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The village of Sharon (formerly Hope) holds a unique position in Ontario’s history. Recent research has shown that it is the birthplace of democracy in Ontario, the focal point of the struggle for “responsible government.” At its centre lies the Sharon Temple, an icon the social democratic values of the Children of Peace who built it. The Temple itself has been designated a national historic site. You may have noticed a new building taking shape on site, a new visitor centre providing expanded exhibit space.  This building is an integrated part of a plan to “rebuild Hope” in both senses of the word. The museum’s challenge is to translate the site’s history into issues that resonate today, and demonstrate the contributions of this group to Canada’s social safety net. The first exhibit to do so, “Rebuilding Hope,” addressed the issue of homelessness historically, and in the present, in East Gwillimbury and York Region.

The “Rebuilding Hope” exhibit documents the activities of those in the past, present, and future, who have given the homeless a “hand up” rather than “hand out.” 175 years ago in the village of Hope, the Children of Peace completed the Sharon Temple, an icon of their concern for the poor (Check this online exhibit at the Archives of Ontario). With the money they collected here, they distributed alms to the poor, built the first shelter for the homeless in the province, and began the country’s first farmers co-operative and credit union. They argued that charity should be dispensed to help the poor “continue [their] occupation,” and not when they “no longer had anything left.” In 2009, a new book from University of Toronto Press, “Union is Strength,” documented the importance of this small group to the development of Ontario’s social welfare tradition, and to the development of democratic governance in Canada.

175 years later, the needs of the homeless are still felt – even in small rural municipalities like East Gwillimbury. (Please view the online exhibit “Hidden in Plain Site: Living Homeless in York Region” by Tanya Shute which won first place in the Multimedia Film Festival of York Region)

In developed countries, we have urban sprawl and monster houses that consume huge amounts of the world’s energy supply, while at least 5,000 people live in the streets of Toronto alone. In developing counties, over a billion people live in urban slums or in the streets without shelter. Today, Habitat for Humanity seeks to eliminate poverty housing and homelessness from the world, and to make decent shelter a matter of conscience and action. Habitat invites people of all backgrounds, races and religions to build houses together in partnership with families in need. Like the Children of Peace, they offer a “hand up” rather than a “hand out.”

The Institute without Boundaries in the School of Design at George Brown College is also making a difference. The Institute is carrying out an interdisciplinary project involving students, teachers, industry and community to generate a housing system that achieves a balance between the extremes of urban sprawl and urban slums, and enables people to build sustaining, universal, and healthy human dwellings and communities. This is the World House Project.

The exhibit staged by these three partners demonstrated the links in self-help community building in the past, present and future, thereby “rebuilding Hope.” The tag line, ‘Think Global, Act Local’ is appropriate; it communicates the importance of individual contribution, community participation, and the development of programs and practices to support equal quality of life and participation by community members who may face poverty and the associated marginalization.

For more information about homelessness please visit “The Homeless Hub“, a network of researchers looking into the causes and solutions to homelessness in the GTA and beyond.