that; maybe their income is much more restrictive, so that there isn’t housing that’s available and leave you enough income to live. If you’re somebody who lives on Ontario Works or who are working at a minimum wage job and you may find that there simply isn’t housing that’s available in that price range.

That’s very much the problem here, so, those people need community housing which is housing where the rents are actually geared to your income. So, it may be $300 a month, it may be $600 a month, but it’s what you can afford to pay. Then, there is another group of people whos the income is a critical thing for them, but also they are dealing with other problems; often around mental health or addiction. Maybe they have histories of trauma and abuse. So, they need some support as well. So, there’s affordable housing, but they also have some social work type supports to help them to stay housed and be successfully housed. And then, at the extreme end, we have homelessness. Services like homelessness outreach or emergency shelter, which is for people who are on the street, who need to get into one of those kinds of housing or another. But it’s just going to take a little while to pull that together, so, those are really the four or five different kinds of housing systems that we have operating here.

Q. And how do we do in all these different types in the region here?

Well, we have long waiting lists for most of them.  We have very little affordable housing in the region, in terms that you have rental prices. And by that I mean just in general market housing, the rental prices are much higher than our income levels would generally tolerate. So, it is a problem for a lot of people in terms of our community housing, which is the housing that where the rents are geared to your income. We have about three thousand households that are on the waitlist for that. And because there are not enough units, so some households will be able to get that within a few months, and some will wait years depending on the type of housing that they need and where they are. So, that’s a problem. We have about 1600 households on the waiting list for supportive housing that I talked about, so we’re only able to serve about half as many people as needed. The shelters are the one area where we’re actually meeting the demand, which is something that the public doesn’t know that we solved and a surprise to people. But, we are able to meet the needs of the people that are actually on the street. We still see some people on the street, but that’s not because there isn’t shelter available; that’s because for one reason or another they don’t choose to use it.

Q. But again, with shelters and emergency housing system, it’s meant to be temporary! so when we say temporary, is it one week, two weeks, or how long?

Well, I remember back, twenty years ago, where we would say it is two weeks or it’s three weeks. I think we’ve evolved from that. We understand that people’s needs are going to be very different. So, if you are a single person and you don’t have any significant mental health problems, and your income is low, but there are some things out there you may only be in a shelter for a matter,  a couple of days. But that might be all it takes for you to find a place and maybe the staff will help you with that. maybe you’re able to do it on your own. But, if you have some more complex needs, maybe you have a very large family, even six or eight kids, and a very limited income; it’s going to take you a lot longer. Sometimes, we have people that are really not going to be able to live in the community without supports we need to wait for hold onto them in the shelter until we can find them a place where there may be more staffing supports right there for them. So, it varies on a person-by-person basis. The average though for a single person, the average time in the shelter is probably two to three weeks. And for the family, it’s a little more, just a little harder to find places for families.

Q. I can see how things are tied together, and how sometimes we have some wicked or complex problems. We were talking about housing, before that we were talking about safety and healthy communities and health in communities, and before that, we were talking about social systems. I can see how everything is interrelated. So, when we talk about health and how some people, you know, have weight issues … some chronic diseases …. some mental health issues. And then, we jump to housing, and we see the same themes are coming again and again. So, when dealing with such complex problems or complicated systems, how can we tackle such process?

You’re probably familiar with the social determinants of health, and I think that’s when I talked earlier about the fact that I think governments are becoming a little more sophisticated at how they understand social problem, and a little more forward-thinking, and how they address them, I think it’s because we’re getting an understanding of health or well-being latency. It’s not just about this one element of your life it’s a web of interconnected things. So, adequate housing is an important social determinant of health, so is having a good social network and having friends and family who love you. There are so many different pieces, and you really can’t effectively say we’re going to look just at your disease. We have to certainly look at your disease, but we have to understand all the other interacting factors, and I think that’s something that certainly the region is working hard on doing.

We have the well-being Waterloo initiative happening right now. We just finished up last night the last of the community conversations, and the whole goal behind that is to help us, I don’t just mean the regional government, I mean the agencies within the region, the funders within the region, all the stakeholders, to help us to narrow down on what are a few critical things that we need to be addressing our resources towards and working collaboratively on. Because the way our system works right now, this little group is working on this piece. There’s a lot of scattered energy, and it’s not working. We have to find a different way of doing things.


Originally posted 2018-02-02 23:17:15.

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