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Community Truth Hearings creating vital communities

Deb Nanson stands to speak at the Hamilton Urban Core truth hearings.

Poverty is one of the most critical determinants of health, and one of the most intractable problems facing the people living in Ontario. But in Hamilton, which has one of the worst poverty rates in the province, the problem is even worse. One in five people live in poverty and those living in the core live 21 years less on average than those living just outside the core’s boundaries. This is not surprising.

The links between having a low income and poor health are well documented. The lower you go on the income scale, the more likely you are to have multiple chronic conditions. 

But poverty’s grip has another destructive impact:  it can make you invisible to decision makers and silence your voice to those who have the power to change policies and practices that influence your life. Statistics show that the poorer you are, the less likely you are to vote.Moreover, people living in poverty often feel disconnected from their community and feel like they don’t belong, and more often than not are socially isolated.

Hamilton Urban Core Community Health Centre (HUC CHC), located in heart of downtown Hamilton, ensures all of its services and programs cultivate a sense of belonging for those it serves: inner city residents with a focus on populations that are marginalized and excluded.

“Hamilton Urban Core not only provides essential primary health care and important services such as access to showers, laundry, healthy eating and mental health programs to people in our community,” says Nhlaloenhle Ndwana ‘Nala’, Primary Health Care Manager at HUC CHC. “We also have community programs that give people the opportunity to engage with each other and make a place for themselves.” 

This sense of place is key to the people that HUC CHC serves which according to the report The role of sense of community belonging on unmet healthcare needs in Ontario is just as important as developing healthcare policies and programs.The families and individuals that come to the centre often share experiences of living in poverty: feelings of the isolation, exclusion, and most importantly, of not being heard.

“The voices of the people most impacted by public policy should be the driving force behind any changes to policy but they are not,” says Denise Brooks, Executive Director at the Hamilton Urban Core Community Health Centre. “And this is important; this could be the shift that is needed because more than ever, people are doing worse. Their health is worse.”

Earlier this year, Hamilton Urban Core CHC provided a platform through Community Truth Hearings on Poverty and Equity. This created an opportunity for people to discuss the impacts of poverty on their lives and its effects on their health and wellbeing. The hearings were organized in three sessions that brought together community members and healthcare workers to talk about their experiences with poverty. Leaders, politicians (such as MPs Monique Taylor and David Christopherson), policymakers and people working at City Hall were there to listen.

“It is important that we contribute to shifting the conversation by bringing the voices of people affected forward,” explained Brooks. “Truth hearings are held to understand the impact of inequity and injustice. We hosted the truth hearings to provide a platform for people so that those making decisions could hear directly what living in poverty really means. Policies driven by equity will ensure justice and access that would help address systemic issues and transform lives. This includes areas such as affordable housing, living wage and nutritious food.”

The hearing gave the space to openly discuss the impacts of poverty and the stark reality of that experience. Deb Nanson, a community member and the founder of an organization that works with street involved women, sex trade workers and those with addictions, attended the sessions to contribute her experience. 

“I have seen women on the street in unimaginable situations. They are forced into prostitution to get by and there is no choice. I have been there myself,” said Deb Nanson, as she stood up to speak at one of the hearings. “These women are not the criminals. It is poverty that is the crime. It is poverty that pushes people into these situations; it is an injustice and has the power to definethe way you live and your level of safety.”

The truth hearings not only gave an opportunity to be heard. They were also an opportunity to connect with others in the community.

“By standing up here and bearing witness, we not only give voice to the people that are out on the streets,” said Nanson. “We make our community stronger.  We stand with each other.”

Providing community members with a forum to participate in decision-making about their communities is key to creating vital communities and a cornerstone of the Model that Ontario’s 75 Community Health Centres endorse. Hamilton Urban Core Community­­­­ Health Centre is just one such centre working across the province to create spaces where everyone feels they belong.

The work started with the Community Truth Hearings will continue. A summary report of the initial hearings will be available soon and a webinar challenging other communities to follow suit is also planned. To learn more about the Community Truth Hearings at the Hamilton Urban Core Community Health Centre, visit:

The Hamilton Urban Core community
Wednesday, October 7, 2015