A holistic approach to community development
Murray Soroka has a vision for Edmonton.
He sees a future where chronically underemployed members of his community find stable work with a living wage. Where those experiencing homelessness have a roof over their heads. Where families can escape the cycle of poverty.
And one innovative business idea at a time, Soroka is making this vision a reality.
When he founded the Jasper Place Wellness Centre in 2006, Soroka brought together like-minded organizations and individuals to work towards the shared goal of revitalizing the Jasper Place community. The Centre offered essential services like meals, laundry and showers, and helped connect visitors with community resources and supports. Within a year, the Centre had expanded its operations to focus on helping those experiencing homelessness find housing.
Still, the vibrant and revitalized Jasper Place community Soroka dreamed of was distant. Incomes were low in the area and many families struggled to find any job, let alone a good one. Soroka understood that housing was just one part of the solution. In order for his community to grow and flourish, Soroka knew issues like health care, employment and food security would also need to be addressed.
So the Centre would need to do things differently.
In 2008, the Centre piloted the Housing First program, an approach based on the philosophy that adequate housing is a precondition for recovery and later success. In 2010, it expanded operations once again with the development of Canora Place, a 30-unit apartment complex providing housing for previously homeless individuals. And in fall 2017, the Centre opened a full-time medical clinic where community members, many of whom did not have a family doctor, could access care.
With each new piece of the puzzle, Soroka saw more opportunities – not only to support tenants and the greater Jasper Place community, but to protect the Centre from the volatility of program and grant funding cuts. The perfect solution, he found, was social enterprise.
“We want to be a self-sustaining social economic business,” he says. “Because we know that if we spend and invest in our people, it pays off in a big way for the community.”
When tenants moved out of Canora Place, their vacated apartments needed to be cleaned and old belongings hauled away. Soroka began hiring Canora Place tenants and other underemployed community members to do the work. In time, he created a number of new social enterprises – including a junk removal business, moving services and mattress recycling. He called these operations Redemptive Developments, alluding to their value in empowering individuals who may not have had the chance to hold down a job before. As the operation grew, the Social Enterprise Fund (SEF) partnered with Redemptive with a loan to purchase more bins and trucks for the growing business.
One of Redemptive Developments’ fastest-growing services has been its mattress recycling business, which opened in the summer of 2015. In its first year, workers kept 10,000 mattresses out of the dump. Today, thanks to contracts with hotels, university dorms and the City of Edmonton, that number hovers closer to 80,000.
In addition to supporting the community, Redemptive Developments has a positive environmental impact. Of each mattress collected, 85 per cent is broken down and re-used in some way. When a mattress is brought in, workers deconstruct it and separate the materials; steel and foam are compacted and sold off, while wood is used for wood chips or firewood. Once again, SEF was able to assist with financing for equipment needed to process the reclaimed materials for sale.
The Final Frontier—Food4Good
With housing, healthcare and employment tackled, Soroka began looking at one of the final barriers that could contribute to people staying in poverty: food security. The Jasper Place area is home to many fast food restaurants and low or inconsistent incomes made healthy, quality ingredients hard to afford.
So the Centre founded Food4Good, an initiative focused on helping Edmontonians access and enjoy healthy food. They supported the creation of community gardens, began running pop-up markets and offered food education through community kitchens.
But the program’s limits soon became evident.
Without a physical storefront, space for classes and pop-up markets was cramped and often inconsistent. And without adequate refrigerated space, foods such as meats and dairy could not be stored. A dedicated location would allow for increased capacity, both in terms of food and programming.
To secure the mortgage for a brick-and-mortar shop, the Jasper Place Wellness Centre needed to access additional financing first. Soroka brought the idea to SEF, and was pleased with the reception he received.
“SEF is the kind of partner you want to work with – a partner that understands and is willing to take on an idea for the good of the community,” says Soroka.
In July 2018, Food4Good put a down payment on a space at 153 Street and Stony Plain Road. The property will soon be home to Edmonton’s first permanent alternative grocery store and community kitchen, slated to open by the end of 2019.
With preparations for the new store underway, Soroka’s eyes shine with excitement. He’s proud of the community development he’s seen so far, but shows no signs of slowing down.
“We’ve seen a lot change since we first opened the Centre. But we’re not done yet,” he says. “No way.”
Entrepreneurs, and in particular social entrepreneurs are usually moving pretty fast.