By Nina Badwal – July 2021 – 

Most of us can agree that the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we live our lives and how we work.  In St. James Town, a community that was already experiencing food insecurity, some residents have had to make career changes in order to sustain themselves.  

The third instalment of the “Spring Gathering Community Conversations,” focused on supporting informal businesses and generating income during the pandemic.  The virtual event was attended by about 45 people including residents and service providers on June 24th.  

The discussion started off with a panel of four community members sharing their stories of struggles and successes.  Next, a presentation on a SJT revitalization project was held; following that, information on career resource sites was shared with the audience.  

The panel’s insights 

Mike Silva is a St. James Town resident who went from working as a flight attendant to becoming a financial advisor because of the pandemic.  “A lot of us got laid off so I had to pivot… the journey has been basically starting a whole new career from scratch.”

Silva says this period in his life was bit of a roller coaster and quite stressful.  “I had to study up on my Excel and my Word skills.  I had to learn how to do video meetings; I had never done that before.  So there’s that challenge of doing business, getting the clients, to create that connection with clients.  That’s not as easy to do when it’s not in person.”

On the bright side, the financial advisor says he has a lot of optimism for the future as the lockdown comes to an end, and businesses resume in-person services.  Meanwhile, he offers this advice to others: “It’s very important to have a plan financially and include an emergency fund in there… and if you haven’t done that, start doing it now because anything can happen at any time.  You want to be as prepared as you can for that.”

Next, another SJT resident, Chelsea Haemel uses her creative talents to design and sell her own eco-friendly greeting cards on Etsy.  During the pandemic she was going through a transition in her career.  “I went back to school to study Human Resources…as I was finishing up my program and doing my co-op placement, basically my placement was cut short.  I still had some OSAP [Ontario Student Assistance Program] money so I was actually able to invest some more time into my creative side- business.”

Haemel admits she did have some challenges staying on task and concentrating during the lockdown because of the isolation.  She sought help from a medical professional on how to move forward during that period which she found extremely beneficial.  

The small business owner says she did find a silver lining during this difficult time.  “The pandemic made people more open to doing things online, making people a lot more technologically literate.  It’s actually been helpful for my creative [design] business because a lot of that has been online and I started getting more sales.”  

Her advice to others is: “Set boundaries for yourself.  It’s important to choose what you want to do, what you want to invest your time in, what are things that are draining for you or wasting your time.  If you do find that you’re struggling, talk to someone you trust or talk to a doctor – they are really there to help you and to guide you along.”

Indrani Elizabeth is an active St. James Town resident who has been running a daycare from her home along with providing services for seniors in the community for 15 years.  She says, “My journey so far has been very good, I’ve been very happy working in a full time job.”  But the pandemic has taken a toll on her and her loved ones. 

She has had to makes some changes in her daily routine such as doing welfare checks on seniors by phone instead of in person – and that’s been a challenging task.  “Just talking to them is not enough.”  At the moment, Elizabeth says she needs more support from the government in order to stay afloat and cautions people to “balance your finances.” 

Finally, Rose Savani, a Thorncliffe resident with more than 20 years of experience, manages a home-based clothing business.  But the pandemic has grinded her business to a halt.  “People are scared to buy stuff from small businesses because of trust.  So it’s very hard to stay in the market at this time.  My business is completely shut down.”

The businesswoman says she is struggling and barely surviving right now.  However, Savani says if she can get more government support, then she is willing to make a change in her career.  “This is new technology and I never did this [as an] online business but I’m ready to do it and I’m very excited to get help.” 

Savani advises people to educate themselves about what kinds of supports are available to them including taking advantage of government programs.  She says, “Be careful with your money and keep a budget.”  

St. James Town revitalization project

SJT Connects is a framework intended to reimagine St. James Town as a more connected and accessible neighbourhood.  The project, which is being considered by the City of Toronto, includes:

*Connected roads

*Pedestrian safe walkways

*Open spaces with lighting and seating 

*Reorganizing surface parking

The revitalization plan also includes a marketplace.  “The space will be for vendors and residents to actually come and sell any goods that they have access to.  This also includes entrepreneurs, people who can fix things like tailors, cobblers, people who can fix bikes, all of these things,” explains Aravind Joseph, Program Facilitator at the SJT Community Corner.  “The location is yet to be determined.  But what we have proposed to them is Ontario Street right along Food Basics up to St. James Avenue.”

Joseph says construction is expected to begin in October 2022 and it is expected to be completed by December 2025.  

The Spring Gathering community conversation concluded with an information session on resources that people can access for career help.  These resources include:

*Unisphere Canada https://unispherecanada.org/

*Achev Employment Services https://achev.ca/

*Times Change Women’s Employment Services https://www.timeschange.org/

*Dixon Hall Employment Services https://dixonhall.org/employmentservices/